Alison Motion: 7 principles of play help kids fulfil their potential

According to education writer David Sobel, there are seven principles of natural play: adventure; fantasy and imagination; animal allies; maps and paths; special places; small worlds; and hunting and gathering.
Adventure is one of the seven principles of nature play (Picture: Ian Rutherford)Adventure is one of the seven principles of nature play (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
Adventure is one of the seven principles of nature play (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

He said these should be common to every child when they have safe, free time in nature and I think it’s useful to consider these themes when providing child-centred experiences outdoors.

Following Sobel, activities should inspire creative imaginative stories. Spaces and activities should connect children to the animal kingdom and encourage care for wildlife. Spaces should involve activities of seeking, finding and trailblazing.

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In these outdoor spaces, there must be places for children to retreat into their own found or constructed areas. Can children learn to be the creators and destroyers of miniature worlds? Lastly, there should be activities included in these spaces that include hunting and gathering games, collecting treasures and climbing.

But are the experiences we facilitate in the outdoors taking children out of their comfort zone and encouraging risk-taking?

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To make the most of these spaces, adults need to be a little more confident in the ability of their children and young people to make a judgement call. And to create the best learning environment of all, everybody involved in the education of that child must contribute. From teachers to janitors and cleaners, to the council health and safety officer, their goal should be facilitating and helping create an exceptional environment for it to happen.

Inspiring Scotland is an organisation that works with people, their communities, charities and public bodies to develop solutions to some of the deepest social problems. It wants to deliver real and lasting change in areas where, for so long, social organisations and public policy have struggled to have a big enough impact. Inspiring Scotland believes that playing and learning outdoors is fundamental for all our children to achieve their full potential, boosting health, well-being and development, and is a universal right. Through its Thrive Outdoors fund, it is working to embed outdoor play and learning into the fabric of Scottish life so that all of Scotland’s children can thrive. It is also working with the Scottish Government to use outdoor play as a way of meeting the commitment to 1,140 hours of childcare.

However, for this to be effective, nurseries must comply with specific standards so we must ask ourselves as we go, “How can we create exciting outdoor spaces that children and adults alike want to be in, which are also safe?”

The Cowgate Under-5’s Centre in Edinburgh is a great example of an environment carefully built to nurture the well-being, happiness and holistic development of each individual child. The centre integrates Sobel’s principles of play into its approach to provide the support necessary to lead its children to care for themselves and each other whilst learning to adopt a caring attitude towards the environment that surrounds them.

Sobel’s seven principles of play act as a great checklist. If an outdoor play-based space can address these themes, then you are ready to go. If not, look at how you can incorporate them into the space you have and see what you need to add to create the best space for the children to experience quality outdoor play.
Alison Motion is Scotland director of Grounds for Learning