The importance of outdoor play – and therefore gardens

Outdoor play is important for balanced and healthy child development; children need that outdoor space, physically and metaphorically speaking, to explore, experiment and invent in …and to play and learn freely. But, in our efforts to protect our children, we could actually be unnecessarily denying them some important early childhood experiences for fun and play in the outdoors.

According to the , published on 01.06.15, parents are acutely aware of this: just 1 in 10 parents think their children spend more time outside than they did when they were their children’s age (14%).

There is no doubt that the roads and streets are busier today than they were in by-gone years, so letting children play freely on the street might not be something we can allow until they are sufficiently mature. But this shouldn’t result in us denying children opportunities to play outdoors. No, we just need to be more creative in how we ensure children are exposed to regular doses of good-old-fashioned-outdoor-time, and not just when the weather is fine and dry but in all weathers.

This is where the family garden, no matter how big or small, comes into play. Gardens are convenient and accessible spaces on our doorsteps that we can tailor and adapt to our growing children’s needs. They can also be amazing places in which to simply spend quality time together. Maybe this tells us the reason why parents value having private outdoor spaces so much and why 35% of the parents surveyed in the Britain at Home report would consider moving house to get a bigger garden compared to just 14% of all homeowners.

My family and I used to live in a city and have a very small garden, but we tried to make it an ‘interesting’ place to be in because we believed that, with just a little effort, even the smallest garden has the potential to promote and support outdoor play, exploration and adventure.

Practical ideas

Here are a few things we did to enhance our garden:

All-weather scratch pad

A simple piece of MDF, painted with chalkboard paint is all that’s needed to give your children a scoreboard, sketch pad, notepad… whatever they want it to be. Just supply chalks; the children provide all the creativity.

Mini-climbing wall

Buy some cheap climbing holds from the internet and attach them to a piece of wood and create a traversing wall, or an adventurous access to a raised area of the garden (or into a tree-house etc).

Nature area

Our nature area consisted of a collection tray area (for stones, fossils and interesting finds that the children would collect on walks in forests, on beaches etc) and a small ‘pond’. I use the term pond with creative license here, as it was just an old supermarket basket that we buried into the ground and filled with water. But despite its size, it was home to a frog and a toad… as well as some usual pond life minibeasts.


A playhouse creates an important ‘private’ space for our children. They can use this whenever and for whatever they want: playing cafes, quiet reading, role playing various scenarios and even as a Roald Dahl-esque writing hut. Add some cheap battery operated lights and they sometimes even venture out there in the evening before/after tea.

Fire pit

There is something hypnotic and comforting about being sat around a fire, together as a family. Have a designated area for a fire pit (surrounded by stones) or simply use a barbeque to teach some simple fire lighting techniques. It’s also a great spot to share marshmallows and smores or go one step further and eat outside in the garden once a week, cooking on the fire.

And to finish …

In an attempt to encourage children to adopt healthy and well-balanced outlooks (including awareness of risk and an appetite for adventure) actively encourage them to leave the comfort and appeal of the computer, TV or games consoles, and to go outside and play ‘for real’ in the garden – every day if possible.

As well as trying to ensure that our children do all of the things that we know are good for them (eat their greens, brush their teeth, drink plenty of water etc) let’s also strive to give them a daily dose of outdoor play in the garden.