Creating Outdoor Early Childhood Environments: Design Strategies and Resources

By Heather Olsen, Donna Thompson, Susan Hudson and Sara Kreiss.

Published by The Design Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Since its inception at the start of the 20th century, play environmental design in Asia, Europe, United States, and in other countries has advanced dramatically from the traditional playgrounds of isolated metal pieces of play equipment to today’s creative spaces of imaginative play activities that are designed to high standards of safety and durability. This paper describes the significance of a quality designed outdoor classroom in early childhood education. Next, the paper will highlight key points to help designers and architects understand and appreciate the stages that young children pass through as they develop one’s physical, emotional, social, and intellectual abilities. We will then proceed with a discussion of design concepts that are needed to enrich the quality of children’s outdoor play environments and finally, what standards and regulations are present in early childhood outdoor design?

Keywords: Outdoor Environments for Children, Playgrounds, Safety, Children’s Playgrounds, Building Playgrounds

Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp.345-360. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.534MB).

Dr. Heather Olsen

Assistant Professor, School of Health, Physical Education, and Leisure Services, College of Education, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA, USA

Dr. Olsen is an assistant professor in Leisure Service Division and the Assistant Director of the National Program for Playground Safety. She has been associated with the development of children’s outdoor play areas and educating the public about maintenance, supervision, and age appropriateness; has given presentations throughout the country about the design of safe playgrounds; and has written many articles on creating playgrounds for children. She is also the major developer of the online training programs for NPPS. Dr. Olsen’s research interests include outdoor play and learning environments for children and learning styles for online professional development.

Donna Thompson

Professor, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA, USA

Dr. Donna Thompson, PhD is an acknowledged national and international expert in the field of playground development and safety, and is the executive director of the National Program for Playground Safety. She has more than 20 years experience teaching, writing, and researching about playgrounds. She has done numerous presentations on playground development, including television interviews on ABC’s Good Morning America; CBS’s Early Edition; and NBC’s Today show. She has served as consultant for numerous groups planning playgrounds, and has been an expert witness on playground safety.

Susan Hudson

Ph.D., Professor, University of Northern, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA, USA

Dr. Hudson has been member of the Leisure, Youth and Human Services faculty since 1994. She holds one of three endowed professorships in the United States in the area of Leisure and Youth Services. Dr. Hudson has a distinguished record of teaching, research, and service. She has served as Division Coordinator and Coordinator of LYHS graduate studies at UNI. In addition to her work within the Division, she is also the Education Director of the NPPS. Along with her LYHS colleagues, Dr. Hudson has co-authored eight textbooks in the areas of management, programming, and leadership. Her most recent book, S.A.F.E. Play Areas: Creation, Renovation, and Maintenance was co-authored with her NPPS colleagues. Dr. Hudson's research interests focus on nonprofit management, community programming, facilities design, and play for children.

Sara Kreiss

MA, Educational Design Consultant, Design Consultant, Chicago, IL, USA

Ms. Kreiss is a design consultant and owner of Spaces for Play, Inc. She has over 20 years experience in early childhood as a teacher, director, adjunct professor, and design consultant. Over the years, Ms. Kreiss has published many articles and presented at educational conferences around the Midwest on how to design a safe and accessible outdoor learning environment. Ms. Kreiss has studied “Nature Preschools” at Mindstretchers (80% of the school day is learning outside) environments in Scotland.


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