Out to Play - creating outdoor play experiences for children: practical guidance

Guidance and advice for early learning and childcare settings and practitioners on how to access outdoor spaces to create safe, nurturing and inspiring outdoor learning experiences.

Section 04: Finding the Right Outdoor Space

Whether you are accessing the outdoors on an ad hoc basis or setting up an outdoor nursery, the first step is to locate and identify the right space. Woodland, fields, beaches and mixed habitats all currently host successful outdoor provision. Whatever you're considering, you'll need to weigh up many important factors to ensure a potential new site has the capacity to provide a range of high quality play-based learning experiences for young children which are positive, challenging, playful and enjoyable.

Things to think about in this section

1. Are you trying to map land and natural spaces in your area? In considering spaces, how easily can local families access your proposed setting? Who else might it affect and who else uses the space? 4.1 Identifying your Space will help with links to mapping tools and accessing your space.

2. Do you already own land you can use? If not, are you considering buying some land – you will find Section 4.2 helpful.

3. Do you want to rent land from a landowner – Section 4.3 covers that.

4. It is possible to use public land – Section 4.4 explains how to go about it. Is planning permission required? Section 4.4 also covers this.

5. How can you get to know your space – the nature, the history, what to expect as the seasons change? Are you aware of the impact of the Scottish Access Code and what impact that might have on your plans? Section 4.5 will help.

6. What should you think about in managing your space and the environment? Section 4.6 looks at how to manage the environment and Learning for Sustainability

7. Have you thought about specific insurance needs for an outdoor setting? Section 4.7 advises on that.

To help you assess and compare potential sites, you can use (and adapt to suit) the Site Appraisal Form in Appendix 2, used with permission from the Forestry Commission Scotland. The form asks you to consider:

  • The learning and play value in relation to natural features
  • Opportunities in the local area for further exploration
  • Practical considerations such as access
  • Possible hazards

4.1 Identifying your space

Looking for land to use? What land is there nearby? A local woodland or park green space might be an area which could be adapted easily. Try an online map service and search for a natural space in the area. There is also Scottish Natural Heritage's Greenspace Map based on Ordnance Survey data. Registers of Scotland provide a property search service to find the owner of properties in Scotland which incurs a small charge.

To find out who owns land, ask your local greenspace charity, local authority environmental services, countryside ranger, environmental or planning department. You can also search online for the many greenspace audits and local development plans provided by local authorities. Many public bodies, including Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Environment Scotland and others have recently joined a coalition in support of outdoor play and learning and so will be keen to explore the potential of using their land for outdoor play opportunities for children and families. The National Position Statement on Outdoor Play and Learning in Appendix 1 lists those in the coalition.

If the space you have identified is already being used, you need to consider how your setting will work with others and what impact, if any, you might have on people who use the same space, or live or work nearby. If you are planning to use public/community space it is likely that there will be other people who use it regularly so you should engage with them early in the development stage about your plans. It may be helpful to organise a public meeting for existing users together with local parents/carers. You may want to leaflet local businesses or do a walkabout to talk to local dog walkers.

Evergreen Outdoor Nursery in Glasgow operates in a part of Dawsholm Park popular with professional dog walkers. Through engagement and by beginning to establish their presence, the dog walkers have largely adjusted their routine to avoid the areas Evergreen uses.

You will also need to consider how easily families can access your space. If there is no regular public transport and your site is not easily accessible for parents without this, you may need to consider providing some form of transport. Bear in mind that not all parents and carers will be able to walk far or over rough tracks especially if they have younger siblings in tow. You may need to consider a drop-off point for parents. If so, you need to ensure it is adequately staffed during the drop-off and collection times as not all parents can be there at the same time.

Summerlings Outdoor Nursery in the Highlands have a bothy where children are dropped off at one end of a track and they make the trip to the site fun through electric bikes, balance bikes and walking. Others provide a minibus. You will need to take into account costs if you need to make similar provision.

Staff will also need to access the space and may need to bring equipment etc with them. Many outdoor nurseries use festival trolleys to carry equipment, water, first aid kits etc and these can also be useful on site.

4.2 Buying land – what to consider

Having a space to call your own will give you some control over installing infrastructure to support your outdoor experience. Some infrastructure may require planning permission. Always check with the local planning department in advance. Police Scotland have an architectural liaison service and employ Architectural Liaison Officers trained in interpreting architects' drawings and assessing the physical environment with the purpose of assessing for safety and crime prevention. Advice is free and can be accessed via the Police Scotland architectural liaison officer service.

Bear in mind that not all sites will already have utilities such as water or electricity. If you feel you want these services, you will need to ascertain if there is mains access and the related costs; or you may prefer to operate off grid as several existing outdoor nurseries do.

Owners have overall responsibility for maintaining the land, and this is part of the cost of ownership. The level of maintenance will be dictated by environmental considerations. See section 6.4.3 for more guidance about site maintenance and environmental impact.

Along the way, you'll need to liaise with a range of organisations. The list below illustrates some of the partnership working that may be required. It is worth checking the signatories of Scotland's National Position Statement on Outdoor Play and Learning (Appendix 1) as you may find some of the organisations you need to contact are signatories or are members of organisations that have signed the statement.

  • Care Inspectorate
  • Council Environmental and Planning department
  • Utility specialists and building controls within local councils
  • Architects
  • Council Finance departments and advisors
  • Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA)
  • Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)
  • Forestry Commission
  • Insurance companies
  • Architectural Liaison Officer (before establishing a site) and Crime Prevention Officers (after establishment)

4.3 Renting land – what to consider

If you plan to rent from a landowner, you will need to establish what you are responsible for maintaining and what is the responsibility of the landowner. This should be clarified, along with associated costs, before you sign any agreement. You'll have to agree an appropriate location and give them information about the planned activities and where these will take place, along with copies of all of your risk-benefit assessments. There may be some restrictions from private landowners about what's permitted on site. Outdoor & Woodland Learning Scotland has guidance for landowners which may aid your discussions.

4.4 Gaining permission to use land – what to consider

Publicly-owned greenspace is often closer to populated areas and easier for families to access, minimising the social, environmental and financial impacts of providing private transport. What's more, when children spend time in local greenspace, they benefit from gaining an sense of place, belonging and stewardship of their environment and community.

All public landowners – councils, government departments and agencies – will have a process to follow to gain permission to use the site. This process supports users while enabling the landowners to understand who is accessing their greenspace and why, as well as defining limits for users such as fire use and sensitive areas, plus any supports that need to be put in place. Each Council will have a land/environmental services team or similar which may be able to help you conduct helpful checks when you're using the site to ensure it's safe and, if not, can advise when alternative areas should be used. Sometimes this may be to accommodate planned maintenance, reduce the environmental impact by rotating use or allow for seasonal changes such as nesting birds or flowering plants. You need to consider and discuss with the landowner issues such as density of trees and drainage of land.

There is a site appraisal form at Appendix 2 adapted with the permission of Forestry Commission Scotland which you can tailor and use to suit your outdoor setting.

Landowners, particularly community owners and trusts, recognise the benefits of outdoor settings on their greenspace. Many are keen to explore the idea without providing the service themselves. Your proposal may offer a good opportunity for partnership working. It's wise to form links and build good relationships with all relevant community owners and users early in the development stage. You could consider setting up a 'friends of…' group to engage with the community. Be proactive. This will ensure that your service runs as smoothly as possible and any issues that arise can be resolved.

Fostering community connections can also create opportunities for the children to meet and learn from other people and organisations. It is important to allow plenty of time to get permissions; establishing ownership is not always straightforward.

Whether you are using public land, are renting land from a landowner or are the owner, if you plan to construct buildings, you will need to get planning permission from your local council. It is worth contacting your local planning department as early as possible for advice on what might or might not be acceptable. There is a planning portal where you can get some information and through which you can submit and track applications. You may also need to consider other infrastructure – water, power, Wi-Fi – these are covered in Section 5.9.

4.5 Getting to Know Your Patch

One of the key advantages of an outdoor setting is that staff, children and their families get to know their local green space intimately. As months go by, you can all learn what plant grows where and at what time of year – and spot the signs of wildlife activity. You'll understand how the landscape changes through the seasons and how this affects the plants and animals who use the space.

If you need to improve your natural or local history and folklore knowledge, take advantage of learning opportunities such as:

  • Identification courses or events run by local wildlife groups, countryside rangers and other naturalists. Bushcraft experts, gardeners and wild food foragers are also sources of advice.
  • iSpot and other identification websites and apps. The Woodland Trust has a range of resources to support environmental awareness for children which can be accessed on their website.
  • Regular visits from a local specialist through each season to help staff and children learn about flora and fauna.
  • A local storyteller to share legends and tales associated with animals and plants.
  • Download the free Tree Stories pack from The Forestry Commission Scotland. It provides a story for each month.

By doing so, you'll also contribute to our Scottish culture and heritage, which has grown from the landscape, sharing the rich folklore and stories that have passed through the generations.

Environmental stewardship – a key benefit

"If children don’t grow up knowing about nature and appreciating it, they will not understand it. And if they don’t understand it, they won’t protect it. And if they don’t protect it, who will?"

Sir David Attenborough, Learning through Landcsapes, Trust Patron

As previously noted, one of the most important benefits of outdoor play-based learning is that it supports children to understand and connect with nature and the environment. So, you need an understanding of Learning for Sustainability (LfS) and Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (see section 7.3).

Your impact on the wider environment is important within the Learning for Sustainability context; this unique concept developed in Scotland is based on local and international research. It brings together Education for Sustainable Development, Global Citizenship and Outdoor Learning with the intention of helping children and young people understand, envision and act positively to secure a sustainable future. You can read more about it in the Learning for Sustainability Implementation Group's Vision for 2030+.

LfS has implications on how you handle resources and consumables, how you deal with waste, and the environmental impact of transporting children to sites as opposed to locating sites in the heart of communities.

What's more, everyone working in the outdoor environment needs to be aware of the Scottish Access Code and the potential impact of their proposals especially when considering transport, environmental impact of site usage, resources and waste materials.

The three principles are:

1. Respect the interests of other people

2. Care for the environment

3. Take responsibility for your own actions

Land managers have specific responsibilities in relation to the Scottish Access Code. Whether you own, rent or share the space, make sure you're fully aware of these responsibilities. Leaflets and posters are available from the Scottish Access Code website, together with a useful calendar highlighting seasonal points to consider.

4.6 Environment

You will need to manage the impact of your outdoor activities on a site, whether it's privately or publicly owned. Staff and children have a responsibility to treat the environment with care and respect. Include your range of strategies in a site maintenance plan, whether you own or rent land. On a public site, discuss what you'll do with the landowner or manager. The last 2 pages of Appendix 2 might be helpful for discussions with landowners.

Outdoor & Woodland Learning Scotland have produced Guidance for Landowners which identifies what makes a good woodland setting for learning and provides some suggestions on activities that have minimal impact on the environment.

Land managers may also advise times when particular areas of your site shouldn't be used in order to look after nesting birds or plants such as bluebells, for example, or for land management such as felling.

An essential part of being outside is helping children understand their place in their wider world and how they can protect and improve their environments at community and global levels. Outdoor settings can demonstrate a positive way forward by providing a sustainable education system – economic, social and environmental – and a joy of the natural world around them.

Find out more.

  • Get advice and support from Learning for Sustainability Scotland on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
  • See examples of practice on Education Scotland's National Improvement Hub
  • Download free resources from Children in Permaculture. Their principles: earth care, people care, fair share, dovetail with Learning for Sustainability.
  • RSPB Scotland has useful information on children and young people connecting to nature on its education page.

4.7 Your insurance needs

Suitable insurance is a requirement, although some insurance companies are unclear about what an outdoor setting involves. You may need to explain the difference between an outdoor setting and an outdoor activity centre. Some insurance companies may add specific conditions to the insurance relating to your specific site, for example, if it is mature woodland or your service offers activity opportunities (e.g. kayaking). It is a good idea to speak to fellow outdoor early learning and childcare providers who have navigated the insurance issue before you. The Care Inspectorate website lists existing registered outdoor settings. Each local authority and landowner is different so check their expectations about public liability insurance. Ensure all your activity and site risk assessments are in place, as you will be asked about these when enquiring about insurance.

Children learn through experience so modelling good environmental behaviours is key to supporting a broader awareness of how we care for our planet. Routines around snack and lunch times can include providing separate bins for compostable material such as food waste; recyclable material; and rubbish and use these to encourage children to mirror good environmental behaviours. Using ethical products for cleaning and repurposing materials for loose parts and construction activities also reduces the environmental impact of your service.



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