Early learning and childcare - Out to Play: guidance for practitioners supporting children with additional support needs - section 11

Supplementary guidance (section 11) should be used alongside the main Out to Play document to support the delivery of outdoor experiences for children in early learning and childcare (ELC) with additional support needs.

Creating Your Space

The creation of a high-quality environment requires careful thought, combining elements to provide a nurturing space which is responsive to children’s interests and needs.

Consideration of how to ensure all children’s needs are met should be built into the overall development of the space from the very start, ensuring the space is as inclusive as it can be (Care Inspectorate, 2016: 58).

What does the outdoor space offer?

Every outdoor space presents unique characteristics which influence how children perceive it, respond to it and use it. Children often surprise us in the ways they use outdoor spaces and the elements within them. Make adaptions as necessary, with the involvement of the children, to support their choice over how they fully access all the environment offers. For example:

  • Identify alternative routes to the same location such as one with a gentle gradient as well as a scramble up a hillside.
  • Construct a steady bridge over a ditch as well as a wobbly one.
  • Create simple resting spaces such as a log seat or swing seat.
  • Locate markers such as bells, symbols or flags on routes or in spaces, to help children understand where they are or how far along a route they have reached.

Providing shelter

Shelter can provide a safe and comfortable space for children who feel overwhelmed by things like unpredictability, windy weather or a busy environment, allowing them to remove themselves from a space or situation. If possible, having more than one shelter provides children with choices.

Ready access to shelter is important for children who are less mobile or have conditions that make them susceptible to getting too cold or hot, or getting burnt in the sun.

If you are using a ‘nomadic’ style of provision, ensure children know where the shelter is and how to access it. If it is moved from place to place, try to keep some things familiar, especially for children who seek predictability. You can achieve this by, for example:

  • flying an easily recognisable flag or banner from it
  • having a sound signal such as a bell or windchime to help locate it
  • keeping the same seating arrangement within it
  • always having a favourite object or toy in the shelter.

Shelter from the elements, distracting noises and sensory experiences offers space for children to sleep and rest. You may need to:

  • ensure children feel secure enough to sleep and rest, and can relax enough to fall asleep, especially children who feel agitated or anxious
  • think about temperature especially for children who get hot or cold easily.

Arrangements for sleeping and resting provide opportunities to offer choice to children and empower them to recognise and communicate their own wishes. It is important that children with additional support needs have opportunities to experience this level of everyday participation. See Out to Play Section 5.7 Sleep and Rest for more information.


Some children find transition from one place or activity to another difficult. Support can be incorporated into these transitions.

For example, support for entering and leaving shelters may include:

  • using the ‘social story[1]’ method to help children understand what to expect going in and coming out (Social stories are short descriptions of a situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why)
  • looking at photos or drawings of the inside of the shelter before going in
  • creating simple pathways that lead from outside to inside for example, a long ribbon, a line of pebbles or a length of matting (which would also help by creating a different texture underfoot)
  • being conscious of the different sensory environment indoors and out – for example, help prepare children and give them time to adjust to changes from light and dark, noisy to quiet, outside-to-inside changes in temperatures and smells.

In the course of a day, there will be other transitions such as those between different spaces, stopping playing to have lunch, sleeping and resting, changing weather, the drop off and collection point of each day and changing clothes.

Visual or behavioural cues can help children manage transitions. Provide verbal or visual information and instructions in the appropriate context ensuring that you allow children plenty of time to understand and respond. For example, it’s helpful to suggest handwashing when in the handwashing area where there is soap and water and other children to follow. Sand timers, a clock or a verbal countdown to changes can all be useful.

Preparing to go: we like to look together at photos from the park or outdoor space we are going to visit. It lets us talk about how we will get there.
(Play Midlothian)

Some children are particularly sensitive to the sensory environment including tactile sensations, smells and sounds, to the point of feeling pain. This may include feeling too hot or cold, or being affected by noise, quality of light, the feeling of wet clothes or different textures against their skin. Some children are upset by being asked to wear borrowed spare clothes so should have their own supply of clothes they feel comfortable in. Be mindful too that some children may only feel comfortable in or be able to wear clothes that you think are unsuitable for the weather conditions. In these circumstances, consider how you might manage this, for example, limit the time spent outside but go out more often.

We used to blow a whistle when we needed to catch the children’s attention. One of the children is profoundly deaf so we decided to wave a flag at the same time. Because the other children looked up when the whistle was blown, he got that something was happening, saw the flag and knew what was expected. We now use the flag all the time rather than the whistle, not just on the days he is with us. It’s gentler and less intrusive when children are immersed in playing and we only use the whistle occasionally.
(Stramash Outdoor Nursery)

Boundaries of the outdoor space

Out to Play provides examples of a range of ways to create and manage boundaries especially when the outdoor space in question is woodland, beach, park or other wild or open space.

How to help children safely understand and manage boundaries may present concerns for staff and anxiety for parents and carers. Make sure you have markers (for example eco-friendly spray paint, ribbons, tape, flags etc.) and photos of the site that clearly show where to stop. Another way to prepare children would be to give them the opportunity to walk through and explore the space in advance when there are no other children around. Parents and carers know if their child tends to wander or run off (for example from back gardens or play parks) so it’s important to find out from them how they usually manage that. Risk assessments should be carried out and measures taken to reduce this.

Starting with the advice from Out to Play, some things to consider are:

  • think about the types of boundaries that are suitable for the location and the needs of the children
  • think through how you can help children recognise and understand them
  • involve the children in setting and marking boundaries (offering a sense of control and place-making)
  • model what is expected and help the child to recognise how other children are managing the boundaries
  • try walking the boundaries at the beginning of each session (offering the chance to ‘feel’ the boundary)
  • reinforce what is expected with positive comments when things go well
  • try to understand from a child’s point of view what is happening when they don’t recognise a boundary or cross boundaries
  • consider what their intentions are so that you can respond appropriately.

It is worth taking the time to try out different approaches to see which option works best for the child. Some children might respond best to visual prompters or markers that indicate the boundary edge while others might respond more to cues within the environment, for example different textures underfoot, or markers within the environment such as a line of trees.

Things To Think About

What other transitions can you think of that children have to manage in the course of the day?

Could you adapt the suggestions here, or think of other ways to support transition points in the outdoor context?


Email: outdoorelc@gov.scot

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