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Natural environments in early childhood services

Early childhood services are required to have indoor and outdoor spaces that are designed to engage children with quality experiences.


Creating natural environments supports children to become environmentally responsible and show respect for the environment.

Both the National Regulations and the Children’s Services Regulations state the outdoor space must allow children to explore and experience the natural environment.

An interesting and dynamic outdoor play space with natural features adds stimulation and creates variety for learning. It allows children to explore and experience the natural environment.

These spaces invite open ended interactions, spontaneity, risk taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature. They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education.

Outdoor spaces should include a range of different natural features such as sand, soil, grass, a variety of different plantings and trees. It is not enough for children to look at trees and plants in education and care services, they must be able to actively explore, engage with, and experience different types of natural environments.

This means allowing children to touch and interact with the natural environment in their everyday play. This fact sheet provides some ideas for setting up and using natural environments in an approved education and care service.

Features that enable children to explore the natural environment

A natural environment in a education and care service is an environment which includes natural elements. These may include:

  • gardens where children can grow their own plants
  • sandpits for sensory, symbolic and physical play
  • digging patches where children can use garden equipment
  • a range of planting to encourage a variety of modes of play such as playing with gum nuts, small branches, flowers, stones and bark
  • small pits of pebbles, gravel, coarse sand and smooth river rocks for fine motor and imaginative play
  • plants for picking and eating
  • plants that encourages birds, butterflies and other insects
  • trees which provide shade
  • worm farms and compost areas for environmental education
  • water play areas for sensory play.

The role of educators

It is important to think about how the environment is used in early childhood services and the interactions between children, staff members and carers. All educators play an important role in teaching and guiding the children within natural environments. Educators do this by:

  • providing access to a range of natural materials
  • finding ways that children can care for and learn from the land
  • modelling respect, care and appreciation for the natural environment
  • sharing information and providing access to resources about the environment and the impact of human activities on environments
  • embedding sustainability in daily routines and practices
  • looking for examples of interdependence in the environment and discussing the ways the life and health of living things are interconnected.

Children’s learning and development in natural environments

When children are using the natural environment to develop knowledge in this area this is evidenced by children:

  • showing a growing concern and appreciation for natural environments
  • exploring relationships with other living and non-living things
  • observing, noticing and responding to changes in the environment
  • developing an awareness of the impact of human activity on environments and the interdependence of living things.

Research supporting benefits of natural environments in outdoor spaces

Current research clearly shows that natural environments and outdoor play are beneficial to children in many ways. Playing outdoors is important for developing capacities for creativity, symbolic play, problem solving and intellectual development.

Outdoor play has clear physical benefits for developing children including helping children to acquire gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination and helping to prevent obesity.

Sensory stimulation derived from interacting with natural environments allows children to learn with all of their senses. These senses include seeing, hearing, touching and smelling. It is well known that physical activity is beneficial for children in many ways.

In a recent review of literature concerning children outdoors, Munoz examines research linking time spent outdoors to increased physical activity, healthy development and overall wellbeing (Munoz, S.A 2009 Children in the outdoors. Sustainable Development Research Centre. Horizon Scotland).

Research also shows that children who have trouble concentrating benefit from playing outdoors, as after playing outdoors these children are better able to concentrate on tasks.

Natural environments give educators in education and care services opportunities to teach children about caring for the world in which we live. Seeing plants grow and change throughout the year helps children to understand and learn more about nature.

Including natural environments in outdoor play spaces

Including natural elements into an outdoor play space does not have to look a particular way, there is no formula that has to be followed. The design will take into account the size and configuration of the space, the way in which the space is used at the children’s service and the ages of the children who play in the space.

An outdoor play space with natural features designed for toddlers in long day care will look very different from an outdoor space with natural features designed for an outside school hours care or family day care service.

Considerations when designing or modifying outdoor play spaces with natural environments

Natural play spaces can provide rich opportunities for children to explore new ideas and to develop their interests and understanding. When thinking about the design of an outdoor space for children the following opportunities for children should be provided:

  • to explore and develop a relationship with the natural environment
  • to gain a sense of freedom
  • to explore and to learn the skills required to manage self-risk.

It is not necessary to redesign the whole outdoor space in order to include natural features. In addition to trees and other smaller plants and shrubs, pots, tyres and tubs may be used to contain natural materials for play such as stones, sand, soil etc.

Flowers can be grown in small tubs and gardens for the children to grow their own plants can be created in raised beds which can be constructed or bought commercially.

There are many books on designing outdoor play spaces for children, these will be of help in sourcing ideas. Local expert consultants may be contacted for help with designs for outdoor play spaces and advice about child friendly and hardy plants.

Natural environments indoors

Natural environments do not have to be limited to outdoors. There are many ways in which the natural environment can enhance the children’s indoor program. Pot plants and small tubs in which to grow plants are visually appealing in children’s rooms.

Parts of branches and small logs with the bark attached can be used in imaginative play in conjunction with other materials. Pine cones, seed pods, leaves, gumnuts and small stones can be used in different ways including opportunities for children to explore simple science and maths concepts such as classifying, counting and weighing.

Sand and water trays inside also provide additional interesting experiences for children’s play.

Approved learning frameworks

Learning outcome two in the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework states that ‘Children are connected to and contribute to their world’.

This outcome requires educators to help children to develop an awareness of the impact of human activity on the environment and the interdependence of living things. Natural environments within children’s services are the arena in which children learn these things.

Belonging, Being and Becoming, the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia examines the practice of early childhood pedagogy and the role that good learning environments play in teaching. Play spaces in natural environments include plants, trees, edible gardens, sand, rocks, mud, water and other elements from nature.

These spaces invite open ended interactions, spontaneity, risk taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature. They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education’ (DEEWR 2009, pgs 15-16).

My Time, Our Place Framework for School Age Care in Australia confirms environments that support wellbeing and development are vibrant and flexible spaces that are responsive to the welfare and abilities of each child. These environments cater for different needs and interests and invite children and families to contribute ideas and questions.

Educators can support engagement by allowing time for meaningful interactions, by providing a range of opportunities for individual and shared experiences, and by finding opportunities for children to go into and contribute to their local community.


Belonging Being and Becoming, the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia - available on the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) Educator and Providers Library (PDF).

Written resources

Elliot, S (editor). 2008. The outdoor playspace naturally: For children birth to five years. Pademelon Press. Melbourne.


Environmental Education in Early Childhood (Vic) Inc (EEEC)

EEEC aims to promote a holistic approach to environmental education and sustainable practices in early childhood and the early years of primary school. The approach involves policy development, house keeping practices, play and learning experiences and strategies for working with children, staff and parents.

For more information, refer to Environmental Education in Early Childhood (Vic) Inc (EEEC).

Australian Association for Environmental Education (AAEE)

AAEE is Australia’s peak professional body for Environmental educators. It promotes best practice in and contributes to skills development among educators across the country. The Early Childhood SIG group coordinates, advocates and resources early childhood education for sustainability.

For more information, refer to Australian Association for Environmental Education (AAEE).

Play Australia (formerly Playground and Recreational Association of Victoria)

Play Australia supports and work with many different people and agencies in the community, including local government, schools, early childhood centres, playground designers and landscapers and playground manufacturers who have an interest in children and outdoor play experiences.

For more information, refer to Play Australia.