Researching children’s language use and development in outdoor environments

Through the ‘Driving and Guiding Research’ strand of Early Childhood Outdoors’ work, we aim to find mechanisms for sharing the knowledge that is being generated through post-graduate and post-doctorate research, and to make research findings available for practitioners to apply in developing provision and practice outdoors. This post by Tanya Richardson, on some of the findings in her PhD study, initiates the research stream of the weekly ECO blog – thanks Tanya.

Does being outdoors make a difference to the quality of children’s speech and language?

By Tanya Richardson, Programme Leader for Early Childhood Studies at the University of Northampton

The impact of the environment on young children’s speech has been something that has interested me for some time now. It stemmed from a time where I owned and managed my own day nursery. The nursery was in a converted warehouse and it had a very small outside area. Because of this tiny outside space, Ofsted refused to grant me any higher than a “good” rating on inspection. We used the local community a great deal, visiting the village horses, going to look for tadpoles in the stream, going to the playground….. but still, no matter how much I argued, they would not budge any higher than “good”.

Well, I was determined to get an “outstanding” and therefore I decided to buy a field!!! Like you do!!! And in that field we set up a forest school. Now when I say forest school, I mean that in the very loosest sense of the term. It was a farmer’s field – a blank canvas. So we planted trees and hedgerows and we made interesting areas by importing piles of mud, tyres, planted a maze, and created a fire circle. I must admit I did this purely to pay lip service to Ofsted initially. I really could not see how this was going to give the children any more than we were already providing, but I was determined to get my “outstanding” so was prepared to play the game.

And after using the field for a while, I must say I had to eat humble pie! I could not believe the difference in the children when they were in this space. The children who would not say “boo” to a goose when inside, seemed to come alive when they were at the field. Over the weeks that followed, their confidence grew and I began to notice that they spoke a lot more than when inside. After researching this further, no literature could be found that analysed the effect of the natural environment on speech and language, instead focus appeared to mainly be on physical development (BERA/TACTYC, 2014; Fjortoft, 2004), creativity (Knight, 2011; Sutterby and Frost, 2006) and social interactions (Waite and Pratt, 2013).

It is recognised that, currently in England, 23% of young children are not at the expected level of speech and language (Finnegan and Warren, 2015) and this can have adverse effects which can last into adulthood (Law et al., 2010). The situation, currently, is such that Law and Levickis (2018) assert that the area of speech and language development be considered a public health problem.   The awareness of this as an issue, accompanied with the observation that children seemed to benefit from being in the natural environment that the field provided, therefore started me on the research journey that would lead me to find out more.

My doctoral research therefore enabled me to explore this further. By recording children’s speech in different environments through the use of body-cams (that’s another story and one that a future blog can cover!), I was able to compare the quality of that speech to the quality of the environment, which was assessed by the use of a specially designed rating scale.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was able to establish that, in my case study settings, there was a connection between the quality of the environment and the quality of speech.   Generally, the higher quality the environment was, the higher quality the speech was. What was surprising though, was the type of environment that produced the highest quality of speech. The case study settings showed that an outdoor classroom [the environment outdoors in the setting – Ed.] was most conducive to high-quality speech and language.   I believe that this is due to the nature of the environment, but also due to the fact that practitioners and peers are all fairly close by when children are playing – highlighting the need for interactions. This shows me that not only should the environment be set up in a way to promote language, but those interactions are crucial to this also. The natural environment was also found to be beneficial for the quality of speech and language, however not so much so as the outdoor classroom – maybe due to the fact that there is so much space in this environment that interactions are not so frequent.

There are therefore multiple implications for practice here. I would suggest that the outdoor classroom should be given as much emphasis as the indoors when considering how we aid children’s speech and language development. Davy (2016) reports that 85% of practitioners within the UK feel that the outdoor space that they have on offer to children is inadequate and not suited to their developmental needs and this is something that needs addressing as a matter of urgency. Also, we should strive for these outdoor classrooms to be more than just an extension of the indoors, with practitioners standing on the periphery, but instead really consider how these spaces are used to maximum benefit for the children within our care. If, as Law and Levickis (2018) argue, we are dealing with a public health issue in the way that speech and language is presenting, then we need to do our upmost to support those children to not just develop but to flourish. It is not enough to give children wings, we have to help them fly!

If you would like any more details of any aspect of this blog, then please feel free to get in touch – I would love to hear your thoughts!

Dr Tanya Richardson, Senior Lecturer in Early Years at the University of Northampton.


BERA/TACTYC (2014) Early years policy advice: Learning, development and curriculum. [online] Available from: [Accessed 22nd November 2019]

Davy, A. (2016) Provision for learning outdoors for under 5s: state of the nation survey. [online] Available from: [Accessed 22nd November 2019].

Finnegan, J. and Warren, H. (2015) Ready to read: closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in England can read well. London: Save the Children Fund.

Fjørtoft, I. (2004) Landscape as playscape: The effects of natural environments on children’s play and motor development. Children, youth and environments. 14(2), pp.21-44.

Knight, S. (2011) Risk and adventure in early years outdoor play: learning from forest schools. London: Sage Publications.

Law, J. and Levickis, P. (2018) Early language development must be a public health priority. Journal of health visiting. 6(12), pp.586-589.

Law, J., Rush, R., Schoon, I. and Parsons, S. (2010) Modelling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood. Journal of speech, language and hearing research. 52(1), pp.1401-1416.

Sutterby, J. and Frost, J. (2006) Creating play environments for early childhood: indoors and out. In: Spodek, B. and Saracho, O. (eds) Handbook of research on the education of young children. 2nd ed. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Waite, S. and Pratt, N. (2013) Theoretical perspectives on learning outside the classroom: relationships between learning and place. In: Waite, S. (ed) Children learning outside the classroom: from birth to eleven.   London: Sage Publications.

2 thoughts on “Researching children’s language use and development in outdoor environments”

  1. This is interesting research. I have worked for many years with young children outdoors. I have also found that many children that are quieter indoors yet more conversational and vocal outdoors. I have also observed children (aged 3 or 4) with stammers and stutters gradually become more ‘fluid’ in their speech over the year or more they have been accessing outdoor provision. I know this could be coincidence but one parent was convinced it was being outdoors that had triggered the child’s confidence and loss of their stammer and that it went first when outdoors, then at home, then finally indoors.
    I observed my own son during his pre-school years – quiet and not so engaged indoors but very different when outdoors.
    I think there are many aspects of the outdoor environment / provision and communication and language that would be interesting and beneficial to explore / research. I look forward to reading yours.

    1. Hi Kate, yes this is the experience of many practitioners (and parents I think), so it’s great to have this formally investigated in academic research. Tanya will be participating in the ECO annual professional gathering in Sheffield on 28th March – I think she’ll have lots of folk wanting to discuss this research with her! And I agree that there are SO MANY aspects of outdoor experience that need to be investigated – one of the reasons we have the ‘research’ strand of work for ECO…

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