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Children’s well-being in physically active outdoor play

Children’s well-being in physically active outdoor play

Thank you to Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter and Ole Johan Sando (Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education, Trondheim, Norway) for providing this post.


Physical activity in childhood is beneficial for children’s long-term health and development, and the early childhood education and care (ECEC) institution is considered an essential arena for promoting physical activity. Experiencing well-being in physically active play can influence children’s future physical activity habits. As such, facilitating well-being in children’s physical activity experiences in the ECEC environment has important public health implications. In this study we sought to examine how the ECEC outdoor environment may facilitate well-being in physical activities.

To see how play environments can promote positive experiences with physical activity, we studied how children in eight Norwegian ECEC institutions used the environment to create situations with high levels of both well-being and physical activity. The study was conducted within the EnCompetence project, which aims to develop knowledge about the planning, designing, and development of ECEC physical environments. In close partnership with participating ECEC institutions, we collected and analyzed video observations of children’s use of the outdoor environment in periods of free play. Key measures in the project included children’s play, the social context, and places and materials in the physical environment.

We showed that children experienced well-being in physical activities to a varying degree. In line with previous research, we also found that activity patterns differed between children, where boys and older children experienced more episodes of high well-being and physical activity. In addition, we found that play and having other children to play with were important for experiencing high well-being while being physically active. This finding is interpreted within a holistic take on children’s play; as such, providing children with a physical environment that affords a multitude of play opportunities and social interactions may be a beneficial strategy for promoting self-initiated active play.

We also found that high levels of well-being and physical activity occurred in a variety of outdoor sub spaces. Pathways and fixed playground equipment were especially associated with such behaviour, as were natural environments and open areas. Moreover, loose parts in the outdoor environment were essential elements for children’s engagement in symbolic play episodes, which were associated with high levels of well-being and physical activity. Having access to a multitude of materials and different places, small and big, closed and open, natural and built environments, therefore appears to be beneficial in promoting well-being and active play.

Overall, this study highlights the importance of the physical environment for promoting children’s well-being in physical activity and emphasizes how other children, places and objects are essential to enhancing the well-being and physically active play of all children in the outdoor environment of ECEC institutions. Promoting children’s well-being in physically active play may benefit children’s everyday experiences in the ECEC institution and their future health.

The article in Journal of Environmental Psychology can be accessed here.


Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter is a Professor in the Department of Physical Education and Health at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education (QMUC) in Trondheim, Norway. Her primary research focus is on children’s physical play, outdoor play, and risky/thrilling play in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) institutions, as well as how to develop physical environments for children’s play, development and learning. She has also been involved in research on Norwegian children’s experiences of participation and well-being in Norwegian ECEC institutions, and projects about safety work, child injuries and injury prevention in Norwegian ECEC institutions.

Ole Johan Sando is an Assistant Professor/PhD student at the Department of Physical Education and Health at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education (QMUC) in Trondheim, Norway. Ole Johan has previously conducted research on how a focus on safety in society affects children’s opportunities for physically active play, injuries and accidents in ECEC and young children’s outdoor activities. His ongoing PhD work has a particular focus on how the physical environment in ECEC influences children’s well-being and physical activity.