Zoning the Outside Space

27 June 2010 · 7 comments

in Developing School Grounds & Outdoor Spaces, Outdoor Play

In several of the courses I offer Early Years settings, I discuss the concept of zoning the outdoor area. This is not an original idea. Landscape architects who develop play spaces use zones to turn a “space” into a “place”. Each zone or area is managed for different play purposes.

During the past year, I have been lucky enough to work with the nursery staff at Southmuir Nursery as an RBS Supergrounds Advisor.  Their nursery opened in November 2001. The outdoor area consisted of a flat tarmac, surrounded by a high wire fence and some rather grim soft landscaping plants in one corner. As a result of increasing the gardening space, the staff decided to re-think the zoning of the outdoor area. Here are the results….!

Firstly, the main gardening area is outside the fenced nursery outdoor space and beside the entrance to the nursery. There are several benefits here:

  • The rest of the school can visit the gardening area without disturbing the children.
  • It sends a strong message about how the school and the nursery value gardening.

The water play has been situated beside the garden, on the other side of the fence.  It is right beside the outdoor tap. A hose is permanently available and can be used in the garden and in the water play area. There is a water butt and children can use the water here too. The height of the water tray has been adjusted so that a child in a wheel chair can access this resource. By sheer chance, the one dip in the tarmac happens to be in this area, creating a puddle too! The buckets contain a variety of different bottles and items for using in this area. The guttering is popular and plans are underway to create a water wall!!!

There is a mud zone. This has been expanded considerably. Children can dig in the soil or use the mud in the “bath”. There’s lots of pots, pans, stirring instruments and other resources in the area. If you look at the wall you can see one of the favourite activities – mud throwing! There are coveralls and wellies available so that children are suitably dressed for the activity.

The creative area is interesting. The back of this storage shed has been used as a storage place for natural materials. In each of the numbered bags there are different goodies including willow balls, shells, stones, sticks and twigs.

The seating is place for children to gather for drawing, snack and doing a variety of social activities.

Nearby, the fencing is used for artwork. The children are encouraged to photograph their work so that the next child can clean the perspex and create their own picture. I like the way hooks have been put on the fence so that the aprons can be stored here.

As with many nurseries using wheeled toys is very popular. The tractor tyres provide islands and the arrows indicate the direction of flow.

Beside the fence you can see more raised planting areas and fruit trees. Perhaps surprisingly these work well beside the wheelie area. They also soften the tarmac-fence landscape and stop balls and other little toys going underneath the fencing.


This little construction and small world pit is situated right beside a window. Children who are indoors and reluctant to be outside, find this a similar environment to being indoors as there are carpet tiles to sit on.

This is a very versatile resource – large wobbly logs. The children can sit here when putting on the “mud suits”. They are great for standing on and wobbling. But children can lie or work here too.

Another fence separates the quiet, wilder, sensory area from the more active parts of the outdoor space. This is a lovely exploratory area with overgrown plants to make pathways interesting.  Herbs, bamboo and other interesting shrubs have been planted. There are plans for mirrors and other light catchers to complement the CDs and chimes.

The baskets are old hanging baskets that have been placed at ground level for outdoor containers in the sensory area.

As you have probably noticed, there is plenty of outdoor storage. This play house is used to store the suits and other materials than need to go outside daily such as the carpet tiles.

Finally, the zones have all been labelled. I think this is particularly useful for students and visitors coming to the outdoor space to help them understand the play value. The staff have found it easier to in terms of the planning and building on the children’s interests. They feel the re-zoning has led to better quality of play that is more purposeful.

I would be really interested to know how your organise your outdoor space. Do you have clearly identifiable zones? Have you noticed the difference in what children do outside when you reorganise your zones? I find visiting schools, nurseries and other settings fascinating this way.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Teacher Tom June 28, 2010 at 14:26

We have a very small, urban outdoor space, but we’ve still managed to come up with zones: construction/tinkering, sand pit/water play, Little World (fine motor/dramatic play), and garden. We have to use our gym for wheeled vehicles because that’s the only flat surface we have.

I find zones both outdoors and indoors to be useful in curriculum planning. That said, I like when play crosses over from zone to zone, blurring the boundaries a bit. Our construction, for instance, often spills over into the sand pit or dramatic play area. Our garden is the only part of our outdoor space that is physically divided from the rest. It tends to double as our “quiet” play area.


Sherry and Donna July 1, 2010 at 00:47

We have zones Juliet but like Tom we like blurring our boundaries too. We have a grass area where the children run, build, picnic and play ball sport which cannot be used for climbing equipment because of the soft fall regulations and a concreted area which again is used for everything except climbing equipment but basically the children are free to move props and equipments around to all parts of the indoor and outdoor play space. That is not to say we do not set the environment up in their zoned areas because we do, it’s just that our ideas of play zones do not necessarily match the children’s idea of play zones! But at the end of the day props and equipment are returned to their zoned areas because tomorrows zones will no doubt be different from todays!
Donna 🙂 🙂


Juliet Robertson July 3, 2010 at 09:44

Hi Tom

I think your outside area is an excellent example of what can be achieved within a small space. Very often staff are tempted to offer only physically active play materials like trikes, balls and hoops. However the trick is to offer everything else there and find a bigger space elsewhere for running about.

I love it when children take their play into different area and blur the “adult” boundaries. I think this is when creativity is really seen.


Felicity Robinson May 27, 2016 at 18:09

As a landscape architect…. yes, we do think in ‘zones’ but adaptability and flexibility is key. As you say, it is about creating places where things can happen. The zones need some spatial definition/threshold/clarity, whatever you call it, to function well without undue disturbance from adjacent activities that can cause a degree of conflict. The other big things for me when I am designing, are ‘character of place’ and ‘routes and journeys’.


Juliet Robertson May 27, 2016 at 18:19

Hello Felicity – I think your answer exemplifies why it is worth hiring a landscape architect who has lots of experience observing children and developing early years outdoor spaces can pay dividends. Also, whilst I’ve referenced access and inclusion – I do think outside expertise can help practitioners develop their outdoor space to ensure it is inclusive, collaborative and rights-based.


Orla October 7, 2016 at 16:09

Hi there, I love this post! Lots of great ideas. Can anyone recommend an easy way of making a simple track like this for bikes and scooters? What paint to use, tools etc. Looking to do it on a budget and as soon as possible! Thanks.


Juliet Robertson October 9, 2016 at 03:03

Hello Orla

There’s an early years outdoor Facebook page where you may get a lot of helpful suggestions. Also check out the other bike play posts on this blog to ensure that what you are planning will sufficiently challenge the children with whom you work and what you can do to constantly extend the learning and play possibilities. This is an old blog post and I would suggest that there are many options beyond the suggestion in this post.

When it comes to paint, there are spray systems and trolleys which people use – often local authority grounds maintenance people use these. There is specific road marking paint – it doesn’t last as long as the thermoplastic and will fade much more quickly. I can’t remember what it’s called but I used to buy it from Highland Industrial Supplies. Be aware that some types of paint can be quite slippery when first applied to a surface so less can be more!


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