The hidden curriculum of school grounds

External environments influence children

Innovative outdoor play and learning environments for schools

There is a multitude of research that shows the influence the external environment has on children’s attitudes and behavior, including:

  • The significance of environmental experience in childhood. (1)
  • The relationship between place identity and self-identity. (2)
  • The influence of culture on children’s use of the external environment.
  • Play and the external environment. (3)
  • Children’s views and preferences in terms of external environments. (4)
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Outdoor Play and Learning Environments

While researching some of these topics in the mid 1990’s, and while interviewing children about their school grounds, Wendy Titman discovered what is probably the most revelatory information concerning children and landscape. This was published in Special People, Special Places: the Hidden Curriculum of School Grounds in 1994. (5)

Although Wendy Titman’s work is largely concerned with school grounds, the types of environments favored by children generally relate to all external environments, and they are:

  • That 'found' spaces are preferred to traditional, designed playground environments.
  • That children value natural environments and places which offer variety and diversity, and which offer 'potentiality' for change and are manipulable.
  • That they actively seek out places and elements which present opportunity for risk and challenge and that,
  • Whilst such places need to facilitate social interaction, children highly value environments which provide a degree of privacy.
  • Children look for a place for doing, thinking, feeling, being and having fun. (6)

School grounds are unlike any other external public space.

They are places totally dedicated to children’s use over a given period of time.  For children, the grounds were part of the whole school and they were symbolic of a place, created especially for them, in order that they might play and furthermore, playing in the playground formed a substantial part of being at school. In turn, those who run the school are responsible for its grounds – and where some of the children’s needs were met, they read this as a reflection of the fact that the school valued them and understood their needs.

For children, school grounds reflect the ethos of the school

For children, school grounds reflect the ethos of the school, particularly in terms of the schools concern for the environment, because the grounds represent a small pocket of the natural world.  In the formal curriculum (generally taught indoors) children learned about the importance of the environment generally, and were confused if this was not mirrored in the immediate external environment of the school.

Participation brings a sense of ownership and belonging

Participation in the design, construction, management and maintenance of school grounds was clearly synonymous with the development of a sense of ownership and belonging.  Where the children had been involved in a meaningful way with the grounds of the school, they believed the grounds were theirs.

Where children perceived that the ethos of the school demonstrated 'non-caringness' in relation to the grounds, they were faced with a difficult choice. Either they accepted this as the dominant culture and suppressed their instinctive, personal inclinations, or they rejected the school ethos and all that goes with it.

In those schools where 'the school’ demonstrated clearly that the grounds were valued and actively encouraged practical evidence of this, the children happily adopted this culture.

So the main points of Special People Special Places are:

  • School grounds convey messages and meanings to children which influence their attitude and behavior.
  • Children read these messages and meanings from a range of signifiers which frame the cultural context of the environment – the Hidden Curriculum of school grounds.
  • The Hidden Curriculum has considerable influence, in a range of subtle but significant ways, on the operation of all schools.
  • It is within the power of those who manage schools to determine the nature of the Hidden Curriculum of their school grounds.

The implications of Wendy Titman’s work is profound and 20 years later is even more prescient.

School grounds, have become increasingly important in modern society

School grounds, as external environments, have become increasingly important to children in modern society.  Parental escorting and lack of access to the outdoors has restricted those opportunities to nurture positive associations with the natural world, and, we can surmise in 2015, has led to more time on passive screen related activities.

School grounds convey messages and meanings about the ethos of schools.

In particular participation and inclusivity in changes to school grounds created the real benefits for positive change in attitudes and behaviour within the whole school.

Children’s attitudes and behaviour are determined, to a considerable extent, by the design of school grounds.

Benefits include heightened self-esteem; reduction in aggression, accidents and incidents of damage and vandalism; improved morale; reduction in truancy levels; a positive change of atmosphere within the whole school; increased parental and community support were all add on benefits.

The message of Special People Special Places in 2015 is still as clear as when it was published in 1994 – we can influence children’s lives in very positive ways by using school grounds as the connectivity between nature, cooperation, inclusivity, engagement, education, beauty, fun and social interaction.

By using this approach to nurture positive lifelong associations with the natural world, we can replace our currently suicidal actions of destroying functional ecosystems with a natural foundation of valuing the only true source of wealth – Earth, third planet from the Sun.

Guy Redmond, Leaves of Green, 2015


(1)     Wilson, Edward O.,Biophilia, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1984.

Wilson, Edward O., "Biophilia and the Conservative Ethic", The Biophilia Hypothesis, Kellert &  Wilson (eds), Washington D.C., Island Press, 1993.

Nelson, R., "Searching for the Lost Arrow: Physical and Spiritual Ecology in the Hunter's World",The Biophilia Hypothesis, Kellert & Wilson (eds), Washington D.C., Island Press, 1993.

Lewis, Charles A.,Green Nature, Human Nature: The Meaning of Plants in Our Lives, Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Barrows, Anita, "The Ecopsychology of Child Development", Roszak, Gomes & Kanner (eds), San Francisco, Sierra Club Books,  1995.

Wilson, Ruth A., Ph.D., "The Wonders of Nature - Honoring  Children's Ways of Knowing",Early Childhood News, March/April 1997.

Moore, Robin C. & Herb H. Hong,Natural Learning: Creating Environments for Rediscovering Nature's Way of Teaching, Berkeley, California, MIG Communications, 1997.

Sobel, David,Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Natural  Education, Great Barrington, MA, The Orion Society, 1996

Hart, Roger. A.,Children's Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Children in Community Development and Environmental Care, London, UK, Earthscan Publications, 1997

(2)   Relph E., Place and Placelessness, Pion, 1976

(3)  “Considerable evidence exists to show that typically, the design of playgrounds has not proved successful in meeting children’s needs in terms of play, and certainly provides no substitute for meaningful external environmental experience.” Wendy Titman

(4)   From Special People, Special Places, how children read the external environment:

  • Tarmac: hard, dangerous, aggressive, signifier of better things available
  • Grass: gentle game space, sitting lying rolling, diversity
  • Trees: climbing, awesome natural appearance, shape, colour, living things
  • Flowers: aesthetic values, symbolic of the degree to which grounds were cared for.
  • Mud/Sand: pure fun, getting dirty = getting into trouble. Gardening good because alright to get dirty.
  • Ponds: signified care for living things and of the living world.
  • Bushes and dens: hiding in, privacy, security, ownership.
  • Fixed play equipment: symbolic for children of recognition by the school of some of their play needs. Where children had been consulted, in a meaningful way, about the provision of equipment and had participated in implementing other changes to improve the quality of the grounds in general, the equipment provided seemed to hold greatest value.
  • Seating: valued if it was part of a ‘place’, otherwise used for climbing balancing etc. Where seats and benches had been provided they were often placed in unattractive locations and were either not used or used for everything but sitting on. Where appropriate seating existed, this was heavily used and valued.
  • Shelter: valued very highly.
  • Animals: universally seen as symbolic of care and one-ness with the living world. Interestingly, in those schools that allowed animals, the children concluded that schools which did not have animals couldn’t be good schools.
  • Litter, Rubbish, Vandalism: neglect

(5)  Wendy Titman, Special People, Special Places: the Hidden Curriculum of School Grounds, 1994

(6)  The signifiers that tell children they are in such a place comprise:

  • A natural landscape with trees, flowers and other things that grow.
  • Animals, ponds and other living things that grow.
  • Natural colour, diversity and change.
  • Surfaces which they can use which ‘don’t hurt’.
  • Places and features to sit in, on, under, lean against - where they can find shelter and shade.
  • A landscape that provides different levels and ‘nooks and crannies’ where they can make dens and find privacy.
  • Structures, equipment and materials which can be changed, actually, or in their imagination.

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