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Decolonising Outdoor Play

Let us begin with a story built from dozens of reflections and conversations with outdoor learning leaders and teachers across the UK. The names and characters do not relate to real people but are a composite of behaviours common in territorial outdoor play seen in schools, forest schools and other settings.

Jo has built an amazing shelter. Jo’s friends have built shelters nearby but with materials of a lesser quality because Jo was the fastest to get the best tarp, rope, logs, branches, and best location under a huge beech tree.  Sam was making art under the tree using the beech nut cases just before the group started den building, Sam lost the flow of their creativity as the group began to collect beech nut cases but instead for use as ammunition to “prevent attacks” .


Sam relocates back at the fire circle where an adult is preparing food for the group and Molly is stirring the soup to be helpful partly because she has struggled to integrate into the shelter building play. 


Each week the territory of Jo and the den building group becomes wider.  The space they now occupy has been named by them as JoTown.  Last week this group of friends even explored over a dry-stone wall which they know to be the boundary for the session, hoping to find better land for additional camps.  The leader had been instructed by the landowner not to go beyond the wall.  The group knew the rules but needed reminding of the consequences of breaking the agreed boundaries.  The leader reminded them that the groups that used that land would be asked to leave by the landowner if they continued to trespass. 


Jo and the group are hungry.  Jo sends a younger child as a messenger to go back to the leader to find out where lunch is.  The leader says it will be ready in 10 minutes and that they will call when it is time to come back to the circle.  The leader calls and only some of the group return.  They ask if they can take food back to JoTown.  The leader agrees however at the end of the session the leader discovers all their plates, cutlery and unwanted food in the mud and since they have left now, cleans it up for them. 


Before lunch Molly had got bored at the fire circle and began digging out clay from the bank to model with.  Molly's clay creations were so good that it attracted two other group members who had previously been climbing trees in another area of the site.  With the addition of two new members, clay mining operations become larger and more significant. Buckets are used and the sticks used for digging are replaced with tools such as plastic cups to make retrieving clay quicker and larger in quantity.  At lunch a child from JoTown noticed that some members of the group had found clay and thought they could also use it to build walls to protect their stores of beech nuts and now pinecone ammunition.  A child took the bucket of clay that Molly had been working on for some time and took it back to JoTown.  Molly became upset and was hard to console but it was now the end of the session.


Everyone would recognise this story as a classic outdoor play or outdoor learning experience. Many leaders are unclear on how to manage territorial play particularly with regards to den building, dismantling and invasions. We observe that posts on forums requesting advice on this are common and this blog is in part inspired by a request just last week.


For this blog, we have used three main sources, the first being Sovacool’s political ecological framework for climate change mitigation, where we introduce the four E’s.







We have applied the framework to the context of outdoor play and learning; to explore ecological conflict. The framework explores the power relations and colonial workings of environmentalism heavily influenced by Martinez-Alier author of Environmentalism of the Poor, our second source. The third source is our own experience and practice, so let’s apply this to our story.




This is described by Sovacool as public assets being transferred into private hands.  No one really owns beech nuts but Jo through Sam’s use of these as a creative material, discovers alternative uses and goes about collecting, storing, and protecting all the beech nuts for their own use and for those members that are selected.  Jo has also dominated the source and the space containing the Beech nuts. This could be called territorial accumulation and is a common feature in outdoor play as is land grabbing. Sovacool goes on to describe enclosure as the appropriation of new elements of nature and the displacement or dispossession of economically or politically marginal populations. Sam needs to have the opportunity to achieve equal value in the play of the wider group.  This can occur by encouraging Sam to have a voice via effective advocacy. 



Exclusion occurs in tandem with enclosure.  Sovacool describes this as a strategy of containment that prevents other actors from interfering with one’s own interests.  Jo excludes others to protect their own project. 


Who regulates the othering of an individual or group?  In our story Jo is the regulator and holds most of the power over the planning and building of JoTown.  Mostly, what Jo says goes and there is a group ready to support this. To address enclosure and exclusion, we need belonging as well as inclusion. This is where ultimately the group leader should regulate through nurturing positive group dynamics and a culture of belonging.



Encroachment is all about the physical environment.  Encroachment is the commodification of nature.  This is a space that all outdoor leaders operate within.  We must admit that all outdoor activity impacts the environment.  The balance comes when we seek to use the environment for learning to mitigate ecological damage and disrespect.  What is the balance when we know play and heavy footfall of groups erodes the banks and poaches the ground, but clay and mud are great sensory learning materials?


Encroachment is the part of this theory that pertains to the ecological.  Even those without obvious power can inadvertently do ecological damage.  Molly has no clear influence over JoTown but is involved in the accidental degradation of the clay banks. 

The meme of “the children yearn for the mines” alludes to a child’s fascination with resources through play and reflects that through Minecraft, digging, mud pies, and rock collecting for example- encroachment is played out. The material goes from protected to productive even in child’s play. Some children may benefit from the material whilst others are exploited to labour and remove it from the land.



Entrenchment aggravates structural inequalities and disempowers vulnerable groups.  The more well-resourced you are the more tools you are equipped with to maintain resilience.  This results in a chain reaction where the more resources you have the more you can continue to capture. Conversely, the fewer resources you have the less power you have to maintain access to them. Sovacool discusses this in respect to climate mitigation and we use this to understand nature connection in our story.  Entrenchment can contribute to uneven patterns of development.  It involves acts of omission which can look like claiming funding for projects in deprived areas but funnelling resources to those already engaged and with less need.  Back to our story, some of the children in JoTown have quality kit to protect them from adverse weather, they have breakfast at home before they arrive at the session and feel comfortable in a range of outdoor and social spaces, these simple resources give them a head start.   Elite capture describes a process by which resources belonging to all members become captured by more powerful groups.  In our story beech nuts, tarps, ropes, clay, pinecones, the beech tree, are there for all members of the group but Jo captures and decides who has access. 


All four E’s play out in the members of the group at play, the leaders and their own lived experiences, the dynamics between landowners, managers, and organisations.  It’s easy to see that the four E’s exists over multiple structures and levels of power and influence. 


Towards Decolonising outdoor play

The bottom line is that much of outdoor play and learning follows easily recognisable colonial patterns.  We can challenge the narratives that some of these patterns are healthy play development.  We can question some of the problematic play styles that operate by exclusion and we can also do our best to protect the environments that we rely on from degredation and disrespect.  We can learn about and bring awareness to some of the historical, ecological and societal injustices we face related to place and resources. We can work towards building better relationship to place.  Investigating outdoor practices that acknowledge indigeneity and embrace diversity will remind us that there is no one right way to be outdoors.  Sharing resources, sharing responsibility, sharing food and cooking, sharing spaces, sharing knowledge and not gatekeeping, all go some way to begin to explore decolonising outdoor play and learning. We are taught that biology and evolution is competitive and necessary but we can challenge this idea and look to ways of working collectively. Be aware that den play in a parent funded session is not the same as den play in a public park where dens are removed as litter and den building seen as anti-social.  Some children will be inadvertently socialised to understand and know that they have no rights to space and resources.


“Systems of oppression are interconnected and typically have one thing in common: colonialism.  Similarly, systems of liberation are deeply interconnected and reinforce one another” Slow factory.

It’s our responsibility to support those we work with to understand that they are a part of a system and that their actions have impact.  It’s worth considering what “child led” actually means in practice and if it may at times unintentionally enable role playing colonial behaviours. 

It will be hard to go wrong with fostering a culture of belonging rather than just a culture of inclusion, they are not the same thing.  Inclusion can be too often tokenistic and born of obligation whilst belonging begins with love and respect.


Martinez-Alier's Environmentalism of the Poor is a fantastic analysis of the environmentalism movement that encompasses some of our thoughts and practice. It is a good place to begin if you want to get stuck into this a bit more.

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