Emily L. Stanley, Ph.D., is a 2010 graduate of the Ph.D. Program in Environmental Studies at Antioch University, New England.

Dissertation Committee

  • Heidi Watts (Committee Chair)
  • Louise Chawla (Committee Member)
  • Louise Chawla (Committee Member)


outdoor play, recess, school ethos, environmental education, nature play, children's forts, playgrounds

Document Type


Publication Date



Recess is a cherished part of the school day for countless children. Its value, however, has been increasingly questioned in many communities as academic performance standards and management of playground risks take precedence over play. This research examined the multiple outdoor play values held by constituents of a small, independent school for dyslexic students. Students have the choice of several recess options, including traditional playground equipment and a woodland with a stream. Ethnographic methods, including videotaped observations and interviews, were used to inquire into the values that children demonstrated through activity in their chosen play settings, as well as those expressed by their parents, teachers, school administrators and alumni. A theoretical framework of ecological psychology integrated the theory of affordances, behavior settings, and nested systems to describe the values of each group regarding outdoor play in school.

Over the course of the study, most elementary students, and some middle school students, followed a longstanding pattern of selecting the woods as their preferred play setting, where they established territory and participated in practices such as creating a barter economy, foraging for human and natural artifacts (such as wood, metal, and “monkey brains”), searching for animals, constructing forts, and engaging in other forms of fun. Children selecting the playground structures (including a sport court, swings and “monkey bars”) expressed the desire for a more managed space, or for larger peer group activity. Presented as portraits of children’s encounters with their play settings, results demonstrated that the appeal of the woods setting correlated with a far greater diversity of affordances (action possibilities) than the traditional fixed play structures, as well as providing a respite from adult expectations and the opportunity to establish both personal identity and friendships in a dynamic, ongoing social setting. Adult respondents expressed commitment to the experiential learning that occurs through recess play, particularly in the woods. As schools are increasingly identified as potential havens for nurturing competent, enduring relationships with outdoor environments, this study emphasizes that the complex ecological context of schoolyard play should be considered in policy decisions affecting recess design and practice.