5 Ways Your Playground Can Improve Critical Thinking

Critical thinking ranks high amongst the list of skills children need to learn for life in today’s complex and ever-changing world. Teaching critical thinking, however, is a challenging process and this is best achieved when the children are engaged in activities that are both stimulating and fun to do. Taking this approach helps them develop skills to evaluate facts and evidence, make judgements and find solutions. Here are some of the most effective ways to hone critical thinking skills in the playground.

1. Provide real choice when it comes to play

Critical thinking is all about learning to make better decisions and you can encourage this by offering different activities in the playground. The more choice you provide, the more a child will need to evaluate each of those options. They’ll need to consider which activities they find the most fun, how much time to spend on each, what activities their friends might want to play on, and so forth.

A well-resourced playground can offer a wealth of critical thinking opportunities, many of which come from taking part in hands-on activities. From these, children can learn about a wide range of thought-provoking things. Take causality, for example, which is essential for understanding subjects like science and technology. Playing with equipment such as a Magnetic Water Wall, pupils can explore how forces like magnetism and gravity work. They can use this to investigate how forces and channels affect the flow of water and create pressure.

2. Peer modelling in the playground

early years outdoor play

Modelling is an important classroom technique used to scaffold pupil development. It allows pupils to make progress by observing someone with more experience or knowledge and to follow their example until the skills have been acquired. A typical example used in the classroom is when the teacher models how to write the opening paragraph of a story on the board.

Modelling, however, can also be of benefit in the playground and assist with the development of critical thinking – and in these circumstances, children often learn from watching their peers, rather than from the teachers. When a pupil sees a classmate navigate successfully across a Trim Trails obstacle or traverse a climbing wall, they’ll be observing another pupil’s critical thinking skills in action and can apply them to their own attempts on the equipment when it’s their turn.

Similarly, when observing other pupils playing on outdoor percussion instruments, such as drainpipe drums or xylophones, children can learn how the speed at which an instrument is struck affects the sound and how different pipes or bars make different notes. This can lead them to make new connections, using critical thinking to create sound patterns and even learn to play tunes. And the more they observe others and then get to apply their learning, they more they are able to make effective choices.

3. Outdoor experiments

The playground is the perfect place for pupils to explore ideas. Fire an open-ended question at them, such as ‘why do you look different in a curved mirror?’ and they can come up with the most imaginative and insightful hypotheses. Of course, whether they are right or wrong is not always important, what is, however, is the thinking skills that go into providing that answer.

An interesting activity would be to ask teams of pupils to design planes made from recycled materials brought in from home. This could be followed by a show and tell at the storytelling circle followed by a debate about which plane would fly the furthest. After this, the planes could be put to the test. Finally, the children can regroup and use their critical thinking skills to explain what they have learnt from the outdoor experiment.

4. Role play and forum theatre

early years outdoor play markings

Role play has long been a useful method for developing critical thinking and is often used for helping pupils consider social and moral issues, particularly when they are given the role of someone in a different situation to themselves.

An excellent way to teach critical thinking outdoors is to combine role play with forum theatre. Here, a small group of children role play a moral dilemma on the outdoor stage and the class is tasked with finding a resolution. Being a forum theatre piece, at any point in the performance, other pupils can stop the action to ask questions, direct the actors or replace them on stage to find an alternative solution. In doing this, all pupils get to explore the dilemma and put on their critical thinking hats to come up with the most appropriate solution.

5. Alternative communication

People are creatures of habit, often choosing the path of least resistance in how we approach life. One way to develop critical thinking is to put pupils in situations where the path of least resistance can’t be taken and where, as a consequence, they are forced into considering a brand-new approach.

Communication is a critical area for child development and the focus in schools is heavily weighted towards speaking and listening and reading and writing. An interesting and stimulating experiment, using outdoor whiteboards and chalkboards, could be to temporarily deprive children of these abilities and to ask them to communicate only through the use of colours, shapes and pictures. This would require a great deal of critical thinking as the children would need to evaluate all the options open to them and see which way of communicating was most effective. Some pupils could even come up with their own, ingenious hieroglyphics – you never know.


Developing critical thinking begins by giving children the opportunity to face challenges, evaluate options and find solutions and to do this in a free-thinking way. The school playground is an ideal place for this voyage of discovery, challenging children, in a fun and engaging way, to solve all kinds of problems, whether that’s how to traverse a climbing wall, discover the best way to build a model plane or solve a moral dilemma.

If you are looking for playground equipment to help your pupils develop critical thinking skills, check out our main products page.

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