Bringing dance into Early Years outdoor play

Outdoor dance play can be helpful for preschoolers learning to pay attention and control their behaviour.  Recent research suggests that preschoolers are more likely to follow routines and rules in indoor activities when these activities follow outdoor play (Koepp et al, 2022).

dance play outdoors

These executive functions are an important indicator of future learning and vary widely among children in the early years.  Not only influencing their learning but also their ability to socialize, children’s executive function is important for just getting along with others.

What is interesting about this new research is how engaging in outdoor activity can affect children’s physical, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing.  Dancing outdoors, using improvisational activities, is fun for children and their teachers.

Executive function in preschoolers

Children’s executive function determines how well they follow rules, hold attention during an activity, take turns, and generally get along with other children.  Research also points to executive function influencing how children control themselves, being able to hold information, and shift their attention from one activity to another (Chevalier & Clark ,2017).

Executive function can vary depending on the activity.  For most children it is better during a more structured activity.  This also applies to transitions between activities.

Children may be distracted during story time but engage more deeply if the story is punctuated with movement improvisation.  However, it could also vary according to the expectations for behaviour in different contexts.

Outdoor dance play in the Early Years

Indoor play in the early years is often associated with more sedate motor activities.  Children are often seated with the emphasis on fine motor skills.  By introducing dance play indoors this can involve more gross motor skills.

However, if you are limited for space, outdoor dance play is ideal.  It allows children to be more active and engage a wide range of movement skills.

dance play outdoors

Fewer restrictions outdoors result in children needing to use executive functions less, and therefore are less fatigued by having to exercise control.  This leads to children feeling more relaxed and creative.

The benefits are many but include children feeling more able to engage in executive function activities when they return indoors.

Physical Activity and Executive Function in Preschoolers

Physical activity helps blood flow to the brain which results in greater cognitive control (Drolette et al, 2014).  Studies have shown a clear link between on task behaviour following physical activity breaks (Drolette et al, 2014).

Every teacher will recognize the restless energy in students that come from being still for too long!  Combining an activity that requires concentration and creativity but uses physical energy and is done outdoors ticks all the boxes.

What are good movement ideas to include in outdoor dance play?

If you are planning a dance activity the research suggests that acceleration across a three-dimensional space should be included.  Not just running and jumping.

Children are attracted to the sounds of songs and music so including these can be the stimulus for dance improvisation. As you explore these songs try to include gross motor and fine motor skills.  Contrast between large reaching movements that explore different levels and tiny intricate movements of the hands and toes.

This age group also responds well to a narrative so a movement activity that tells a story is engaging while giving them scope to create their own movement. You could use a range of props for these kinds of activities so the children can explore different sensory experiences.  Being outdoors gives you scope to work with a range of stimulus from bubbles through to mud!

dance play outdoors

Outdoor dance play to link with writing patterns

Handwriting emerges from opportunities to practice sensory mark making and outdoor dance play is a way to explore writing through the whole body.

Here are some outdoor movements you could use to support mark making.

The sun – large and small circles with the arms and fingers.

Tree trunks – powerful vertical lines up and down using the arms, wrists and fingers.

Clover leaves – upper loops using the fingers in the air.

Rainbows – arches moving in two directions, starting large and getting smaller.

Ocean waves – rolling loops that come back on themselves with the index finger.

Rolling down the hill – wrists rolling from high level to low level, repeat using the index finger from left to right on a vertical line.

Stars in the sky – dots in the air using different fingers on both hands.

Shake off wet hands – using the wrist flick a dash up and a dash down.

Dance for preschoolers

Using dance outdoors can be a useful and rewarding part of your preschool class.  Not only is it fun, but it can lead to children paying greater attention to tasks, ignoring distraction during activities and listening (Koepp et al, 2022).

Try dance in your classroom and observe the changes to the children’s executive functions, physical and emotional wellbeing.  For more resources and dance ideas for your classroom become a member of DTI. 



Andrew E. Koepp, Elizabeth T. Gershoff, Darla M. Castelli, Amy E. Bryan, (2022). Preschoolers’ executive functions following indoor and outdoor free play, Trends in Neuroscience and Education, Volume 28, 100182, ISSN 2211-9493,

E.S. Drollette, M.R. Scudder, L.B. Raine, R.D. Moore, B.J. Saliba, M.B. Pontifex, C.H. Hillman (2014).  Acute exercise facilitates brain function and cognition in children who need it most: an ERP study of individual differences in inhibitory control capacity.  Dev. Cognit. Neurosci., 7 (2014), pp. 53-64, 10.1016/j.dcn.2013.11.001

Chevalier, C.A.C. Clark (2017). Executive function in early and middle childhood.

S.A. Wiebe, J. Karbach (Eds.), Executive Function (1st ed.), Routledge (2017), pp. 29-43, 10.4324/9781315160719-3