Fresh air and exercise are a must, not only for children’s physical development, but for their well-being too; but how do you make your outdoor environment exciting, challenging and full of learning opportunities?
Have you ever taken a walk, whether it was warm/cold, sunny/windy, and thought, ‘I feel better after that’? It is precisely this feeling that the children feel when they have been outside. It is part of looking after your inner self, your well-being. If you feel good inside, you are likely to exude good emotions and behaviour. Fresh air and exercise help us to sleep better too. A good night’s sleep equals happy and healthy people. Isn’t this our aim for every childcare setting, that the children are happy, healthy and displaying good behaviour, in turn, open to learning? Now we know why being outside is important, let’s find out how to make this more interesting.
What should your outdoor provision look like:
- Space to run.
- Somewhere to climb. This could be trees, stumps, small or large climbing equipment.
- Somewhere to use gross motor skills. These could be bikes, dancing, throwing/catching, moving on the ground like roly-polies, large scale mark-making.
- Mark-making. This could be sticks in mud, paints at an easel or pens and clipboards.
- Small-world play. Perhaps a fairy or dinosaur garden. These can be permanently set up but have regular changes made. Alternatively, set up a different small-world area each day.
- Water and sand play. If you have the room, have both. If not, rotate or be creative in how you can provide water – from a tap/bucket/water wall.
- Creative area. Think about role-play, imagination and the chance to create. Mud kitchens work well.
- Cosy, quiet area. Tent/den or cushions in a quiet part of the outdoor space. You could add blankets to these in the cooler months.
- Somewhere to grow plants and vegetables. These can be in pots or in the ground. Use hanging baskets if you’re limited to ground space.
- Somewhere to get close to nature. If you have plants and flowers, insects will come. Provide magnifying glasses and pots for children to look closely at bugs. Dig up the ground to find worms. Hang bird feeders up and leave bird spotter guides near windows with binoculars so you can watch and identify them from indoors.
Even the smallest of spaces can be wise with their choices of equipment. Use walls to place plant pots, easels, pots for equipment like magnifying glasses or pens. A water wall can also be used for rolling balls or cars down, depending on how it is designed.
Large outdoor areas are fortunate to be able to have continuous provision with larger areas for things like a mud kitchen, quiet area and growing section.
Whatever the size of your space, it is how you use it that is important.
Think about the following:
- Current schemas and interests. If children are throwing (indoors and out) provide a range of opportunities for this. Throw bean bags through hoops, throw small balls at targets chalked on the wall, throw medium sized balls into buckets or have a game of catch.
- The time of year. Use the seasons to your advantage. Lots of water play in the summer to keep cool; provide brooms to sweep up fallen autumn leaves; build snowmen; plant tulips and daffodils for activities in the spring.
- The ages and stages of the children. If you are taking out non-moving babies, be sure they are wrapped up and can sit on a warm surface like a thick blanket during the cold weather. If you have lots of 2 year olds who want to run, ensure there is plenty of space for them to do this. Even if this means in your small space that you don’t have any resources out initially, play running games. If you notice that water, sand and mixing is popular, take this outside to experiment and create on a larger scale where spillages are far easier to maintain. Use materials in a different way outside, as well as repeating the indoor activities.
- Can the children make choices on what and how to use equipment?
- Can the children take risks?
- Can the children lead their own learning?
- Are the children out in all weathers? There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad choice of clothing.
- Do the children have ample time outside daily? The NHS recommends children have 3 hours of physical activity each day. This can be inside and outside. Aiming for at least 1 hour of outdoor play per day is a good guideline, although the more the better. Offering free flow play is a great way of maximising outdoor time.
Remember your outside space does not end with your garden. Your setting will be surrounded with some varying types of outdoor environments. Whether you’re in a city with streets to walk and perhaps a small public garden to visit; surrounded by fields or forest; or can drive to a place of interest, there are wider environments ready to be explored. Make use of visits to local places like the beach, woods, parks and gardens as not every child will experience these with their family. These provide extra learning oppotunities that cannot always be provided within a setting. Visit these at various times of the year so seasonal changes can be experienced by the children. For instance, what is the beach like in winter? What different things can you do in the woods in each season? What different creatures/plants can be found in the summer compared to winter?
The list of ideas for outside is endless. Let the children be your guide. Find out if any staff are interested in coordinating outdoor activities. Having someone to inspire the team can be helpful and ensures areas are fully resourced. Ensure the garden is set up in the morning the same way the inside is so it is ready for the children to use once they arrive.
The role of the practitioner is just as important outside. Practitioners must:
- Get involved in children’s play when invited or when required
- Ask open ended questions that begin with ‘what/how/where/why/when’
- Model play
- Scaffold learning
- Give and follow directions given to you by the children
- Allow children to take safe risks
- Be children’s safety net
- Advise children of dangers and how to keep themselves safe
- Provide challenges
- Provide a range of equipment, resources and experiences
- Set up inviting activities daily
- Praise, support and encourage
- Remember it’s a place that covers all areas of development, not just physical
Most all, enjoy being outside with the children. Have fun, increase development and dress appropriately!