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Outdoor play: It’s not just about playing outdoors

Back in 2017, we moved house, and with it came the challenges of a wild new outdoor space, far removed from our neat and tidy rectangular lawn and patio that we’d been used to. Think crazy paving, rockery, a very old moss-covered pergola and flower beds that only grow in the summer months, leaving huge bare muddy flower beds for the rest of the year!

For that first winter I was really embarrassed of our outdoor areas, especially seeing all the beautifully neat settings other minders were posting in forums. I had it in my head that we were going to dig it all up, plant tons of shrubs and completely modernise the whole thing with raised beds, perhaps even changing the lawn to fake grass.

Roll on two years though, and I’m so glad we didn’t! As the children became acquainted with our new setting, I quickly realised the learning opportunities my new ‘ugly’ garden offered. We weren’t just going outside to play every day, we were going outside to explore!

After falling back in love with nature, and reaping the benefits in my everyday practice, I thought I would share a bit of why I feel so passionately about helping children to reconnect with their outside world on a simple level, and how we can apply this to our everyday practice.

The fear of dirt – wash away the stress with some simple prep

Venturing out from our lovely warm, clean indoor spaces into the cold, grubby, mulchy outdoors can often seem daunting. The thought of returning with soaking wet, muddy children can seem like too much extra stress on our already busy day. Many children now also seem wary of dirt, as our way of everyday living becomes ever cleaner and more sterile.

However, it’s totally possible to change this mindset with the right gear! By providing all-in-one hardwearing splash suits, waterproof trousers and jackets means we are always ready for an adventure, no matter the weather! I have a strong outdoor play policy and ask parents to send children in clothes that they don’t mind getting dirty.

From a learning and engagement perspective, being completely waterproof from top to bottom, or wearing old clothes in dry weather, helps the children to get down on the ground and up close with their natural environment. It’s fascinating to see them sliding, crawling and exploring in their natural ‘indoor’ play positions, rather than having to bend over awkwardly from standing to look at things on the ground. You’ll find their levels of engagement and interests soar if they can play comfortably.

Also, we must remember that natural dirt is a good thing. Letting the children get dirty, and then teaching them how to clean themselves up properly afterwards, supports their independence and hygiene routines. Washing your hands is no fun if there’s nothing to wash off!

Knowledge is power - David Attenborough, eat your heart out!

Not all of us are nature aficionados with the knowledge of David Attenborough, and that’s ok. I only have basic understanding, but spend a lot of time reading other blogs from forest schools and other early years settings with an emphasis on really brilliant outdoor play.

Reading up and understanding nature a little better means that we can support our children’s learning more effectively. Helping them to understand how and why things happen extends their learning and offers them a richer experience; think cultural capital!

For example; we know bees make honey, but why do they make it? Where do they make it? Can we make our own hive by junk modelling?

Nature play can support every single area of learning and development, and the great thing is, the seasons do the planning for us. All we have to do, is turn up and extend what is already there. It’s all about taking a quiet minute, and really noticing what is happening around us; the subtle changes to trees, plants and flowers, the weather conditions and what is going on at ground level, which is a really great skill to teach our children too, especially if they haven’t had much access to nature play at home. Getting down on the ground with them and helping them to really look and explore brings so many more opportunities for learning.

For example; watching a line of ants going about their work intrigues children for a few minutes or so, and we can follow this up with a brilliant team game working together to pass food (foam tennis balls) to each other with our ‘mandibles’. Using our ants as ‘teachers’ we have helped the children to practice team work, turn taking and have supported our communication and language and physical development, as well as understanding the world.

We can also bring technology into the mix. Because we aren’t necessarily as knowledgeable as Chris Packham, we can use our tablets or computers to look up and answer any questions the children might have about things they have noticed or found outside. How fast does a snail move? Let’s look it up!

That one simple question has helped our children to understand that information can be retrieved from computers and we have talked about speed, distance and number, supporting our mathematics.

It really is that simple. Children are naturally inquisitive and as we all know, full of questions! By letting them lead their learning in this way, means we keep our planning to a minimum and their engagement to a maximum.

If it can be done indoors, it can be done outdoors

We’ve all been there. We’ve set something up for the children to do inside which has taken us forever, and the children have played with it for two minutes. The playroom looks like a bomb has hit it, and we often wonder, what was the point?

Studies have found that engagement and interest is far greater outdoors, and so I have found that I have more success with my activities and invitations to play, if I offer them in the garden. I got fed up of having duplicate resources for indoors and out, and so I decided to only provide very basic toys outdoors; mostly pots, bowls and utensils in the mud kitchen, and have all my indoor toys in moveable baskets that can be transferred easily outside.

This has had such a positive response from the children, and is so easy to clear up and move if the weather changes. They are also far happier and more relaxed, and play together more positively. It’s fascinating that when you take the walls away, their mind set completely changes.

As radical as it is that I have barely any real toys in the garden, I have realised that my children would rather choose natural resources found in the garden rather than ones provided indoors to aid their play. Just last week, rather than using the wooden play food, they opted for fallen crab apples which were bruised and battered (NB. a brilliant opportunity to talk about decay!), sticks, dried bay leaves from the tree and dead lavender that I hadn’t yet cut back, to make ‘apple pies’. For them, foraging for what they needed was far more rewarding than just getting it from the box.

Noticing surroundings

Finally, our role modelling plays the biggest part in helping our children to connect with nature play. On a really awful wet school run, I often shift focus by using positive language such as; ‘Isn’t the rain fantastic! The trees and plants will be having a big drink today after the sun has dried them out.’

Children will always take their lead from us, and if we can embrace the positives with gusto, so will they. Our natural world gives us so many opportunities for rich conversations and a wealth of new vocabulary.

We often find ourselves pointing out the rarer more exciting details, such as ‘Look! A squirrel!’ but if we take the time to point out the little things, our children begin to notice them too. ‘Wow, I’ve just seen something really brilliant! Can you see that tiny spider over there on that rose bush, he’s spinning a miniscule web, I wonder how long that will take it to finish? What do you think?’ Wondering at our brilliant world helps little minds to expand in so many ways and to think critically.

We mustn’t forget our younger children, also. Putting a baby down to sit on soft grass helps them to explore texture and is a simple natural sensory experience. Letting them lie under a tree in the shade helps them to notice the movement of light through the branches, which later on will support their creative thinking.

Fall back in love with our natural world

There’s so much more I could write about the benefits of natural play…the first draft of this blog was 4000 words (!), but all in all, it offers our children exciting and tangible opportunities for learning, whilst supporting their mental health and wellbeing.

Nature has the ability to calm and soothe our children, to help them to play together more successfully, to engage with their activities on a deeper level and offers them a sense of wonderment and joy that manmade resources just can’t match. It’s about playing exploring, noticing and understanding nature in a tactile way from a child’s perspective.

It’s up to us to notice our surroundings and to model this with our little ones, to bring them back to a more traditional style of play, out in the fresh air with natural loose parts, away from technology. By supporting our children to connect and think critically, we are helping them to foster a love and fascination of their outside world, which should last them a lifetime.

About the author

Kayte (Katherine) Cooling-Smith (Kayte’s House)
I have been a registered childminder since June 2016. I completed my CACHE HBCA Award with PACEY back in 2015, and was graded Outstanding at my first Ofsted inspection in May 2018. I had no prior experience working with children before training, and have relished the challenge of learning everything from scratch with the most brilliant hands-on training from Kathryn. I find my role as a childminder completely fulfilling, and a real privilege, and am so glad Kathryn made me take the big leap into changing the path of my career!

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