Use your outdoor classroom throughout the year to help children grow holistically, writes Daniel Saturley…
When the sun’s shining and trees and flowers are in full bloom, getting children outside and immersed in sensory discovery seems like a no-brainer. But whatever the weather, the outdoors has a lot to offer EYFS practitioners when it comes to continuous provision.
The statutory framework itself encourages us to get outside, stating “children learn and develop well in enabling environments with teaching and support from adults, who respond to their individual interests.”
Firstly, let’s talk about the benefits for physical development when introducing outdoor play. Gross motor skills are high on the list of priorities for early years educators. Getting outside into your outdoor classroom can provide the varied and uninhibited environment children need to fully explore the capabilities of their bodies.
However, if you’re worrying that you need to spend a fortune on new equipment, rest assured that you can develop physical ability at minimal cost by repurposing existing items.
For example, a simple obstacle race can offer the chance to jump, skip, hop, run, climb and balance. Try placing a wooden plank on boxes for a beam, or place rope ladders flat on the grass for an opportunity for children to jump and skip over the rungs.
Leave these items in situ in good weather. They offer a great opportunity for children to enjoy running around in spring and summer.
While physical development is obviously one of the huge advantages of outdoor learning and play, the external environment supports so much more than just that.
If you only open the doors leading to your outside classroom after an activity or to simply let children run around, something needs to change. There’s so much learning to be had outside and maximising your physical space is important.
You can easily and cheaply refine walls, fences, sheds, structures and plants to facilitate purposeful play for every child.
Introducing mathematical language and concepts is something else that you can easily facilitate in your outdoor classroom. Encouraging children to collect items found in nature such as pine cones, acorns and sycamore seeds in autumn and winter is a free and easy way to explore the idea of grouping items and adding and taking away.
Helping to create tiny engineers is also something that the outdoors lends itself to. Try providing large building blocks or repurposed materials such as old crates and sticks. Encourage children to get building.
This can also lead to some important open-ended play, with your young charges firing up their imaginations by creating castles, towers, houses, cars and ships with boxes and blocks. Add a sensory element by providing different types of fabric to use as curtains or sails.
I recently visited a setting where a large focus of the provision was based around outdoor play. The nursery manager explained how they felt their outdoor classroom allowed staff to focus upon the characteristics of effective learning. It also encouraged children to become more independent and ‘have a go’, while learning from their mistakes.
Because of this freedom, which was overseen by responsible adults, children were able to flourish, laugh and learn with and from their peers.
Being in the outdoor classroom allows them to do this while enjoying wonderful things like climbing, building and even drinking hot chocolate in the colder months.
It was really refreshing to see that this nursery gave their youngest learners time and opportunity to explore, climb and be at one with nature – even when it rained!
Unfortunately, this can sometimes be a factor that prevents staff and children from going outside. It really shouldn’t. There is not really an argument for bad weather affecting outdoor use. It’s more about making appropriate clothing choices for the weather.
An outdoor classroom is always available to help children make sense of the world. However, this does depend on the correct attitude from staff and adequate clothing for both adults and children.
Instil this in staff – children should be able to play and explore in all weathers. Imagine the things they’ll learn while out in a heavy downpour – the sounds, the sights, the sensation of the rain on their waterproofs.
This can also lead to important follow-up learning about managing their self-care and a better understanding of how the seasons flow throughout the year.
My visit to this setting demonstrated to me that this manager and their staff really understood their children. They considered their needs, their families and planned to use the outdoor classroom to best meet these needs.
This showed a strong awareness of the statutory framework, which reminds practitioners “to decide what they want children in their setting to learn, and the most effective ways to teach it.”
This setting had done just that, and practitioners routinely worked to “stimulate children’s interests”, another key phrase within the framework.
I shared this with the manager while watching their youngest learners enjoy hot chocolate around a managed fire pit, and congratulated the team on knowing their children well and creating such a strong curriculum which allowed the children to enjoy learning opportunities that could not be replicated indoors.
They understood the need for these children to experience the natural world and appreciate it as it changed throughout the year, using their senses.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a huge outdoor classroom – it doesn’t need to be expansive. Whatever you have will impact positively on children’s communication, language and holistic development – especially if it is planned and purposeful.
This is imperative. There’s a strong push through the statutory framework around communication and language. It emphasises that “the number and quality of the conversations (children) have with adults and peers throughout the day in a language-rich environment is crucial.”
A well-used outdoor classroom lends itself nicely to this. If practitioners are mindful of this, they can enhance it insightfully to help children’s curiosity grow.
As practitioners, we need to plan for and use our ever-changing outdoor classroom on a regular basis. This can support you in meeting the individual needs and interests of children.
Outdoor spaces offer so much – day in and day out. You should be using it to your advantage! It takes commitment and creativity – but that’s exciting! There is nothing more enabling than a dynamic and changing world that can only be appreciated by being outside.
Daniel Saturley is an Early Years Advisory teacher.
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