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Policy Brief: Early Childhood Ireland’s Valuing Outdoor Play conference

Policy Brief: Early Childhood Ireland’s Valuing Outdoor Play conference
Early Childhood Ireland Policy Brief

Last week, Early Childhood Ireland hosted a policy conference discussing outdoor play in Early Years (EY) settings and how outdoor play can be better facilitated by stakeholders in the sector. This conference gathered policymakers and stakeholders from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY), the Department of Education, Tusla, sector organisations and members to discuss how quality outdoor experiences can be delivered for children.

Thought provoking presentations were given the keynote speakers Professor Ellen Sandseter from Queen Maud University in Norway and Doreen Watson, Service Manager at the Care Inspectorate, Scotland. Further insight was provided by Toby Wolfe, Principal Officer at DCEDIY; Grant Landon, Regulatory Practice Development Manager at Tusla’s Early Years Inspectorate, Dr Marie Gibbons, Early Years Specialist at Tusla’s Early Years Inspectorate and Maresa Duignan, Assistant Chief Inspector at the Department of Education. Each of these speakers spoke to the importance of outdoors to children’s play and development, each offering a perspective on how this might be maximised in Ireland by improving and optimising the space in where children play outdoors, the regulation of those spaces, the legislation that begets that regulation, professional practice and inspections in those spaces. Julie Ahern from the Children’s Rights Alliance joined the expert panel which reflected on the day’s discussion, including a presentation and video about Early Childhood Ireland’s research and work with members who are at the vanguard of outdoors provision throughout Ireland.

The importance of Outdoor Play

Outdoor play is recognised as a fundamental right for children and is crucial for children’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Along with this, it provides opportunities for them to develop educational and essential life skills such as problem solving, teamwork, creativity, and independence. Ensuring children’s access to outdoor play and learning experiences is an important responsibility for educators, parents, and policy makers. This includes creating safe and accessible outdoor spaces, promoting outdoor play, and learning, and advocating for policies that support children’s right to play outdoors. Ireland’s First 5 strategy specifically acknowledges the importance of play for children, and that children need the space, time and freedom to engage in self-directed play, and that play is essential, particularly in developing cognitive and social skills and promoting neurological development. However, the same strategy notes that barriers to play can present themselves.

Ireland’s current context

The Childcare Regulations 2016 and Tusla’s Quality and Regulatory Framework outline the requirement that all children in EY settings must have access to an outside area. This access can be in all weather conditions, except where risk assessment does not allow. The outdoors area should have equipment that supports play, movement, exploration and provides exclusive opportunities to the outdoors. However, besides these mentions there was a dearth of regulation and guidance regarding the outdoors. This becomes particularly difficult when considering space requirements, ratios, maximum child numbers, which are all determined purely by the indoor setting.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more interest and focus has been placed on outdoor play and outdoor settings. With this impetus, Tusla developed specific guidance for outdoor play in 2021, with further guidelines due in 2023. The DCEDIY welcomed this move and has committed to undertaking a review of relevant legislation and regulations. This is to ensure that ‘outdoor services’ are recognised and that specific requirements for the outdoors are established.

Next steps

Examples of good practice and evidence from conference guests underlined that children are happy to play in all weather and climates. However, what was made clear that the correct policy and regulatory climate needs to continue to be fostered in Ireland to promote outdoor play and outdoor Early Years services. This could be achieved through a number of different means.

  • Through implementing appropriate regulations for the outdoors and recognising that the outdoors is not simply an extension of the indoors.
  • By developing guidelines and guidance for settings that are based outdoors.
  • By establishing an inspection regime that recognises that children are enjoying/benefitting from the outdoors.
  • By providing information and guidance to parents and families so that they are aware of the outdoors and know what to expect.
  • Delivery of a thorough syllabus and approach to the outdoors so that children’s experiences are maximised by expert professionals in the EY sector.
  • By supporting those working directly with children to engage in training and Continuous Professional Development (CPD) so they can continue to provide this expert guidance and quality practice for children.

In this way, stakeholders can ensure that children are receiving the highest quality provision whether they are indoors or outdoors.

Conclusion

We were delighted to facilitate key international and national stakeholders to come together in a positive way to ensure that children have the best experiences through outdoor play. Early Childhood Ireland will continue to advocate for, and work with members to ensure quality experiences for all children and will monitor developments in this area carefully. We will shortly publish conference proceedings and our position paper. If you would like further information please do not hesitate to contact policy@earlychildhoodireland.ie.

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