My name is Denise Sheridan and I set up Úlla Beag in 2010 as an inclusive green school. Our approach to curriculum is ‘Play based learning delivered through Aistear’. I wanted to have an outdoor play environment, similar to what I grew up in, for my own children as well as children in the locality and there was no other green school outdoor setting available.
We received our Síolta validation in June 2018 after a 3-year programme of reflection and development. By adapting a child centred learning approach, we promote a creative learning environment providing equal opportunities for all children. We place high value on nutritional learning, running our own school garden with the children and outdoor play experiences. Aistear for us is ever evolving, allowing us to follow the interests of the child through this emergent curriculum. Children’s interests are paramount, and they influence our long term, short term and day to day planning which they are included in.
I am sitting outside this morning in the middle of our garden /mud kitchen/ fairy garden/ “coffee dock” – whatever the flavour of the day is for the children and often it is all of those at once. Observing my little group of 11 children this morning I am searching for the words that can truly bring across the importance of including a natural outdoor environment for children’s play. Our setting is based around and in nature. We aim to get out for about 2 hours every day and up to 3.5 hours on drier days. Our indoor area is small but has a huge window to allow us look out if we cannot get out so we can watch snow, hail, sleet when we are not outside.
Based on 1 acre of land we have a varied environment – the mud garden, fairy garden, planting area, campfire area, log walk the favourite for the kids are all at the entrance of the school. We also have a more structured playground area on grass with swings; slides; climbing frames – sometimes the children will just want to swing or slide or kick a ball around or run. To the back of the school, we have a school garden and a willow and apple orchard path that extends around from the back to the front of the school. This year we put up our first polytunnel with the children and a second one will be up by June. Gardening is such a rewarding experience with children. We sow flowers in tyres; fill every pot we can with seeds; scatter; sow spuds in bags, whatever we can do. We also harvest nuts, apples, vegetables, raspberries, strawberries and flowers and their seeds with the children, and extend the learning by sending seeds and potted plants home.
Our focus as a green school is on caring -not only caring for each other, but also caring for our environment, learning about biodiversity, being mindful and present in the gardens outside, watching and taking part in growing for ourselves, recycling, waste management, water conservation, energy management, transport management. This year we are working on our 6th green flag with an Taisce focusing on Global Litter and Waste management.
So, what does a day in an Aistear run emergent play service look like?
Well, this morning sitting in the middle of the group, listening to the birds, feeling the air all around us, I am in the middle of an entire community. A group of boys have set up a mud coffee dock – they have lined up old plastic beakers ready to go on top of an outdoor tool bench. A solo drummer is drumming a large plastic drum walking around the little groups and watching what everyone else is doing before he settles on digging with two friends.
Four girls have decided to become ‘bin men.’ I did ask ‘Are you ‘bin women’ and was told “No, only men do this!” – how interesting and observant of them!! Their rubbish truck is a garden trolley filled with old kettles, toaster, plastic beakers, sticks, stone and pieces of wood block cuttings.
A few of them show an interest in what I am doing in the middle of them – but only fleetingly. One asked was I drawing a picture …but did not wait for a response. Another little gardener is checking the worms in the wormery and which plants need watering. The depth and richness of role play, so important for language and social skills is amazing outdoors -with no restrictions, no boundaries on how they play. They gather at a makeshift campsite for break and “roast” marshmallows. Suddenly the coffee dock has turned into a mini disco and all go to investigate.
A little Robin chirps along to some of the children who are singing here as they play outside Sometimes the birds are so loud we just sit or stand close our eyes and see what we can recognise- robins, swallows, coal tits, blue tits.
The pandemic brought challenges for us with the starting and stopping of school, but it also brought some delights. Due to the quietness on the roads around us a red squirrel mum and baby appeared. 2 peregrine falcons are nesting in a neighbouring field and we have on occasion a visit from the ‘dinosaur’ – a local Heron. A duck family moved in behind us to nest and very early some mornings you can see the duck sitting on our roof observing all in front of them. No two days are the same.
To truly observe children at play they must be given the opportunity for free play outdoors, I believe. You can observe all of a child’s schemas through digging, gardening, mud kitchen play, role play, swinging, running. I also firmly believe the only place to remove our internal bias on how children should play is to get outdoors with them. They will completely involve you in their play – you are on their level, in their zone. You are invited into their world and it is an amazing place to spend a few hours with them. By adopting Aistear, which is a framework that encourages an emergent play curriculum, we have been able to fully include the children in our long and short term planning, in the design and continual redesign of our outdoor and indoor environments. Aistear in our outdoor setting has allowed us to participate, learn with and from these children, play and observe children in their element and we can all breathe, create, collaborate and have fun together.