Serendipity can be a strange thing! This present series of Scéalta blog posts is about outdoor play. We are looking at the affordances being outdoors can provide for children to be active, to experience adventure and challenge and to explore nature, weather and aspects of STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths). Our current series of Early Childhood Ireland’s podcast is all about STEAM, so those ideas from our great guests are swirling in my brain! Plus, the next series on the podcast is about children’s well-being and of course, emotional well-being is a key part of this.
And then, most joyfully, last week I attended the Roofed by the Sky conference in Cork, the first in-person gathering of early childhood educators I have been at in over two years. The passion, the interest and the involvement of the delegates were wonderful. Technology has served us well over the past two years, but really nothing beats being in the room together, in person, chatting and sharing.
To make this experience even better, the conference theme was outdoor play. Joanna Fortune was the speaker. Joanna’s topic was ‘Outdoor play and how nature fosters the inner psyche’. She referred to the importance of play, especially in the early years. I was especially struck by the fact that play early in life has benefits that carry forward to adolescence and beyond. Outdoor play lays the foundation for physical, social and mental health. This is an aspect of play we might not always be fully aware of.
Joanna spoke about how robust, adventurous outdoor play is vital. It supports the development of resilience, but crucially, Joanna said that resilience doesn’t happen on its own. As early childhood educators we know we need to support children to develop that acceptance, if not ease, with the fact that things go wrong, but as a child, I can manage that. By giving children the opportunity to try new things, we are enabling them to experience that sense that sometimes things work out OK and sometimes things don’t work out. It’s alright as we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again! I like the idea of hard-wiring children towards positive, healthy risk-taking. She said this type of play, which obviously occurs much more outside, is a skill that really enters its own in the teenage years. Experience of running, jumping, tumbling, even squabbling and figuring things out collaboratively are among the skills that can help teenagers make healthier choices as they get older.
I was also struck by Joanna highlighting the importance of the adults in the child’s life enjoying outdoor play themselves. How can we expect children to enjoy and be comfortable in an environment that educators or parents are not comfortable with? Her tip of ‘find something you like to do and do it often’, was a good one I thought. She also suggested following the lead of the child – a favourite mantra of mine!
She had lots of practical simple tips, many of which settings already use, but it’s always good to be reminded of ideas.
When discussing role play, Joanna was very clear that we don’t need costumes. In fact, as we know, costumes can limit play. The child tends to be confined to the character of the costume available. Her suggestion was to have open-ended, loose parts type props, such as scarves, lengths of fabric, and natural resources to encourage children to be imaginative and explore who they would like to be and as Joanna said, so the child can ‘insert themselves into the role.
Transitional activities and games were other interesting concepts. These are strategies that can be used between being outside and coming inside9 if a child or small group of children find it challenging to transition from the freedom and excitement of being outside to the calmer spaces indoors. She mentioned cotton wool ball ‘fights’ followed by a game of picking up the cotton balls with your toes!
So many settings in Ireland have such great outdoor spaces. We know of numerous educators who, well before COVID-19, provided creative, adventurous play spaces for children outdoors. What I liked about this conference was the link made between these opportunities and emotional well-being. And it’s always good to have our theories validated by someone from another field. It’s so good to be back to meeting people!