It can be challenging as an ECEC educator to provide interesting experiences for very young children outdoors every day. This is especially so when there are many rules and regulations about what is allowed or not allowed and what is possible with available outdoor space. We are 11 educators from three ECEC services in South Dublin Region. We accepted the invitation to be part of a group that would think, act, and learn together to make the most of outdoor play and learning for babies and toddlers in our settings. Accompanying us are two development officers from South Dublin County Childcare Committee and a researcher from Hibernia College.
The group is called the “ECO-3 Community of Research and Practice. ECO-3 stands for “Embracing Changes Outdoors for Children Under 3”.
How does ECO-3 work?
Over the past 5 months, we have had five Tuesday evening meetings, mainly in the participants’ Early Years settings.
The process began with us talking about the aspects of the outdoor provision that niggle us and that we wanted to change for the better but needed some encouragement.
Figure 1: ECO-3 change model, adapted from Mac Naughton & Hughes (2009)
At each meeting, we recapped what changes we had made and how we and the children had experienced the change, always encouraging each other with our ideas and suggestions. We sometimes looked at videos or photos of outdoor play provision to inspire and provoke new ways of thinking and acting. Another activity was the brainstorming game, alphabet soup. One week we created models of our dream outdoor play space. However, having the time away from children to discuss our experiences with colleagues in other services and our own team has been the most significant factor in creating the change outdoors. It has been really useful to have time to reflect on where we’re at, what we need or would like and what we need help with.
What has changed?
Some of the change that has happened may seem small, but it has been very significant for us both personally, our teams, and of course, the very young children we work with. As a result, we’ve become closer and are leaning on each other for ideas and support.
We are also slowing down. We now have a different view of time outdoors. We are more attentive to what children are doing, where they play, and what they like to do. We are writing down our observations, seeing patterns, and noticing how play changes as children get older.
As well as that, we are thinking more about outdoor play in general and how the organisation of the space affects the play. ECO-3 has given us more confidence to move equipment and material around and try out new ways of being outdoors. We are already seeing the impact on the children and on ourselves of small changes to the outdoor space.
Natural materials and outdoor equipment
We are all bringing more natural materials into our outdoor areas. The children enjoy foraging in the bushes, gathering leaves, twigs, stones and berries. In one of our settings, we have a new mulch area with water trays, pots and pans, and a tyre. The children love to play with the water and mulch and we have noticed that they are becoming less anxious.
Thanks to extra funding for EC0-3 from South Dublin Sports Partnership in one of our settings, we’re getting shade sails and building a pergola with a small wooden house, a climbing frame, and a buddy bench.
ECO-3 has also given some of us the space to name and address our fears about the outdoors. As a result, we are now more daring in taking risks and trying new things. For example, some of us feared bringing children out in the rain.
Now we don’t rush out of the rain anymore. We are also confident in introducing risky play and standing back and have noticed the children’s confidence growing. The favourite activity in one of our settings is “walking the plank”. We placed a long plank of wood on a chair and over to a large hamster wheel. The height of the wood was raised to challenge the children further.
Now we are looking more to community spaces for outdoor play and learning. We will use the green space across the road from the creche to go for walks, collect seasonal items, go on picnics and read stories. We had been blind to these spaces before!
Keeping it going
ECO-3 has given us the skills and confidence to observe children outdoors and enact change and share what has worked and needs improvement. We are very excited about the changes that we have implemented so far.
Now the challenge is to keep it going. We want to share our enthusiasm for playing and learning outdoors, get all our colleagues involved and bring parents onboard.
From the facilitators’ viewpoint, the enthusiasm, commitment to attending the meetings and willingness to get fully involved has been truly inspiring. In addition, watching the changes and evolution in people’s understanding of the importance of quality outdoor play for babies and toddlers was palpable. We hope the participants remain in contact and support each other in evolving their evolution of their outdoor space.
Mac Naughton, G. & Hughes, P. (2009) Doing Action Research in Early Childhood Studies: A Step by Step Guide, Maidenhead: Open University Press McGraw-Hill Education.
Authors: Ciara Donnolly, Nicole Fitzpatrick, Anna Giblin, Chrissandra Lynch, Jackie Mahoney, Geraldine Murray, Gemma O’Neill, Valerie Pilkington with Marianne Casey, Marie Dowdall and Margaret Kernan.
ECO-3 is in a pilot phase. All the learning from the pilot will be taken onboard to document the approach so other ECEC services and County Childcare Committees can benefit from ECO-3.