When I came to write this blog, I faltered; worried I could not find the words to describe the magic that we see each, and every day in our small unassuming outdoor area. We don’t have a lot of space, firmly sandwiched in between a supermarket, a busy road and the neighbouring houses. But somehow, we have created a space that exceeds its boundaries, a space owned by children, and a space that is now at the very heart of all our practice.
For many years, the outdoor area was for us ‘additional’ space, one we would use like punctuation marks in the middle of our day, learning happened inside, and outside?… well outside was where we brought the children to burn off energy, to run around for a time, to go on the trikes, before returning inside. There was a clear division, and although we tried hard to keep the balance right, the outdoor area always came in second.
For us, the changes came slowly. We didn’t wake up one morning and decide to completely change everything, the changes happened gradually and organically, and we’re hugely driven by the children themselves. The sudden arrival of Covid definitely accelerated the process as we, like many others sought to create safer and healthier spaces for children and educators. The addition of a covered outdoor area paved the way to keep a link between indoors and outdoors and made it work ‘better’ for the adults, but it was truly the children who led the change, embracing the outdoors. All we had to do was open the door.
When it comes to outdoor resources, truly less is more. Natural materials such as sand, gravel, mud, access to running water, and raised beds for digging (and finding snails) are the basic ingredients. When you add basic equipment such as wheelbarrows, buckets, shovels, guttering, tuff-tables, bowls, funnels, and sieves, the possibilities become endless. Benches outside become a focal point for lunch outside, yes, even on cold days, and they also become a wonderful platform to climb on, stand on and jump off. We had a whole group of adventurous risk-takers this year, and the platforms grew higher and higher as they honed their skills as the months passed.
The most important ingredient though is the children’s own freedom to use the space, how they want, when they want and with whatever they want. Reflecting on the past two years, I can see now that the children themselves have taken ownership over the outdoor space, from the secret garden hidden behind, where they can imagine and create their own magical worlds, to the sandpit which becomes a muddy pond after the rain falls, to the spaces that link inside and outside. As I write this, listening to the laughter and conversations outside my office window, I know that this will always be the way we do things now, the pendulum has swung, and we are very happy to keep it there.
Bio: Lee Herlihy is the proprietor and manager of Horizons Montessori School in Bishopstown, Co. Cork. She has worked as a Montessori directress for 20 years and her school has been delivering quality Montessori experiences to children aged three to five years. In addition to her Montessori qualification, Lee successfully completed her honours degree in Early Childhood Education and Care with the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her research on Children’s Friendship Formation in ECCE settings was so well received that she was subsequently invited back to NUI Galway to present it to their graduate programme.
Lee has been a voluntary administrator /moderator of Ireland’s largest online community of practice, Montessori & Early Childhood Professionals Ireland (MECPI) on Facebook, since its inception 12 years ago. In addition to the administrative aspect, Lee has mentored and advised members of the group on their professional practice – in particular, mapping the Montessori ethos and curriculum to Aistear. Lee delivered a master class on this subject at Early Childhood Ireland’s annual conference in 2017 and also spoke on this topic at the Montessori Europe Congress in Dublin in October 2019 with Early Childhood Ireland’s Máire Corbett.