In Úlla Beag we have always focused on our outdoor environments as creative learning spaces for children. Outdoor environments fully support the immersion of children in play as an active process, regardless of the end product (Bruce, 2001). Being outdoors supports us to implement Aistear and Síolta, as well as using the guidance from Better Start and the goals of First 5.
With 12 years of outdoor play behind us, we have discovered what works well with the children. We focus on facilitating role play and supporting the development of a community in our setting. We do this by following an emergent curriculum focusing on the interests of the child.
Uninterrupted outdoor play-based learning is how children learn optimally and by designing suitable environments we provide opportunities for the development of multi-layered complex levels of play. Children take more risks which leads to a deeper exploration of their ability and their environment. The importance for children to feel a sense of belonging and positive health and wellbeing is an important aspect of our work, more so due to the pandemic. Practitioners recognise that cognitive and emotional development are interwoven for children (Zigler, 2007).
We offer loose part materials which are age-appropriate – sticks, leaves, sand, mud, stones, log walks etc all promote engineering, construction and creative skills for children. Natural loose parts such as these also provide endless opportunities for sensory exploration – through smell, touch, texture, strength, and flexibility. Plastic baskets, trugs and boxes are durable and allow multiple play opportunities.
Often when discussing loose parts, we tend to focus on small objects when loose parts can also be of varying sizes – such as plastic or wooden tracks from trains, plastic cars, containers, and cups of all sizes. As time has gone on through observation of, planning, reflection, and discussion with the children here we have learned together that free play is supported more through supplying loose parts in containers. This promotes a child’s creativity and multiuse of items through experimentation. Involving children in all aspects of decision making minimizes the adults’ interpretation of the child’s interest (Cooke & Kothari,2010)
Giving the child a box of mixed train tracks that are different sizes, different textures and without trains, etc will promote their own imaginative play and the results can be amazing.
Wooden cut-offs of blocks are used for building, and construction as phones or tablets. We have 20 block pieces which were donated by a parent who is a carpenter 5 years ago, all of varying sizes and are used in multiple ways by the children. This is an example of using an emergent interest of the child – building and also including the parent in the support of our curriculum.
When setting up mud kitchens we always use real-life products which are recycled. Kettles, lunch boxes, plant pots, plates, shovels, buckets, and pans: all facilitate free play while also building strength and developing endless maths skills. Calculating how many buckets of mud they need to fill a kettle, or a bigger bucket or a pot all support children’s preferred pattern of learning, or schemes as well as collaborative opportunities.
The use of real-life artefacts also promotes role-play, story making and a culture of a community. Within this community of practice, children have shared experiences, shared goals, value and respect each other’s knowledge and inputs.
Small Scale Gardening
Learning through play offers many opportunities for personal, social and emotional development (PSED) in children (Manning-Morton). Gardening is a holistic interactive activity providing endless opportunities for learning through play. Children engage all their senses while developing patience, fine motor skills development, experimentation, memorisation, problem-solving, responsibility and collaboration. Children learn to co-operate and display social rules within society when given the opportunity to play and socialise with their peers ( (Unicef, 2018).
Children learn about density, weight, permeability, and combination. Gardening supports STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) learning in everyday activities. Composting fruit peels in our wormery is chemistry in action. Peels are broken down and over a number of weeks and months, children watch the peels break down and the separation of water and food materials is observed by the children.
Exploration of seed types, flowers, nuts, vegetables and seed potatoes allows children to begin to learn about botany and sustainability. By monitoring the dryness of the soil when minding their plants, children become meteorologists, beginning to understand the effects of weather on their plants.
On a wider global community level, the children of today are learning how to support sustainability. As a green nature school, our focus is on building sustainable living skills through our sustainable community of play and gardening. Through gardening, children can become responsible consumers and producers. Gardening also allows the children to become decision-makers in daily activities that affect them. Participation not only in the activity but in the design of the content of the gardening plan provides meaningful learning.
As play practitioners, we are continually exploring with children how to make their environments more interactive and meaningful to them. There are a lot of small-scale garden projects appropriate for children. Filling pots with compost and adding seeds or leaving nature to provide the pot with seeds is a fantastic project for children to watch the full life cycle of a plant.
Potatoes can be grown in compost bags, and window boxes are great to add plants and seeds too. We also recycle pencil toppings as mulch to protect the soil. Empty twistable crayons become plant supports, and tea bags and coffee grains feed the plants.
Trugs and recycled tyres are great for use in gardening areas and raised bedded areas. Harvesting apples, nuts, berries, flowers and vegetables that the child has watched grow from a bud or grown from a bulb or seed is hugely rewarding and empowering for a child.
Owner/Manager – Úlla Beag Preschool
Denise works full-time as an Early Years Teacher specialising in creating learning environments where the child’s interests are paramount. She runs Úlla Beag in East Clare and is also currently completing a Masters in Early Childhood Studies through the Portobello Institute and the University of East London. Ulla Beag has been a member service of Early Childhood Ireland for 12 years.