Playing outside provides opportunities for young children to experience the world with all their senses. Enabling our children to spend time outdoors is very important to us at Naíonra na nÓg. Our outdoor space allows our children to explore and learn in a playful way. We want them to enjoy and master skills while in an outdoor environment. Our outdoor space has evolved over time, based on the needs of our children and our teachers’ desire to provide new opportunities for the children. We are lucky to have a covered outdoor area, which is an extension of two of our classrooms, in which the children mix and move freely in and out. During COVID-19 we built a new covered area to ensure each child could spend as much time as possible outdoors. And given the unpredictable weather in Ireland, it allows for play all year round too.
We are based in an urban area, so we need to make the most of the space we have and are always thinking of ways to maximise our environment to create opportunities for learning.
At the start of each school year, we discuss our indoor and outdoor environments and what we want to change or develop. We assess what we already have, what we want, why we want it and how we are going to make it happen. We feel this is key to successful planning. The child’s voice is at the centre of everything we do at Naíonra na nÓg, so no decision is made without them. We ask for their ideas and input into our garden, and often they have better ideas than we!
We want to encourage adventurous play, so we installed a moving rope ladder, a climbing wall and a swing. Children need to learn how to take risks. For this to happen, children need to be provided with challenges and adventurous play opportunities. Our children love mastering the climbing ladder or climbing to the top of the climbing dome. Children need to be provided with opportunities to try out new ideas. This may involve children falling over or taking time to master new skills, these experiences help to build our children’s confidence. The warm, caring interactions with teachers ensure that children are supported and encouraged to challenge themselves and be reassured when they need comfort.
We purchased different types of large construction materials to allow children to create bigger structures and use their imagination in different ways, be more creative and try out various activities. All children learn best through different hands-on experiences, exploring, experiencing, experimenting and making new discoveries. When children build structures, they need to use reasoning and critical thinking, along with problem-solving. These skills can support children to become independent and successful adults.
We knew that we wanted opportunities for the children to grow plants, flowers, fruit and vegetables so we got a tap installed outdoors. This allowed the children the independence of fetching water to water the flowers daily and helped with outdoor water play as teachers didn’t have to trek in and out with buckets of water. We purchased plants that attract butterflies and birds to the garden. Children learn so many scientific concepts through gardening, such as plant classification, weather and gardening. It also helps develop a curiosity and interest in how things grow. They are learning life skills by cultivating fruit and vegetables, this focus on fruit and vegetables backs up our healthy eating policy.
We planned different areas within the garden, including a small digging area with a little sit-on digger, shovels and buckets. Our children enjoy filling and pouring from the buckets and are learning mathematical concepts such as heavy, light, empty and full.
We painted a road on which the children cycle bikes and push buggies, use scooters and balance bikes giving them opportunities to build strength and coordination and make exercise fun.
As we wanted our garden to be an extension of our classroom, we have a lot of books available. We store these in a box under our “buddy” bench, so we don’t need to bring them in and out daily. Our buddy bench, along with talking about friendships and kindness, helps teach children about empathy and self-awareness and gives them the tools to combat bullying.
We provide open-ended materials e.g., bed sheets, and curtains in various sizes and textures to encourage our children to create dens, tents or whatever they feel like, helping to fuel their imagination and work in partnership with their peers.
A bug hotel and a birdhouse have brought lots of excitement and wonder to our garden and encouraged more wildlife into our outdoor space.
When considering our space, we thought about our outdoor different dimensions, e.g., what can the children do on walls etc rather than just on the ground. We made a climbing wall and added a sensory circle to look aesthetically pleasing while also creating a sensory experience. Climbing plays a key role in developing motor skills and helps hone spatial and directional awareness and vestibular and proprioceptive skills.
We encourage mark making with a blackboard and drawings with chalk on the ground. We also included a small whiteboard on the wall and an easel that the children can paint directly onto.
We were thrilled to install an outdoor communication board this year, with English and Irish words, which allows each of our children to communicate and have their voice heard.
Throughout the year we observe how the children are playing with what they are playing with. We make changes based on their interests and needs, by removing, replacing, or adding to our space. We learn so much about what interests and challenges them just by watching how they play outdoors. All our toys and equipment are adaptable, so they work for all our children.
Research recognises that experiences that children have through quality outdoor play will have a significant influence on the growth of their brain and creates foundations for future development in all areas.
Playing freely outdoors helps children with the development of social skills, spatial awareness, cooperation, communication, and sensory awareness. Outdoor play can also assist children to learn about decision making, developing their ability to share, developing their conceptual ability, the ability to imagine an idea without seeing it in practice, learning about their body and their ability, as well as becoming more independent and address their fears. Who doesn’t love feeling the sun and breeze on their face? We certainly do at Naíonra na nÓg!