– By Chloe Keegan
Regular listeners to Early Childhood Ireland’s podcast will have heard an recent episode, with Chloe Keegan. In this episode she spoke about her site visits to member settings around Ireland. She describes some of the ways in which members provide for children to have exciting and challenging opportunities to play outdoors, even in smaller spaces. In this blog, Chloe shares photos taken during these visits that relate to the examples given in the episode. She also provides links to research and Early Childhood Ireland resources so do check them out.
Right, let’s get straight into it!
The first thing to consider when thinking about outdoors and our relationship with nature is how we view the outdoor environment. We can be creative about the structures we provide so they provide more experiences for children rather than replicating what they already have indoors. It may come from a place where we are familiar with designing indoor spaces and not so confident when it comes to the outdoors. But that’s okay. It’s about being comfortable with seeing the outdoor environment as a space in itself, with its own unique and wonderful learning experiences that are completely different to the indoor environment. One space is not ‘better than the other’. It is about embracing the strengths of one environment that the other may not be able to cater for. For example, an indoor environment may have rules such as ‘No running, no climbing, no swinging on the chair’. The indoor environment is often not designed for rapid movement. That’s why having space outdoors is so vital, and why it differs from the indoors. The need for children to move still exists even if they are spending most of their day indoors. The outdoor space is perfect for running and climbing, even in a small environment. Movement can occur anywhere, so it’s important to rethink our outdoor design, regardless of size, and how it can cater for more movement for children, especially when their movement may be restricted indoors.
More movement and adventurous play in small outdoor spaces
Nursery Times, Limerick City, Co. Limerick
This service is located in the centre of Limerick. However, their urban location does not stop them from creating opportunities for movement or connecting with the aspects of nature.
For the majority of my visit, this little girl used this small sitting spinner that tilts and rotates to enjoy movement in quite a small space. They can’t fit swings, or slides or climbing frames, but so what? This setting showed that regardless of whatever size your space is, you work with what you have. And this little girl did not falter once, regardless of how dizzy she got. She was just having too much fun!
Naíonra na nÓg, Limerick
Staying with Limerick for a minute, this setting is situated in a housing estate where there could be excuses made for having very little space for movement. However, I only saw creative ways in which they maximized the opportunities available to them. In this setting, the walls are used so climbing can occur. The climbing wall is placed at a level where children can’t reach the top of the wall, but it provides challenge, excitement and dare I say, risk. Not only is the design simple and fun for children, but it is cost effective to build too. These plastic rock-climbing pieces are only a few euro to buy online. The fact they covered the climbing board with artificial grass also adds a natural element to the structure showing that even simple nods to nature can really have the most impact. More on artificial elements later.
Ballycotton Montessori, Co. Cork
Can we just take a second to admire the amazing gymnastics demonstrated by this child? And so confident in her movements too. This shows us another example of how movement can be supported in smaller outdoor spaces. Their environment has lots of empty space which allows for children to run without crashing into tables or chairs set out. As well as that, this small and simple climbing frame was swarmed by up to 5 children who knew exactly what they were doing. The educator was at ease knowing the children were confident in their climbing and this resulted in a very relaxed atmosphere. The outdoor environment was designed within safe boundaries without stifling opportunities for challenge and risk. In doing so, the environment was trusted to keep children safe, and the children were trusted in their abilities to assess their movement relating to the structures they used. All in all, a very stimulating outdoor environment proving you don’t need lots of ‘stuff’ to provide quality outdoor practice – you just need to know that when it comes to outdoors, all many children want to do is run, climb and spin.
Naíonra na nÓg, Co. Limerick
I was interested in the choice of this setting not to have mats under the equipment constantly. These were only used when children were beginning to learn how to use the equipment. As I explained in the podcast, soft mats actually hindered the children’s movement either by increasing their chance of tripping or not getting enough momentum in their feet when pushing for more movement. The design of the risky play area used the existing roof beams. In this setting I saw educators who were confident in their pedagogical choices. I witnessed a real-life risk versus benefit analysis take place where many would question: Is this safe? When I was watching the children, I saw a little boy who was too short to reach the climbing ladder. He got a chair himself to use, proving that the service’s pedagogical choices in their outdoor risk design are absolutely perfect for their space and the children who use it. A great example of choosing rich learning experiences for children over wrapping them in cotton wool.
Kilmessan Village Montessori, Co. Meath
Although they had lots of outdoor space, they incorporated a recycled climbing bridge given to them from an old primary school. The structure is small, compact and would suit a setting with limited outdoor space. When the children showed me how to use it, it proved how much challenge, movement and intense concentration is required to succeed in getting to the other side. This was a great example of collaborating with your community. You never know what someone is trying to get rid of and it might be something like this that has a valuable place in your outdoor environment.
Newtown Kids Club: The Willows and Nursery, Co. Galway
In another example of community links the owner of this setting came across this boat dumped at the side of the road. She got it towed to the service, had it treated and cleaned for children to use and it’s a very welcome addition to their outdoor space. The children spend hours creating imaginary games relating to pirates and treasure, but also use it for downtime and hiding. I learned here that what other people deem as rubbish can become someone else’s treasure trove. And wow did this piece of treasure shine with learning and fun.
Work with nature – not against it
Not only does this setting benefit from the resources their locality brings, but what nature brings them too. You might recall my example about a drainage issue becoming a featured stream? Well, here it is. As I discussed in the podcast, this stream became a focal point for children’s exploration. So rather than sweeping away puddles and filling up rainwater areas, embrace them. It’s much more fun and meaningful.
I discussed in the podcast how artificial grass is a resource some settings feel there is no point in having. It’s fake and probably wouldn’t last long anyway, right? Wrong. Turns out, artificial is better than nothing according to research conducted by Sarah Blaschke and colleagues https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27956590/ In Naíonra na nÓg, they have artificial grass in their otherwise concrete space and so far it has lasted them 7 years and is still in impressive condition. Having a range of terrain in your outdoor space should take priority. Putting effort into your outdoor space is vital and so we should work with developing it as much as we do in presenting a well-structured indoor environment. This includes the ground they play on. Children need different textures as well as different levels of ground from slopes to mounds. Wherever possible, put them in your space, even if it’s just a little bit.
Forget bringing the indoors out – bring the outdoors in
In the podcast, I discussed research that found it is better to have artificial plants in spaces than have none at all. Below are some images I took to show how easy it is to include even small elements of nature and the value these features bring to children’s environments.
The concluding point here is that when it comes to your outdoor space, let’s worry less about what we don’t have or what we can’t do and focus on what we do have and what we can do. Because you really can connect with nature anywhere you go. And that’s the beauty of it.
Additional links to research and resources discussed within the podcast:
- “A Retrospective Study Of The Prevalence And Type Of Injuries Sustained While Playing Outdoors.” (Armstrong et al., 2023). Presented by poster at IPA Glasgow 2023. Link to abstracts: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/6267fdb1c8f4f22ac1b99be3/t/6463f2c0816e0a4558d433ae/1684271816776/IPA+Glasgow+2023+-+Book+of+Abstracts+-+230516.pdf
- National Office of Clinical Audit, Major Trauma Audit Paediatric Report 2014 – 2019 https://www.noca.ie/documents/major-trauma-audit-paediatric-report-2014-2019
Early Childhood Ireland Shop resource (member discount available):
- ‘Grounded: How Connection with Nature can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing’ by Ruth Allen. This is a practical guide that will help you in creating your connection with nature even when nature may not be seen so often: “Reflecting on nature’s unknowable and mysterious qualities, Grounded explores how we can therapeutically benefit from a deeper connection with nature, finding within it balance, stillness, solitude, resilience, contentment, activity, fearlessness – and our own wild voice. https://www.earlychildhoodireland.ie/product/grounded-how-connection-with-nature-can-improve-our-mental-and-physical-wellbeing/
Early Childhood Ireland’s online Learning Hub:
- Please keep an eye on Early Childhood Ireland’s Learning Hub in the Pedagogy Space section for future outdoor related content including some bite-sized learning to be created from our upcoming Nature Pedagogy programme https://www.earlychildhoodireland.ie/learning-hub/