Do you find yourself watching travel shows and longing for the pleasure of sinking into that azure sea, or practically eating that scrumptious dish with Jamie Oliver as he tantalisingly raves about its taste? You can almost feel the frustration of sensory deprivation. I feel the same frustration when I try to write about the sensorial wonderland of outdoors. How can words alone truly do justice to the skills, empathy, and deep rooted emotions I’ve witnessed children display in early years settings across the country as they play and explore outdoors? How inadequate words are in expressing how life affirming it is to see a baby being mesmerised by the sensation of water as she splashes it through her fingers; how contagious the unbridled joy of jumping in muddy puddles with pals; how exciting the noisy charge up the grassy hill; how relaxing to lie on soft grass and play cloud spotting with friends and how inspiring, the toddlers epic effort of dragging large planks of wood across the undulating sand in the sandpit.
When we look closely at all of these experiences we see children learning about themselves, others, and the world around them. The power and value of play becomes crystal clear. With time, space and natural materials at their disposal play naturally flourishes and deepens. The sticks and branches become a den, the grasses, seeds, and pebbles become dinner, the mound becomes a mountain, the sand becomes a building site and the water becomes something that changes everything.
We see strong urges in our babies, toddlers and youngsters to get outside. These urges are easily understandable when we remember the freedom and opportunities of our own outdoor play. Outside, with a freedom to ramble around an engaging space they find the extraordinary in the ordinary. The wind is just one example. What fun it is to share a baby’s reactions as they experience wind on their faces. How privileged we are to engage with their sensations. We can do it so naturally with a gasp or a giggle or even by upping the expectation “Here it comes, here it comes are you ready….whooosh”. These simple yet spectacular moments of connection reward us with hoops of laughter and the desire to repeat the experience.
Watching a 9 month old crawling on grass and exploring a daisy for the first time is a humbling experience. No longer dependent on the adult for movement these newly mobile babies literally have the world at their feet. We adults have such a role to play in supporting our babies and toddlers explore this unfolding, fascinating, exciting, confusing and sometimes scary place.
Consider the Oohs and Aahs, and indeed the Yuks, from toddlers when snails have been found. I’ve watched children’s intense investigation and empathy for little creatures, and sometimes I’ve heard the sudden deadly crack of one underfoot as they explored what happens if…
I recall how enthralling it was for a two year old to have a caterpillar crawl up her arm as she braved her fear, and how she smiled with pride in a “zone of proximal development” as her four year old friend told her “See I told you it tickles but it doesn’t hurt”.
The more you think about it from a child’s perspective the more you can appreciate all that the outdoors offers. This is why we need to seriously consider how we provide opportunities to connect children to all that nature has to offer, and all that their play instinct can create. They are dependent on us to afford them time, space and companionship to develop, explore and share their simple yet spectacular outdoor adventures.
So what about your outdoor space? Is it a place where freedom of choice reigns and learning is a playful journey in the company of friends? Is it a place where childhood is lived, play unfurls, friendships are forged, skills are learnt, nature is celebrated, and memories are made? For these are the things that make outdoor play and learning so simply spectacular.