In 2009, I opened Corrig Kids Playschool, a huge one-acre facility, which I have developed over the course of the subsequent years. When COVID-19 hit on the 12th March, and over the following months and with emerging guidelines, I took time to consider how I could best serve the needs of my staff, pupils and their families. I decided the best course of action was to open a ‘Summer Camp’ for the month of July. This ‘experiment’ allowed me and my staff a safe space to learn and adapt new measures and practices for re-opening in September. I am hoping over the course of this article you can learn from the best practice I have reflected on because of this experience. As a huge advocate of outdoor play, we at Corrig Kids and our parents were thrilled with the prospect of engaging with the ‘new norm’ at our outdoor summer camp. Reconnecting with our learners outdoors is the best decision, not only for the obvious and well-documented mental health and well-being benefits but also because the virus is 19 times less likely to be transmitted outdoors (Wild childcare: Going Back to Nature, Irish Examiner 25.06.20).
In preparation and to accommodate enhanced safety measures, we developed and improved our sheltered areas to allow parents enter our learning environment via our outdoor space. This helped parents and children to transition to our ‘new norm’ with ease. It meant that parents could access the environment, which further reassured families in the initial post lockdown stage. We de-cluttered the sheltered areas. Making a minimalist environment meant there was less chance of the virus passing via surfaces and drove a shift to utilising the natural environment and imagination from toys and the indoors. We have a small equipment shed, so if a child expressed an interest in indoor play, we would just get whatever we needed and set it up outside.
We only used our indoor area for toilets. This allowed us as a staff to focus primarily on the children and curriculum rather than cleaning and infection control. I gave every child an outdoor suit, so they came dressed every day for the outdoors with their own wellies. Children had more time to play and enjoy our facilities. Families came to the door in the right mindset. We allowed plenty of time for changing and dressing, and increased levels of infection control. Apart from the proven educational benefits, this seemingly small change led to parents citing elevated mood and sleep in their children. Over time this led to a calmer and happier environment in the playschool as children interacted increasingly harmoniously together. I kept my ratios low as I was initially concerned about how I would implement the ‘new norm’ with so many variables. This was a sound decision and one I will continue to practice. I also invited the children and families already registered and enrolled at Corrig Kids for September to accustom parents and pupils to the new environment, routines and current staff.
As a pre-requisite to opening, we developed a detailed set of COVID-19 policies and practices. This covered daily routines around cleaning, communication prior to opening, training for staff as well as communication and procedures in case of possible infection. We subsequently contacted all our parents to discuss any concerns around contact and outlined the new measures implemented. In cases where anxiety was high, we invited parents to Corrig Kids for a one-on-one tour of our environment where we could talk visitors through their specific concerns and discuss our enhanced measures and curriculum offer. We created a cleaning hub where we hosed down all outdoor toys and disinfected them daily. To ensure our outdoor curriculum was ready we adapted our environment to meet each child’s interests allowing some children slower time frames to feel relaxed before taking up an activity. We developed a buddy system where pupils with high anxiety were teamed with pupils with low anxiety. This allowed everyone a play mate which in turned fostered greater fellowship and unison. Pupils learn from each other and that then builds co-operation and a better sense of group identity and concord (NCCA, 2009).
Finally, we broadened our risk rich environment. By developing this element of our curriculum, we were in turn able to broaden and nurture children’s autonomy and confidence. For example, by allowing one child the space to jump from a ledge onto a moving swing we found that other children, even those with high levels of anxiety, wanted to participate in this fun. This provided a dramatic antidote for any of the negative feeling children were harbouring and created a much healthier learning environment much sooner for us. Sometimes we all need a push, and now more than ever it is time to push ourselves forward. Our new norm has to incorporate the outdoors. I for one will be leaving the indoors for the great outdoors forever more.
In summation, we:
- Communicated in advance with all stakeholders.
- Developed practical and easily implemented policies and routines in line with legislation.
- Provided one-on-one tours, where neccessary.
- Provided ‘orientation’ days or in our case a ‘Summer Camp’.
- Decluttered our environment.
- Moved exclusively outside.
- Developed a strategic buddying system, based on children’s need.
- Enhanced our risk-taking curriculum.