Points for Practice Outlined by the Universal Design Guidelines
With so many guidelines and regulations being written and reviewed frequently, it can be difficult for educators to absorb all of the valuable information that is published and apply it to their own specific situations. At times, it can seem like there are lots of new publications being launched together. Sometimes when this happens certain documents may seem to be overshadowed. As the Outdoor and Nature Specialist here at Early Childhood Ireland, I wanted to write this piece to remind educators what the Universal Design Guidelines for Early Learning and Care (UDG) outlines in terms of the outdoor environment design and to generate thinking points for educators to consider when designing their outdoor environments and it’s a relationship with the indoor environment.
The UDG does not give a specific space requirement for outdoor environments. However, it does support and promotes the National Children’s Nurseries Association’s (2002) recommendation that outdoor space should aim for a measurement of 9 m2 per child. It is important to note that having a space requirement per child may not always mean that quality outdoor play is guaranteed for children. For example, there are some services I have observed that have very minimal outdoor space, relying on timetables to ensure all children experience the outdoors at least once a day, and there are services I have seen with vast amounts of land that are used very little. The quality of outdoor practice remains with how the space is utilised and adapted to suit children’s interests and so it is important to look at what space is available in your service first and what is possible in that space, rather than wishing you had something bigger. It is not the size of space that leads to quality outdoor play and learning, but any space that encourages children’s exploration, big and small.
Private Spaces for Children
The UDG outlines how the outdoor environment should include spaces where “children can be alone.” (p.16). There is a saturation of adult surveillance on children during their childhood and so the outdoor environment should be designed to support children who just want some ‘me-time’ without any support from adults. I have had the privilege of engaging with educators who demonstrated in their practice that, not only do they trust children’s ability to decide if they want to be alone or if they want to engage with peers, but they trust the design of the outdoor environment to keep children safe and secure, allowing for a sense of calmness and ease throughout the setting. In an environment that is designed to encourage privacy for children as well as areas for individual and peer play, children become more in tune with their own body’s emotional and physical needs without relying on the instruction of an adult. A quality outdoor environment supports ‘me-time’ opportunities for children on children’s terms and in this transformative space, adults learn to trust that sometimes, children just want to be left alone and that is okay. We should not fear children’s need to be alone. We all deserve time to recharge alone when we choose to and our environments, including environments that children engage with daily, should support this need to be alone without adult engagement.
Indoor Design Impacts Outdoor Access
The UDG provides great examples of what the ideal service design indoors should look like, and it is important to see how the indoor design of the service plays a major role in how children navigate access to the outdoors. In the above example, the UDG shows how, ideally, having all the rooms along the edge of the building ensures clear access to children’s own outdoor space as well as sections that are linked to encourage mixed age groups to play. It can be frustrating when your building has already been built in the way that it is and that the indoor design is out of your control now. However, I would look at this UDG point more so as an opportunity for reflection on how the indoor environment may be impacting on children’s access outdoors and what we as a sector can do with this knowledge for the sector’s future structural developments. Consider your own indoor space and its relationship with the outdoors, are they very separate, can they flow, and are there any rearrangements that can be made to improve a more natural relationship between your indoor and outdoor spaces? Whether your outdoor environment has an easy or difficult connection with the indoors, it is always important to be conscious and mindful of the relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces and how that might be empowering or disempowering the role of the outdoors in a child’s life and thus how this can impact on children’s access and relationship with nature.
The UDG recommends that boundaries dividing the indoor and outdoor spaces and the outdoor and external premises should not be built-up, concrete walls. They need to be designed in a way that the service is secure, but that connections can be made between the service and the rest of the community. For example, the UDG recommends that railings or screens are more inclusive because it provides children with views of their local community. It also encourages the use of natural elements that can be implemented alongside railings, such as planting shrubs, trees and climbing plants to embed children’s relationship with nature that a concrete wall would not provide.
Extend your Window Space
The UDG promotes how children should be able to look at their outdoor environment while indoors at all times. Consider the positioning of the windows in your service. Maybe they are not accessible to children, for example, they may be too high for children to look out of. The UDG’s image above shows a service incorporating window seats that children can use to help them look outside. This design concept above makes a large statement – That it values children’s need to interact with the outside even when inside. The design of the building is not an excuse to suppress children’s need to interact with their world and we must ensure that in our building designs, we welcome nature, we do not suppress or hide from it. If views of the outside are inaccessible to children, then incorporating structures to encourage access should be put in place.
For me, the key takeaway is to be open to new ways of looking at our buildings and how these impact on our relationship with nature. Buildings exist to keep us safe and secure, but nature has its place in our lives too, a place that stimulates calmness, and a sense of ease and encourages us to tune in with our bodies. We must be aware of the limits we have when it comes to our buildings, we cannot be expected to completely redo all of the early years buildings to incorporate everything the UDG recommends. However, by being aware of different concepts that the UDG promote, we can reconsider how our buildings influence our relationship with nature and how this knowledge can be used to ensure children’s connection with nature is maintained and strengthened.
The images within this blog are screenshots from the Universal Design Guidelines for Early Learning and Care settings, published in 2019 by DCEDIY, as part of the AIM suite of supports. The UDG was developed by a consortium made up of the Centre of Excellence for Universal Design at the National Disability Authority, Early Childhood Ireland, Trinity Haus, Mary Immaculate College and Nathan Somers Design and are available here.