Thursday, 26 May 2011

Why an outside learning environment is so important in the early years

by Kim Streeton, Well Place Day Nursery

The outside learning environment is an extension of our inside learning environment.  Having an 'open door' policy allows children to choose when they access either environment.  Providing an experience rich in learning opportunities in both areas is important for the development of young children.
The outside learning environment is of vital importance to the physical and mental development of young children. Playing outdoors give children the freedom to run, shout, jump, climb, hide, be themselves, express themselves and really let off steam!
The obvious benefit of the outside learning environment is the physical activity children are getting by crawling, running, climbing, shouting, rolling and jumping.  Children experience and enjoy the outside environment have a much higher likelihood of becoming adults who enjoy activities such as jogging, hiking or walking. With excessive use of the TV, games and computers and obesity becoming an ever greater concern, the learning in an outside environment is critical to a child’s healthy physical development.
Playing outside teaches toddlers about their own physical abilities. How fast can I ride a tricycle? How high can I climb? Can I roll down the hill? Lots of fresh air re-charges their batteries, gets their heart pumping faster and lets oxygen surge into their brains. Being out in the fresh air also helps to dissipate infections that are often spread quickly indoors. Physical play should be encouraged by providing climbing equipment, tricycles, scooters, hills and grass where toddlers can run, roll, crawl and lie. It should not be too controlled, and should allow for child initiated activities, as well as adult led activities.
Construction activities outside tend to be toddlers’ favourite, as not only are they fun, but the children control it. Playing with sand and water, wheeled toys, outdoor art and craft, shapes, bricks and beanbags, writing letter sounds in the sand or with chalk on the ground and matching numbered cars to numbered parking bays, using natural materials for mark making like sticks for painting, stones for printing, and grasses, twigs and flowers for collage making all help develop their motor skills and should be encouraged.
Outside activities are also important for social interaction. Although it should always be supervised, there is less adult instruction and involvement when children are playing outside.  They are given more freedom as to who to play with and talk to and how loud they can talk! Activities that encourage the engagement of more than one child help develop good basic social skills like having a picnic, pulling each other in a trailer or carrying a watering can or bucket together.
Outside activities give the child the opportunity for discovery, and to learn about the world. They learn about nature , the seasons, the weather, what flowers smell like, how plants grow, how snow feels, when lambs are born, what noises ducks make and how to make a tricycle go faster. Having a sensory garden and growing herbs and salad vegetables helps develop smell, sight, touch and taste.  When children discover something for themselves in the natural world, it is retained effectively as it was real, meaningful and fun!
Dramatic play should also be encouraged. Playhouses or other structures that allow children to pretend and impose their own meaning, help to expand their imagination. Games with rules such as 'Tag' and 'Simon Says' help children learn about following instructions and are much more fun (and practical) outside!
Providing for the needs of children in the outside learning environment can be challenging. A variety of factors must be considered; the different forms of play, the level of supervision but most importantly, their safety. We need to give children the opportunity to explore the outdoor world but their safety whilst doing so is paramount. Equipment needs regular risk assessments, equipment must be suitable for the age of the child, supervision must be constant although not always invasive and children need to be dressed appropriately with sufficient sun protection.  Of course having a good effective 'safe in the sun' policy, allows parents and practitioners confidence that the children are safe.
Even babies who cannot walk yet should be taken out in their buggies every day and allowed to sit and feel the grass, feel textures of natural materials and experience outdoor sounds, weather and colours. Outdoor play is educational and fun and should form a significant part of each child’s day no matter what the age!

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