There are so many times I cower when people perplex at other people who don’t love the outdoors. I immediately think back to the days of leading toddler and pre-school rooms and conveniently needing to set up for lunch (or any other task not under the sun) whenever someone said, ‘outdoor play’. I hated outdoor play. There, I said it.
My Mum and sister who I worked with, where the typical pigs in mud outdoor type but I was the huddler in the corner that could see no joy in being outside. My own experience of outdoor play in school was stood on a square concrete in freezing conditions praying to go back in. But if I trace even further back, it was an entirely different story. I used to play knock-knock, make worm hotels & dens and experience all the usual outdoor joys/mischiefs of childhood. So, it is not something I never possessed; it is something I lost…
I was reminded of this a while back when I watched a keynote about outdoor play and well-being which in itself was very good, but 200 hundred images later of children experiencing every form of outdoor play and my eyeballs were rolling. The children aren’t the obstacle here; it’s the adults who have lost their outdoor groove. So, I ask myself, ‘why do so many/some educators dislike outdoor play?’ And I figure its because for many people, going outdoors loses its sense of fun & wonder in adulthood. I used to work 55-hour weeks as a teacher, and so the majority of my time was either hibernating or catching up on life chores. Going outdoors often meant going out to get something done rather than going out to enjoy the benefits that come with fresh air, vitamin D and interactions with outdoor spaces.
For us to be useful role models in the outdoors, we have to unearth our own early experiences of outdoor play, reflect on our current skills and consider how we can re-connect to the outdoors. This I believe will lead to a more meaningful early years pedagogy. For me, it was through my love of animals. I began to worry about the guinea pigs in nursery getting as cold as I always felt outdoors, and I became invested in ensuring they had cosy bed nests and that all their basic needs were met which got me outdoors daily. And now I have dogs who motivate me to go on all-weather walks which I almost always go from ‘I can’t be bothered’ to coming home and feeling exhilarated.
Another thing I notice with outdoor play is that the benefits are usually most notable after the experience and I think we need to raise this awareness with children by asking them how they feel after play. Secondly, my outdoor play is far away from forests and it is through architecture. Walking through a city to me can be as exciting as playing in a forest. Seeing shapes, styles, history and how people interact with the urban world is as productive a learning experience as any. Yet, whenever I hear about “outdoor play”, I hear only the echoes of Denmark and Forest schools. I am not knocking, but I think we need to acknowledge that the outdoors is more expansive than this.
For example, when I was a child, my most treasured memory was playing ‘knock knock’ with friends which was fine back then because you knew the neighbours and mischief was a positive attribute. Outdoor play needs to extend beyond the forest and venture more frequently into community-based play is what I am getting at.
So much research tells us that the outdoors is good for the mind and soul, but it is at risk of being less effective for children without role modeling and facilitation. What we anecdotally know about our nursery children is that they love to learn from us which means that it is okay to share our interests in the outdoors in consolidation with theirs and more importantly, we don’t all need to be motivated by the same thing. By exploring key people’s interests, key skills and motivations in more depth, I think we could really layer the play trifle and have more authentic outdoor experiences.
1. Complete skills and interests questionnaire with staff to find out what they enjoy/dislike about the outdoors and delegate according to this
2. Regularly 'check-in' with children about their post-outdoor play feelings and share your own 'All that running has given me more energy.'
3. Don't make too many indoor/outdoor specific associations, for example, 'physical play is mostly outdoors' because the distinction can limit opportunities for learning across all types of environments
4. Make friends with the nursery neighbours to encourage a community feel
5. Go beyond Forest School and review your location and amenities ...Urban School, Beach School, City School. This way you can consider how opportunities for learning can be differentiated across the different environments
6. During staff meetings, dedicate sessions to adult outdoor play. So many educators don't get to play which limits their perspectives.