Babies and toddlers making connections with their world

Nicola Kemp and Jo Josephidou previously drew our attention to the first report from their two-year Froebel Trust funded research project, ‘A life ‘in and with nature?’ An exploration of outdoor provision in baby rooms’, which summarised their search of the research literature (and the lack of it!) and highlighted some key issues arising from this review.  This report, called ‘Where are the babies?’, is available as a downloadable PDF on the Froebel Trust website.

Nicola and Jo have now published ‘Making connections with their world‘, a report from the second phase of their research project in which, with colleague Ian Durrant, they conducted an audit of outdoor provision for under twos within the large and geographically diverse county of Kent.

As so little is known about outdoor provision for the youngest children in settings, their interest was in establishing a baseline. Further research is clearly needed, and provision and practice may well vary across the country, but this study provides a great starting point for finding out how settings are thinking and acting in England, as well as for generating further attention.

We’ll be helping to prompt action on this pressing area of research and practice at our joint Early Childhood Outdoors and Froebel Trust research seminar scheduled for Friday 19th March 2021 at the Showroom Workstation in Sheffield from 1-5pm.  Further details will be available nearer to the time – for now, please save the date and watch this space!

Making Connections with their world: outdoor provision for under-twos in early childhood settings in Kent by Dr. Nicola Kemp, Dr. Ian Durrant (both senior lecturers, Faculty of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University) and Jo Josephidou (lecturer in Early Childhood at the Open University).

Executive summary

This original research funded by the Froebel Trust presents an overview of outdoor provision for babies and toddlers across Kent. Based on an online survey sent to every identified setting in the county with provision for under twos, it offers new insights about how settings make provision for the youngest children to spend time outdoors. We have shown that the sample of respondents is broadly representative of all settings in the county with provision for babies and toddlers both socio-economically and geographically. This means that the findings can be read with a good degree of confidence and make a significant contribution to knowledge and understanding about this important issue.

What types of outdoor area do settings provide for babies and toddlers? The nature and extent of outdoor provision reported by settings varies considerably. At most settings, the outdoor space is shared between babies and toddlers. A small number of settings report a specific commitment to outdoor provision and provide access to diverse outdoor environments. These are not necessarily owned by the setting, which highlights the potential significance of off-site outdoor environments.

What access do babies and toddlers have to the outdoors when in a setting? Most settings report that babies and toddlers in their care go outdoors twice a day or more all year around.

What do settings provide for babies and toddlers to do outdoors?

Physical activity: All settings report that they provide varied resources to support physical activity and recognise the diverse benefits of being physical outdoors for babies and toddlers. Artificial grass is a popular choice of surface to support physical activity such as crawling, walking and running for this age group, as is safety surfacing.

Sensory Engagement: Most settings provide places for babies and toddlers to sit with some highlighting ‘quiet areas’ and resources to support sensory engagement such as herbs and flowers for smelling. Some settings include animal care as part of their provision.

Sleeping Outdoors: Just under half of settings report that babies and toddlers sleep outside at their setting. However, at most settings, babies and toddlers do not routinely sleep outside but they may be left outside if they have fallen asleep in a pushchair or pram whilst on a walk. Outdoor sleeping is only actively encouraged in a minority of settings by providing mats, blankets, cots or blankets.

Eating outdoors: The outdoor environment is used as a place to eat and having a picnic or snack outside is a commonly reported activity. Over 90% of respondents said the children eat outside, although this is mostly in the summertime.

What factors influence outdoor access? The most commonly reported factor influencing access was the weather. Other influences include the children’s preference, daily routines, staffing, the type of outdoor area available, parental support and health and
safety concerns.

How important do settings think being outdoors is for babies and toddlers and why? Almost all respondents agree that spending time outside was very important for both babies and toddlers. Although there is a reported emphasis on physical development, most respondents recognise multiple benefits of time spent outdoors with under twos and they feel it encourages holistic and integrated development.

Conclusions and next steps

Our first report, based on a systematic review of the international research evidence, was framed around the provocative question ‘where are the babies?’ We concluded that the youngest children are often excluded from outdoor environments and we were interested to understand whether this is the case in practice in England.

The settings who responded to this audit represent a cross-section of settings with provision for under-twos in Kent. Whilst there is consensus that spending time outdoors is important for both babies and toddlers, there is considerable variation in the level of resources they use to facilitate this and the priority it is given in practice. Some settings have very little space and few resources whilst others offer access to extensive and varied outdoor environments either directly linked to their sites or within their local community. Other factors such as the support of staff and parents also influence practice.

These findings suggest a more positive picture than expected. Babies and toddlers are being given opportunities to ‘make connections with their world’ through accessing outdoor environments whilst in formal day care. However, from a Froebelian perspective, the lack of appreciation of the importance of ‘being in and with nature’ is a concern.

Although daily access to the outdoors is typically provided all year round, the weather is clearly an important influencing factor. Even for the youngest children, the outdoors is understood as an environment which is important in supporting their physical development and activity. Settings also report they provide a rich and varied sensory environment outdoors to support cognitive development and health and wellbeing. However, the indications are that engagement with nature (e.g. trees, plants, animals) may be more limited.

A surprisingly high number of settings reported that babies and toddlers sleep outside although closer analysis suggests that this may be irregular and unplanned rather than an integrated aspect of practice. The outdoors is understood as an appropriate environment to eat in, particularly during the summer months when snacks and meals may be enjoyed outside.

Although this audit is an important first step in understanding how settings provide for babies and toddlers outdoors, more information is needed. Further research is needed to understand the challenges and opportunities of providing high quality outdoor experiences for the youngest children in practice. This is the focus of the third stage of this research project, which will involve developing case studies of practice from settings within diverse geographical and socio-economic contexts.

All images are © Carol Duffy.  Images must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.

4 thoughts on “Babies and toddlers making connections with their world”

  1. Thank you so much for drawing attention to our report Jan especially in these difficult times for all those who are concerned with young children’s education and care. And what beautiful photographs!

    1. It’s so good to see research and practice attention to this age group in terms of being outdoors. As Carol Duffy’s wonderful photographs illustrate, this is where babies and toddlers can thrive!

  2. This is so interesting. In September 2018 our full-time outdoor setting extended our provision to include babies from 6months old. They do everything outside- eat, sleep, play, personal care and we feel it truly benefts them. Our first cohort of babies are now so resilient and absolutely love rain and mud!
    We would love to get involved in this sort of research project!

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