One of the key intentions of Early Childhood Outdoors has been to create a strong and resilient meshwork that brings together the life journeys (both past achievements and future aspirations) of the very many people around the UK and Ireland who hold a strong belief in the importance and value of being outdoors for young children, and are active in providing (or supporting those who provide) rich outdoor experiences for all children, so that they can support, nurture and encourage each other.
A particular element of this is to build capacity for amplifying this work by encouraging and supporting consultants and centres to encourage and support providers to create effective, rich and rewarding outdoor experiences for all children. As part of this, we have been gradually developing the idea of ‘Pioneering Centres of Inspiration’:
Early Childhood Outdoors supports settings that are pushing the boundaries of working with the outdoors and encourages them to share their strong outdoor practice, inspiring and energising others. We’ll also help them make contact with, visit and support other pioneering centres around the UK and abroad, so that they can find the nourishment and enrichment that will help them to achieve more of their own aspirations.
In May 2017 we had the great fortune to meet Orlagh and James Doyle and to visit their two wonderfully outdoor oriented centres in Templescoby, Co. Wexford in Ireland, as part of our first international Landscapes for Early Childhood Network study tour in Dublin, hosted by Carol Duffy. Since then, James and Orlagh have been enthusiastic participants in both LEC meetings and ECO annual gatherings. They have also recently become one of the first cohort of ECO Pioneer Centres (more on this in a future blog post).
For this week’s ECO blog post, I am delighted to share an edited version of an article Orlagh published earlier this year in Childlinks magazine (issue 1, 2021) from Barnardos in Ireland, describing how they have responded to the pandemic by increasing their emphasis on being outdoors, in and with nature, even further. Their positive, energetic and determined attitude to focus on children’s wellbeing shines throughout the article, and especially in Orlagh’s concluding comment:
“Optimism and resilience are two of the best attributes to have in Early Years Education. I see so many positive outcomes from what has become our everyday practice as a result of the pandemic.”
This issue of Childlinks e-magazine has the theme of ‘Nature-based Preschools’ and is free – I do recommend downloading a copy as there are many more very interesting articles in it, from Canada and the USA as well as Ireland.
We’ll be planning for the postponed next ECO/LEC study tour in South West Wales when pandemic conditions finally allow… keep an eye on this space!
Outdoor Learning in Carraig Briste & Killegney Early Years by Orlagh Doyle, Owner/Director
Carraig Briste & Killegney Early Years service has been built on a love of nature and outdoor learning pedagogy, with love of the natural world endorsed by pioneers such as Reggio Emelia, Montessori and Frobel at the heart of our ethos. We believe strongly in the benefits of outdoor learning for children’s overall wellbeing. The Covid pandemic has reminded us all of the beneficial effect on our physical and mental wellbeing of being outdoors and our commitment to the vision of children thriving outdoors is stronger than ever. We offer opportunities for children to be outdoors more often and for longer, and they benefit from rich and engaging environments that offer authentic, rewarding and satisfying experiences. We know that nature leaves us feeling revitalized, calm and relaxed, and this is more vital now than ever before.
From my experience in early years education, I have observed that children who have difficulties in a classroom-based environment become highly engaged in the outdoors, appreciating the freedom they have to climb, dig, move and simply explore and discover. Being in an outdoors environment enables children to develop self-regulation skills, which increases their ability to participate in an indoor environment.
We are fortunate to have ready-made natural educational resources on our doorstep that include pinecones, sand, stones and water. Children are always keen to gather, collect, create and use them through real life, active, hands-on experience. The environment provides opportunities for the children to develop and apply skills, knowledge and problem solving that they will require later when they transition to a school environment.
Responding to the Covid pandemic
As a team, we were acutely aware of our responsibility to children who had months without the early years setting and little access to extended family as a result of the pandemic. A lot of the children and families were returning to us who, after the lockdown, had experienced social isolation and we had to be mindful of the potential consequences of this. By having children back to the setting, we could begin to eradicate the social isolation and reconnect children to their familiar routine. We knew that the healing qualities of nature would help children recover from the trauma that many have experienced during the pandemic.
Within days of closing due to lockdown restrictions, we in the management team focused our energy and commitment ondeveloping a reopening plan that would best deliver a Covid-safe environment for everyone. We know that Covid is twenty times less likely to be transmitted outdoors than indoors, so it made perfect sense to adopt outdoor learning as a solution to both reduce the chances of virus transmission and boost care and education for every child. We deliberated on the pros and cons of every aspect of our outdoor provision, considering all angles, reading every bit of government guidance, and taking time to consider the views and needs of both our families and our valued team.
Adapting the Outdoors Environment
We have been fortunate enough to have made several study visits to the UK over the years with Early Childhood Outdoors, a social enterprise seeking to increase the amount and quality of outdoor experience for young children across the UK. Through this experience we developed an appreciation of accessibility and quality design in outdoor provision. The outdoor environments we were planning to adapt needed to suit Covid requirements and comply with the Early Years (Pre-School) Regulations 2016. We wanted to create outdoor provision that supported children throughout the day including mealtimes, sleeping and toileting and that worked with the damp outdoor Irish climate. With a marathon amount of work (early mornings and late nights) in risk assessment, and endless policy development, we reopened with new outdoor shelters, toilets, food storage and alfresco dining, all compliant with Covid 19 and Early Years Regulations.
When they returned, the children immediately picked up where they had left off. The happy days and sounds of children laughing within the setting had returned. It was heartening to witness the children resume their favourite activities of rolling in the grass, chasing butterflies, jumping in puddles and digging in muddy holes. Our bird feeders were filled, rabbit burrows checked and life with their ponies, Highland cows and their much-loved therapy dogs all returned in an instant. The original idea was to train golden retrievers Harvey and Bailey for our children with additional needs. However, over time we have seen the love and connection they make with every child and family; their contribution is enormous within the settings.
Nothing beats watching a child sitting in the wild outdoors immersed in a place of silence and peace; watching out for an interesting earthworm to peep up or chatting to the slow-moving snail – the emotional connection in it all is incredible. Our settings are blessed with beautiful opportunities and we strongly believe that children have a right to high-quality outdoor play where vital learning occurs when they are allowed to immerse themselves and wallow in nature.
The days in the settings are supported by educators who partner and provide rich information, curiosity and unlimited play invitations, with an understanding of the benefits of spending time in nature for children’s holistic well-being. We like children to have that lovely fluid time to sit, chat, and reflect on their experiences as part of our emergent curriculum.
We are often asked about the level of risk involved in children having so much freedom within the environments we provide. We tend to consider the risks as benefits as opposed to drawbacks. When we do this, we remind ourselves that children are capable, competent and independent learners who should be active in their decision making and supported in embracing challenge.
Bringing the Outdoors In
We have been inspired over the years by the Reggio Emilia approach to the indoor environment and educators seize every opportunity to bring elements of nature and natural materials indoors supporting our nature pedagogy in every aspect of the child’s day. This approach advocates for children to learn experientially—through touching, listening, smelling and observing. Providing simple opportunities for the children to bring the outdoor environment in, for example putting wildflowers into a vase of water and placing it on the dinner table, brings so much joy and extends learning. It is lovely to watch how the play changes over the course of the day. I notice today how a discarded carboard box became a home to a dinosaur. It was carefully filled with leaves; grass cuttings and stones and it made the perfect home for this lucky dinosaur. This experiential learning is part of our everyday, filled with imagination, movement and self-motivated play.
Every season brings change in the colours of the garden. These spring weeks bring longer days and our gardens are filled with rejuvenation as children are busy working vegetable plots and filling flower planters bringing new life and hope to all. Children transition easily between outdoors and indoors whatever the weather and sometimes enjoy indoors for morning break, dinner or their daily rest, and this is at their choice. The colours of the settings indoors are subtle and filled with natural aesthetics, indoor plants and rooms are flooded with natural light. This marries well with the opportunities provided outdoors and we recognise the importance for children to have choice in outdoor and indoor experiences.
Optimism and resilience are two of the best attributes to have in Early Years Education. I see so many positive outcomes from what has become our everyday practice as a result of the pandemic. Despite how challenging this last year has been our settings have cause for celebration in all that has been achieved and we have so many aspirations for the year ahead. Carraig Briste & Killegeney environments provide a powerful experience in nature coupled with real life experiences, this blended with educators that partner with children in supporting and extending interests provides incredibly rich and meaningful opportunity where children experience the interrelationship of all the living things nature provides.
All images are (C) Orlagh Doyle and must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.