Rain makes play for toddlers – exploring water in its natural habitat!

Early Childhood Outdoors has been collaborating with Siren Films for some time, supporting development of their Early Years Clip Library as a way of making the most of the extensive, high quality observational material on child development they have created over many years.  So it was wonderful to hear the great news that the Clip Library has won the Teach Early Years 5 gold star award for this year’s best CPD resources!

Sharing the mission of working to increase the amount and quality of outdoor experience children from birth to seven have in their daily lives, this is particularly well expressed in their films Babies Outdoors, Toddlers Outdoors and Two Year Olds Outdoors (which together as ‘All About Outdoors’ won the 2011 Nursery World Award for staff resources).

Given the amount of rain we are currently having in the UK, this clip from the library is especially timely for illustrating the richness of possibility available for toddlers through simple, everyday outdoor experiences.

Showing 18 month-old Yasmine absorbed in investigating rainwater, the clip beautifully reveals how being outdoors enables this child to both find out about her world and explore herself in relation to this world.  This critical psychological work goes beyond nurturing a deep relationship with the real natural world: it also allows her to truly inhabit it, and know that she belongs in and with it.


Rain makes play for toddlers – exploring water in its natural habitat! by Jan White (reproduced from the booklet that accompanies the full DVD, 2010)

Water is a wonderfully sensory material, which is intensely fascinating for young children, and the outdoors is the perfect place to engage with it.  Yasmine’s puddle explorations are very movement oriented and her cognitive development is supported by the opportunity to make direct sensory comparisons.  Finding water in its natural place holds much more variety and possibility than the water tray indoors, and toddlers can do the full-bodied, multi-sensory, meaning making that they find most satisfying.  They can experience puddles, rain and running water, fill and move containers, spill and spread water onto surfaces and mix water with other materials such as sand, grass and soil.

Yasmine revels in being outdoors.  It gives her the space and freedom she needs to follow her deep drives for movement of herself and of other things.  It also inspires her with all the right kind of irresistible provocations and invitations – she finds so much that is of interest and that matches her internal motivations.  Every day is different and brings new stimuli, but she also has a familiar, stable environment where she can expect to return to previous enquiries and pleasures again and again – and she can also confidently expect to have lots of access to this laboratory, every single day.

When the outdoor space is just an expanse of tarmac, practitioners must set out resources each day and can feel they should provide something new or different every day.  This can be quite unsettling for young children – just think how it feels when you drive into a city you have never been to before, or what it is like when the supermarket has rearranged its shelves!  When the richness of the environment comes mostly from the landscape, weather and natural world, as in this nursery, children find what they need from an environment that they can come to know well.  This provides part of the safe base that allows their exploratory drive to flourish.

Toddlers are interested in exploring things to get to know what they are like, and, very importantly, they start asking ‘what can I do with them?’ and ‘what can I make them do?’  Being able to make objects do things gives the child a strong sense of control and power, developing feelings of competency.  This sense of agency is incredibly important for emotional health and social success, and lays a foundation for later behaviour regulation, a desire to participate and dispositions for learning.  In an environment where the resources are open-ended, they behave flexibly according to what the child wants to do with them – they have no fixed or required purpose and can respond to the child.

Yasmine’s great concentration and perseverance (she is just 18 months old) come from the high level of well-being she experiences in this place, with adults she knows are looking out for her and available whenever she needs them, and the long periods of undisturbed time she has to focus on what actually matters to her, when she wants to.  These levels of wellbeing and involvement are the indicators of high quality experience that results in deep-level learning (Lavers 2005).

Yasmine clearly thrives on being outside.  Her need for space and opportunity to move, and the freedom to move things around, may well mean that she finds being indoors difficult – and her relationship with adults might be a lot more comfortable outdoors.  The adults supporting this child show great understanding of what matters to her and what drives her play.  She does not need their direct interaction – indeed often it would be an intrusion – but she knows they are present and attuned to her, and that they will be available whenever she needs them.

For successful outdoor play, adults must observe individual children closely and habitually, working hard to understand what is really going on at a deep level for the child.  They will protect the child’s initiative and concentration and enable her to explore more of the same, without being in a hurry to find next steps until the child is ready.  When we look this closely, we realise just how much is happening in everything the child is doing.  And our belief and trust that the toddler is a driven and competent learner is forced to deepen.

To celebrate their Teach Early Years award, Siren Films are now making their 30 day free trial (with no bank details required) a permanent feature of the Clip Library.  Do take a good look around!

Watch Menna Godfrey’s interview with Kathy Brodie where she describes the depth of experience that a simple puddle can provide.

For lots of ways to make the most of water in outdoor play see Playing and Learning Outdoors.  (Don’t forget that you can get this book at 20% off and post free using the process described in our previous blog).

Photographs are (C) Vanessa Gilliam, Carol Duffy, Jan White, Liz Edwards and Menna Godfrey as marked, and must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors. 

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