Supporting and enthusing early years students to harness the learning opportunities of the outdoors with our littlest people

Early Childhood Outdoors seeks to support development, delivery and usefulness of qualifications & training in working with young children outdoors.  If we are to achieve our vision of meeting every child’s right to be, play and learn outdoors in education settings, this must include initial qualifications as well as continuing professional development.

So it’s good to know that many universities have been increasing their focus on ensuring that their education students leave with the understanding, values, confidence and competence needed for providing learning experiences outdoors as much as indoors.  And it’s really encouraging to find that some early childhood degree programmes have been integrating this into their work for many years.  With the emphasis on learning outdoors embedded in the Welsh Foundation Phase (for 3-7 yr-olds) since 2008, university early years teams in Wales have had time to learn how to do this well, as Dawn Jones describes here.

Dawn has been lecturing as part of the Early Years team at the University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD) for many years, where helping early childhood education students to become enthusiastic and capable in working outdoors has played a central role in all courses.  She is about to take up a new post as Senior Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, where she fully intends to continue championing both the outdoors and education for sustainability wherever and however she can!

Dawn will be talking about her current PhD research study at our Where Are The Babies? research webinar (hosted by the Froebel Trust, on 20th March) in a presentation called Noticing infants’ intra-action with the more-than-human world.  She will be sharing with participants a beautiful ‘event’ observation from her pilot study, of a child of 14 months in dialogue with grey stones and water.  We’ll also share this observation record in a post after the event – so do watch this space.

This webinar has received a great response, indicating that many share the desire to take action around the issues limiting our youngest children’s opportunities for ample and rich experiences outdoors every day.  Registration is now closed as all places are already filled, but we’ll be following through from the discussions we have on the day via this blog – another reason to keep an eye on this space!

Supporting and enthusing early years students to harness the learning opportunities of the outdoors with our littlest people by Dawn Jones, University of Wolverhapmton

A positive attitude to the outdoors is one of the most important aspects of being an early years lecturer.  To enthuse about the positive benefits of the outdoors and then take your class, which today is a mixture of ages ranging from 18-50 outside, is never an easy feat.  However this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching for me.  For many the outdoors holds no interest and learning is certainly something that does not occur outside.

So it’s my job to undo all of these assumptions about the outdoors and turn all of this negativity on its head – so we start with comments such as the ones listed below:

“It’s dangerous”

“It’s dirty”

“Its cold/wet/icy etc.”

“They only play” – this is by far my favourite!

“Young children cannot/should not be put down on the ground” – another favourite of mine!

As the photo above demonstrates, the above statements are nonsense and this is how the process occurs of opening up their minds to the importance of the outdoor environment as a resource itself, loose parts and the non-human-world.  Through just a humble image. Let me explain.

Firstly we discuss images such as the one above.  We explore their fears and then slowly we unpack these.  We examine what might be happening here and consider links to theory and the learning that is occurring.  We explore and examine risk and challenge – like worries about the Infant getting cold water splashing into his face or falling into the water – and take these and discuss them.  Through examining these fears the student can begin to understand how a culture of associating the outdoors with danger now prevents and denies young children of opportunities that support their innate curiosity and need to experiment – indeed the very skills that children will need to solve the problems that face the society of tomorrow.

Eventually a light bulb moment occurs and they begin to think in a different way.  They begin to see the space and sensory opportunities – the holistic nature of learning through play in an environment that continues to offer differing experiences.  An important aspect for me is when students start to engage with maths and science, realising that ‘boring’ is not a word to be associated with either.

The endless opportunities afforded to young children and infants to practice and test physical skills, and further for students to then examine these, introducing proprioception and vestibular senses.  The importance of knowing our bodies where they end, begin – how to use our bodies without thinking.  Rough terrain, as the ones shown above and below, begin to be seen in a very positive light.  Discussions begin with “this provides the infant with opportunities to practice core muscle development through balance”, also “risk and challenge is provided at an individual level here”, and then I know I have done my job.

Teaching requires us to support our students to experience, examine, engage and problem solve, and this is achieved by enabling them to be actively involved in experiences that support the development of these skills.  Therefore teaching maths, sustainability, play, language and literacy; all naturally can be supported through engagement with the outside environment.

The majority of the maths module occurs outside where students compete various activities such as den building and constructing water transportation devices using loose parts.  Collecting items from nature to support mathematical concepts such as classification – so counting, matching and grouping, shape, size, measurement etc.  Noticing symmetry in nature, patterns and shape in architecture and then discussing how these all support mathematical concept development.  Exploring subitising.  How song, rhyme and story are enhanced through utilising the outdoor environment.  (During the pandemic students have completed outdoor tasks and then shared photos and discussed their experiences).

One of the most powerful experiences for students is to see what has been discussed and examined happening in reality.  So incorporating field trips into modules is an excellent way to support students to make links between theory and practice.  This should be a regular occurrence throughout the duration of the module.

Making links with local nursery provision, nursery, and reception classes is an excellent way to incorporate such experiences.  This could also support joint research projects.  The pictures above and below were taken during our ‘Outdoor Environments’ module.  The students were taken to a local school where we demonstrated to both the staff and the students how the environment and loose parts afford children with deep, experiential learning experiences.

One of the most important messages gained through this active participation with young children was that children do not need lots of ‘stuff’.  That less is more and that the environment needs to be viewed through fresh eyes for the amazing opportunities it offers children.  That through play, learning occurs in its most powerful sense and that it is the role of an effective practitioner to facilitate this type of learning on a daily basis.  Teaching in and alongside the natural environment is a very powerful tool and one that enhances the learning experience for both myself and my students, leading to practitioners who share the same enthusiasm and passion for the outdoors as an instrumental place to support children’s curiosity and learning.

Useful reading:

Perceptions That Early Learning Teachers Have about Outdoor Play and Nature

Beverlie Dietze, Beverlie nad Diane Kashin, LEARNing Landscapes, v12 n1 p91-105 Spr 2019  (Free access)

Exercising Muscles and Minds: Outdoor Play and the Early Years Curriculum by Marjorie Ouvry, Amanda Furtado (2nd edition, 2019 Jessica Kingsley)

Does Theory Translate into Practice? An Observational Study of Current Mathematics Pedagogies in Play-Based Kindergarten

Hanna Wickstrom, Angela Pyle and Christopher DeLuca, Early Childhood Education Journal (2019) 47:287–295.

Messy Maths – A Playful, Outdoors Approach for Early Years by Juliet Robinson (2017, Crown House)

Don’t forget that Exercising Muscles and Minds and Messy Maths are available to the ECO meshwork at 20% off when purchased through our collaboration with Books Education – see here for details of how to order.

All images are (C) Dawn Jones and must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.

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