Isn’t it good when one thing leads to another? This is certainly one of the intentions behind Early Childhood Outdoors’ mission of bringing outdoor champions into contact with each other.
Back in August we shared an edited version of an article written by Orlagh Doyle about how practice at her two nurseries in Wexford, Ireland responded to the pandemic by increasing their emphasis on being outdoors, in and with nature, even further. Sharon Skehill got in touch to share the academic article she had recently presented* and published on her settings’ action research experience of working with the outdoors during the pandemic – so of course I’m pleased to be able to share this more widely with the ECO meshwork.
Newtown Kids’ Club Ltd. in Abbeyknockmoy, Co. Galway operates out of two separate settings – the Willows preschool and school-aged childcare facility and the Nursery for the younger children – and is a registered outdoor full day care childcare facility catering for children from 6 months to 13 years.
Sharon says of herself, “I am fortunate to have a job-share post as a lecturer in Mary Immaculate College (MIC), so I can continue to work as a preschool teacher with the children and as a manager of the service to work with the staff team and parents. I am completing my PhD in Education in MIC and lecture in topics including the early years curriculum in the outdoors; curriculum development; inclusion; leadership in the early years, and language development. I am finding my niche at the moment in a gap between practice and academia – and I love the fact that I can bring my practical experience with children into my lecturing, and then bring my research and learning into my practice. It’s a lovely mix really – and despite the awful sadness of Covid – it has brought outdoor education and care to the fore – and children really need this connection with nature don’t they?”
Using action research as a means for reflecting, the team at Newtown Kids’ Club realised how much the outdoors has helped both during the height of restrictions and now in the gradual emergence post restrictions and identified practice changes that they wanted to keep and further develop.
Our nature-based practice literally opened our world, creating a safe haven and renewed community appreciation of the outdoor environment. This environment gave us the physical and the emotional space to nurture the well-being of the children and that of the educators here.
Something that stands out strongly in Sharon’s description is their slowing right down, and the growing awareness of just how important and valuable this has been for children, parents and staff alike. With perfect timing, on Saturday 20th November, Froebel Trust is hosting a free half-day webinar called The Urgency of Slow.
Drawing on the findings of the international research study funded by the Froebel Trust: Slow Knowledge and the Unhurried Child carried out by Professor Alison Clark, the webinar aims to be a catalyst for discussion about the value of slow practices, in keeping with Froebelian principles of ‘the integrity of childhood in its own right’ and the ‘uniqueness of every child’s capacity and potential’ to be recognised and to flourish.
Thanks to Sharon for highlighting the space between practice and research – and I hope you’ll find time to think more about slow pedagogy!
(* at the International Congress of Early Childhood Outdoor Practices)
Unhurried communicative spaces in the early learning and care setting: Nurturing well-being for children and adults in the outdoor environment by Sharon Skehill
As with all momentous incidents in history, there comes a time when one looks back and reflects on the experience, how it impacted society and how it affected different people. We are slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic and while we lament the tragedy and sadness that has been thrust upon us, as pedagogical leaders we are reflecting on our practice and our professional role working with young children. As a nature-based outdoor care and learning facility, our ethos is firmly embedded in environmental awareness and connections with the natural world to support children’s wellbeing and holistic development. However, over the past year and a half, it became a life-line of hope and optimism that we could keep the children safe, happy and oblivious to the worries of the outside world.
Schon (1983) pioneered the role of the reflective practitioner by identifying ways that professionals could become more aware of their knowledge and to learn from practical experiences and incidents in their professional roles. His development of the concepts of ‘reflection-on-action’ and ‘reflection-in-action’ provides guidance to professionals on how to consciously recognise, describe, analyse and evaluate practice with the aim of gaining insights into how to develop and improve. Recognising the precarious role of the educator working with children during the pandemic necessitated a more considered and gentle approach to our reflective practice.
Brookfield (2017) talks about the different lenses with which we might view and understand a situation. As leaders, teachers, parents, colleagues, and friends, we all had different interpretations of the situation we found ourselves in and the perceived lack of control over what was going on in our lives. While government guidance and restrictions took precedence over many aspects of our lives throughout the pandemic, our nature-based practice literally opened our world, creating a safe haven and renewed community appreciation of the outdoor environment. This environment gave us the physical and the emotional space to nurture the well-being of the children and that of the educators here.
First and foremost, reflecting on our professional role, we recognised the emotional space that the outdoor environment creates in practice. Relational pedagogy has been described as that “in-between space” (Ljungblad 2019, p. 6) where trust and respect exist between the adult and the child, thereby nurturing positive relationships where the child can flourish and grow. Developing and maintaining this relationship is central to the child’s sense of security and well-being and in a world dominated by anxiety and uncertainty, children need this closeness with others and oneness with nature.
The slow, relational pedagogy that emerged from the cautious return to childcare, focused on interactions with all of the children, in a respectful and considerate manner, which has set the bar now for relationships within the setting. All transitions were moved to the outdoor space, where areas are designed to facilitate greetings and an easy handover from parent to practitioner. There is no rush on leaving the space, parents can stay and talk and there is a gentle flow to the morning routines. Jarman (2013) advocates for such communication friendly spaces within the learning environment; places where conversations can happen and interactions are nurtured.
Invitations and provocations for play and learning are set out each day in the different areas of the gardens and outdoor shelters, based on the children’s interests as well as the pedagogical knowledge of the staff team. We witness children flourishing in the wonder and awe of the natural environment, where they can see their interests reflected in this space and are coming to know their role as citizens here. Each day brings new discoveries and ponderings, feeding their curiosity and inspiring us to research and enquire to respond to their wondering. Small gatherings of children throughout the gardens enable us to spend time with them in a meaningful way; enjoying their conversations, scaffolding their learning and supporting their interactions.
As a staff team, these communicative spaces, whether in the mud kitchen, sand pit or the Barn, provide a quiet refuge for us too. The closeness of a coffee together when others were required to isolate at home was a sociable privilege where we could assume a normality away from the realities of the outside world. We have eased into this familiar routine now of coming together as colleagues and as friends, creating homely and inviting areas for conversations. The outdoors facilitates these interactions between the staff team, parents and children. There is time and space for talking, for reflecting, for guiding and facilitating. There is no rush, no overcrowding and no loudness. No-one is in the way here.
Louv (2010) argues that we need contact with nature just as we need good nutrition and sleep; that our mental, physical and spiritual health depend on our connections with nature. The sensory environment of the outdoor space creates that mental focus for children and adults. When we immerse ourselves in the elements of the natural world, then this becomes our gaze and we see what the child sees – this focus and wonder creating a cycle of learning and engagement.
So while we navigate our way out of this pandemic, we have a renewed recognition of place and a deeper connection with community – our children, parents and our colleagues.
Brookfield, S. (2017) Becoming a critically reflective teacher, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Jarman, E. (2015) ‘The communication friendly spaces approach’, available at the-cfs-approach-and-targeted-use-of-colour.pdf (elizabethjarman.com) [accessed 20 Aug 2021].
Ljungblad, A.L. (2019) ‘Pedagogical relational teachership (PeRT) – a multi-relational
perspective’, International Journal of Inclusive Education, available at DOI:10.1080/13603116.2019.1581280
Louv, R. (2010) Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, London: Atlantic Books.
Schön, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner, New York, NY: Basic Books.
All images are copyright Newtown Kids’ Club and must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.