Where are the babies?  Researching children from birth to two’s engagement with the outdoors. 

We were of course very disappointed not to be able to hold the first of our ECO research seminars on 27th March this year.  However, we have two great pieces of news.

Firstly, Nicola and Jo have published the first report from their research project, summarising their search of the research literature (and the lack of it!) and highlighting some key issues that arise from this review.  The report, called Where Are The Babies? is available as a downloadable PDF on the Froebel Trust website.

Secondly, all of the plans we made in collaboration with The Froebel Trust for the seminar will now be realised on Friday 19th March 2021 at the Showroom Workstation in Sheffield from 1-5pm.  We’ll hear from Nicola Kemp (Canterbury Christ Church University) and Jo Josephidou (The Open University) regarding findings from their 2 year Froebel Trust funded project “A life ‘in and with nature?’ An exploration of outdoor provision in baby rooms”; from Dawn Jones (University of Wales Trinity St David) about her PhD studies with toddlers outdoors; and from Carol Duffy (Early Childhood Ireland) on her work supporting providers in Ireland with this age group in the outdoors.  There will also be lots of time for meshworking and discussion, sparking debate into how we might work together on the issues we identify.  Further details will be available nearer to the time – for now, please save the date!

This post for the ECO blog by Nicola Kemp & Jo Josephidou shares their first report’s executive summary, together with reflections on their findings.  The full report is at https://www.froebel.org.uk/resources/froebel-trust-publications/

Not surprisingly, they suggest that further research is needed in relation to outdoor provision for the youngest children in settings, and they hope that this report will initiate further interest in this previously neglected area of practice.  It’s so exciting to see action on this pressing area of research and practice growing!

Where Are the Babies?  By Nicola Kemp (senior lecturer, Faculty of education at Canterbury Christ Church University) and Jo Josephidou (lecturer in Early Childhood at the Open University).

There is a general concern that children are not spending enough time outdoors. The growing number of very young children in the UK and beyond who now spend time in formal day care suggest that it is important to know more about outdoor provision for under twos. This report is based on the first stage of a research project funded by the Froebel Trust, which involved reviewing the international research literature on this topic. We identified five key ideas from this review, summarised below.

Outdoors as under-researched: Published research on the topic of outdoor provision for under twos in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is scarce and our systematic review of international research literature yielded only 21 papers – and there were none from the UK context. Little is known about the access the youngest children have to outdoor environments whilst in formal day care or what their experiences are like.

Outdoors as a space to be physically active: Many of the papers associated the outdoor environment with a space to engage in physical activity; in such a context the physically active child is seen as the ‘ideal’ child. Within the papers that focused on physical activity, we saw an assumption that the outdoor environment was only appropriate for those children who could already walk.

Outdoors as a risky space: The idea that the outdoors is a risky space for babies is revealed in their absence from the research literature. One reason
for this suggested in some papers are practitioner concerns about being able to keep the very youngest children safe outside. This concern about risk is also reflected in the resourcing of the outdoor areas deemed suitable for the younger age group which are characterised by being ‘artificial, ‘safe’ and non- challenging play environments.’

Outdoors as a space full of possibilities: Outdoor provision needs to be both flexible, varied and multifaceted to fully support the holistic nature of young children’s development. Research shows that the nature and extent of the outdoor environment impacts on how young children use it. Natural features appear to be important in encouraging quality opportunities for young children in the outdoors.

Outdoors and the knowledgeable adult: Researchers agree that the role of adults is critical in contributing to positive and effective experiences for babies and toddlers outdoors. There are concerns
that practitioners may engage in more passive behaviours outside which are not supportive of young children’s learning and development. If practitioners feel comfortable outdoors, then they will be able to provide the best experience for children also. Parental perspectives are also important in influencing practice.

As we reflect on the limited research, we conclude that there are two key ways of talking about babies and toddlers being outdoors when attending the ECEC setting. For babies, the predominant way to talk about them is the idea of keeping them safe whereas for toddlers it is more about them being active. By talking about babies and toddlers in this way we are limiting possibilities for them in them in the outdoor environment.

The research literature provides illustrations of how possibilities can be created and different ways of being outdoors can be provided for young children; ways which include their preferences in terms of learning and development. These preferences include sensory engagement, sleeping and movement. We see this in Hall et al.’s 1(2014) observations of babies outdoors and their multi-sensory engagement with nature, with Ulla’s2 (2017) call for sleeping to be included as part of pedagogical practice and international good practice guidelines which highlight the importance of limiting practices which restrict the movement of babies, providing more opportunities for them to move freely both indoors and outdoors.

None of these ways of being outdoors for young children are possible without knowledgeable, informed adults. The review of the literature has highlighted how the attitudes of practitioners to the outdoors is important, for they can at times be an active barrier to young children’s positive engagement, perhaps even reinforcing a view that the outdoors is somehow not as safe as indoors. The inference that the youngest children need to be kept safe from older children when outdoors fails to acknowledge the potential benefits
of younger children being able to watch and engage with older children ‘being’ outdoors.3 In addition, this segregation teaches older children that they are not responsible for the wellbeing of others.

Finally, we consider it would be beneficial to reflect on the nature and extent of outdoor environments provided for the very youngest children. Research suggests that quality frameworks, such as ITERS-R, are limited and potentially limiting.    It may be beneficial to explore alternatives which consider more broadly the characteristics an outdoor environment could provide such as those summarised by Woolley and Lowe:4 enticing, stimulating, challenging, educational and inclusive.

  1. Hall, E., Linnea Howe, S., Roberts, S., Foster Shaffer, L. and Williams, E. 2014. “What can we learn through careful observation of infants and toddlers in nature?” Children, Youth & Environments 24 (2): 192-214.
  2. Ulla, B. 2017. “Reconceptualising sleep: Relational principles inside and outside the pram”. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 18 (4): 400-408.
  3. Rouse, E. 2015. “Mixed-age grouping in early childhood – creating the outdoor learning environment”. Early Child Development and Care 185 (5): 742-751.
  4. Woolley, H. and Lowe, A. 2013. “Exploring the relationship between design approach and play value of outdoor play spaces” Landscape Research 38 (1): 53-74.

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




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