We’re pleased to welcome Gail Farquhar, manager at Sheephouse Nursery as our guest blogger.
There seems to be more focus than ever on outdoor learning. We all receive the enews bulletins which have the latest go-to outdoor play suggestions on what activities settings should be offering and what the benefits are. Social media feeds are offering a variation on the same thing, complete with lists of equipment and resources, all of which are prerequisites to taking a step outside! It’s more than a little overwhelming and you can understand why it might leave some settings with so much uncertainty that they may never make it out the door!
At Sheephouse, we don’t particularly distinguish between indoor play and outdoor play which may seem a bit odd to some. We take a much more holistic approach and see our garden as an extension of our indoor spaces. Opportunities for play are opportunities regardless of where they happen, and they all stem from our objective of delivering meaningful outcomes for each of our children.
Regardless of whether yoga is done inside on a rug or outside in the rain, children can develop their balance. Children may be experimenting with chalk on the floor or with mud in the garden when they begin to write their name. This approach is something which we’ve honed and embedded in our culture over the past five years. It’s easier said than done, particularly as we’ve come across team members and children who may have had reservations about being outside – something which must be common across many settings. When this happens, we try to promote the adventure and the benefits of being outside – removing perceived barriers and finding simple solutions such as spare wellies, waterproof suits and changes of clothes (for the team too!).
Take Chloe for example, she’s one of our newest practitioners and this is what she had to say about the Sheephouse way of being outside:
“When I first started working at Sheephouse, I wasn’t so keen to get messy and didn’t really like the children getting absolutely soaked or covered in dirt either. I’ve grown and learned that it is okay to get dirty and take risks with the children because they can gain so much from these opportunities, whether it be learning and developing holistically, learning life skills or just having an awesome time enjoying themselves and simply having fun!”
Being a relatively new setting has brought many positives in how we approach outdoor play. Our children, regardless of their age and stage, have been instrumental in informing our physical environment. Our mud kitchen, loose parts area, outdoor LEGO® and water walls, chalk boards, large scales and even our decision to lay some artificial turf in our yoga garden were all put in place to enable a particular outcome for each of our children. For us, every opportunity for play starts with a child and the resulting outcome of the play is an opportunity for that child.
Our team take meaningful observations and use floor books (both inside and outside) to help explore our children’s interests and develop next steps. From this our team create many different play opportunities – all with the outcome in mind. A good example is an opportunity that our team developed around aeroplanes and airports as a direct result of one child’s contagious enthusiasm for all things related to aviation. Inside the children built their own security scanner between one of our doorways yet outside they created a whole security check-in system complete with trays, scanners, security men and luggage. It was the same fantasy play happening both inside and out and the children didn’t distinguish between the spaces. The location made no difference really other than the fact that being outside gave the children more space and more options to build on their play – ultimately benefitting them even more.
We’ve found that involving our families and our community has really helped to develop everyone’s passion for getting outside. Initially we found that some of our families were really concerned about the children getting dirty and taking risks, like tree climbing or using hammers and nails. We believe that communication is key and we are always honest with new families: we go outside a lot, we get dirty, your child will get sand and mud everywhere, but they will wash, learn how assess their own risk and gain vital life skills which will set them up so well!
We’ve learned to reinforce this as we go along and this year we opened the nursery garden to our families and the wider community and invited them to come in and take part in a range of risky, sensory and heuristic activities that we just happened to be able to do outdoors. We offered fire building sessions, yoga and a drumming workshop. We had loose parts play, a construction table with saws, hammers and nails, and a messy sensory play for the smaller children. There was also a mud kitchen fully set up for families to create whatever culinary delight their imagination fancied.
At each station our team talked our visitors through the benefits and how they could replicate it at home – even on a smaller scale. Seeing first-hand how much fun the children were having and actually experiencing some of the fun for themselves, enabled many of the adults to reflect and appreciate that getting dirty or rained on really doesn’t matter. They also realised that risks, given that the children are being enabled to manage them, are a positive.
For settings that are really struggling with getting outside, the best thing to do is keep it simple. You don’t need to go mad and spend a fortune on ‘outdoor specific’ equipment and don’t try and do everything at once. Start by taking some of your inside out or even bringing some of your outside in. Loose parts such as guttering, crates, tyres and treasure basket items such as pebbles and twigs are really easy to come by and it’s relatively simple to continue to add to them and change them. Likewise, get your parents involved by asking them to donate items. This gets them on board and helps you at the same time! Gradually you’ll find that it’s not about being inside or out, it’s about taking part in the opportunity regardless of where it’s situated.