I was lucky enough to win access to Kathy Brodie’s Early Years Spring summit video recordings and transcripts at the #playmovelearn conference in Manchester.
I spent most of my childhood outdoors and know it taught me resilience, to be adaptable and to appreciate nature.
I’ve learnt so much from reading the transcripts and below are my main takeaways:
Michael Follet (OPAL)
“Play is the way that we learn everything that can’t be taught – and most things that we know can’t be taught”.
If you are concerned about Health and Safety in the playground, the Health and Safety Executive has a great site called MythBusters, the busters panel look at questions and say “hey guys, be sensible. We really want children to play, we really want them to have challenge… We’re not the crushers of childhood that people think” – Health and Safety is there to support risk taking.
Follet talks about 4 elements: place – playgrounds should provide social opportunities, journey – children should be able to move freely, richness and difference (affordance) and changeability.
‘scale is really, really important. Especially with schools and large settings. One of the things we talk about is the concept of generosity. Don’t put 10 tyres in, put 100 tyres in. Don’t get five bags of sand from the play store, go to the builder’s merchants and get five tonnes or 50 tonnes’.
The play cue is a verbal or physical invitation for the adults to say ‘you can join my world’. It might be to get something that I need – another tyre, I need another paintbrush, I’ve run out of mud. It might be – Come and look at my birthday cake that I made out of leaves. It might be – sit in my car I’ve built. Quite often that invitation is brief. It’s come and look at my thing, come and sit in my den. Now go away. I don’t want you here anymore.
Follett: Jan would probably be able to tell me why they do it. Jan White is very good at it the connection between inner ear development and balance, another name for it that proprioception, vestibular. And I think there is probably something developmental about girls because it’s absolutely universal. Everywhere I go girls are hanging upside down.
So the US Play Coalition is people coming from across the world, mainly from the States. There are people from about 70 countries coming together to talk about the importance of play and about the child’s right to play under the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child. Article 41 says that it’s a Human Right that children should be allowed to play.
‘I am really interested in saying ‘where’s the maths in the children’s play’.
So, for example, if you’ve got children and you’re at a play park and there’s the see saw – that’s a giant weighing scale isn’t it? And there’s nothing more exciting than trying to work out can you as a three-year-old lift your mum or dad?
We’re actually focusing on the sandpit as a micro context for improving the nursery outdoor space, because it’s a big area and we’re actually focusing very specifically on maths in the sandpits. This is partly to demonstrate how there is learning in everything. It’s partly to demonstrate how you can build up the routines, the resources, the learning responsibilities of the adult, the rights of the child and how to reimagine that space so that it is utterly brilliant.
Dr Sue Elliot
So now in Australia and elsewhere in the world we’ve moved towards natural playgrounds, that are not dominated by manufactured equipment but they’re dominated by natural elements. Most significantly that’s usually planting but it can also be elements of soil and sand and water and logs and rocks all sorts of things that can dominate.
We need to provide those risky situations for children – not hazards – but we want risks so that children can learn in those natural play spaces about managing risk, whether that’s balancing on a log or it’s clambering over a boulder or something like that crossing a trickle stream. There are lots of opportunities for children to test themselves out and to see what they’re capable of.
I think also in natural play spaces we often talk about also the provocation for language because in a natural play space, because of that changeability of a natural play space, whether it might be the rain puddle or the autumn leaves or it might be a bug that’s found somewhere. They provide provocations for language more so than if you have just a very sterile type of landscape.
I guess something else I’d add about the natural play spaces that we found through our research with the forest pre-school or Bush kinder in Australia was that in the natural spaces there was a calming or a slowing down of the pace which led to much more sustained conversations between adults and children.
Julie Ann White
We firmly believe that being outside in the winter develops resilience. It helps them to think about ways in which to keep themselves warm, through physical stuff. We have little things to keep them warm, hot water bottles and stuff, hand warmers, feet warmers. Lots of things that just keep pushing them and pushing them and they do – they last outside all day, its great.
We started to unpick it and take it right back to the bottom of those three things and think what is it that we can do for these children? Is it a tactile need? Is it a vestibular, where they need to rock backwards and forwards or up and down, that kind of motion? Proprioception, where they need to be feeling their muscles in their body to send those messages to the brain. Do they need to be climbing, jumping, running, that kind of things. We noticed a massive difference with these children.
We explored all the visual distractions that go on within indoors settings, the lighting, all the displays and the noise that happens – which you don’t get in an outdoor setting. So for children who may be on the autistic spectrum that’s always to be a trigger and they’re always going to be a little bit more stressed. So that’s likely to impact on their behaviour.
It’s a Japanese study that sent people out into the forest with monitors. And what they were able to conclude at the end of the study was that being in woodland spaces, forest spaces or outdoors, reduced cortisol levels by 40 percent. So if we’re reducing cortisol levels, you’re a lot less stressed, a lot more relaxed and things like that. I feel that’s why I feel better when I’m outside, that’s why my staff feel better.
We’ve been looking at the difference between interacting and interfering as well. Sometimes our best moments come from standing back and just observing the children in what they’re doing.
Dr Ruby Scarlet
Currently the creative director of Multiverse – an organization devoted to creating professional development and resourcing for early childhood.
So what are the ways, what’s the stuff, what are the methods, what are the inspirations what are the wacky ideas, what are the outrageous thoughts, what are the things that drive us from within to want to express ourselves creatively? And then what kinds of arts practice enables us to do that?
So for example it might be that you have a story inside of you that’s bursting but you don’t see that story in words. You see that story in images. So then I will go ask her what kind of Arts practice will enable you to express that piece of art inside of you?
You walk outside and suddenly you’ve got a whole universe opens up to you in a whole different way. Children will notice things like notice that mole on your nose! That’s what tells me that they will be able to definitely go into an outdoor space and notice.
So you experience narratives, you experience the way that language works and that imagery is conjured in your head, how you respond and how you feel about something you experience that differently outside under the tree to how you might inside.
So the knock on effect of being able to notice something then turns into another event. And that’s where if educators allow themselves to have that noticing moment, to be completely surrendered to that moment of wonder what they see. What they notice. What’s possible.
I think that if we approach our Arts practice outdoors by those things first because of course you can then turn it into ‘let’s go and get the paints’ and ‘let’s mix the colours’ that we can say – you can do it. So you’re outside and you start to mix what does what do today’s colours look like?
It’s really important that we do recognise the significance of child initiated play, which is when children really demonstrate their own choice and their own interests about what they want to do. So when they go into a play space they actually can have that freedom of choice to show what they want to do and how they want to play with something. They’re not directed by adults.
I think the most significant thing about outdoor play is the fact that you have such a flexible environment. It’s an environment where there are no preplanned outcomes, there’s nothing there that is definite that you have to do in a certain way with that environment.
I think perhaps in an outdoor environment where there is more space, there’s also the space in terms of the physical space but there’s also space in terms of that ability to allow children to really just take some more time to work things out. Whereas I don’t know whether it is the indoor environment that sometimes restricts that or practitioners feel a little bit more pressured to achieve something. Whereas in an outdoor space there is kind of a sense of freedom, as well as the actual freedom, of the children.
“Oh they’re just playing” – they’re not ‘just’ playing. There’s so much going on in such the simplest of situations and the smallest of interactions. There’s so much happening in those but it is just about being able to recognise that, being able to see those relationships that are building and also what’s happening that learning that’s happening within those situations.
The message: follow the child’s lead, don’t have a pre-planned outcome, be flexible
All the setting might need is a mud patch or an area of ground that they can access or even just get a couple of bags of soil in – not compost but soil – and then that’s it, the kids can go for it.
I think the key thing, for enabling outdoor play, would be the outdoor clothing. Because the outdoor clothing is what allows them to go outside when it’s raining, to access any outdoor space or if they’re going off site. Good quality and also if you have a limited budget or you need to think carefully about where your budge is going, then I would say spend the money on the trousers, because that’s the thing that the children wear all the time.
A ball of string is a great resource to have because you can tie sticks together, so stick men, swords. You can tie a little stick on the end of your string – lots of these activities are on the Hub – thread leaves onto it. Create a little needle, then it creates a lovely mobile, leaf mobile. So to go in autumn where you’ve got all the beautiful coloured leaves falling off trees. And you have a little piece of string, metre length string, tie one stick on the end and a little stick on the other end as a needle.
We run a campaign which is Mud campaign so on the 29th of June she is international Mud day and in the run up to the 29th June we put out ideas and different resources to support people getting involved in international Mud day, which has been part of our Mud campaign, getting people involved in Mud kitchens.
Balanced and Barefoot: unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong confident and capable children’ was published in 2016 and it discusses the effects of restricted movements and lack of outdoor playtime on overall sensory and motor development in children.
An example might be listening to the story ‘The three little Pigs’ and then building an actual house out of real bricks sticks and hay bales of hay in the woods. Their own design and then reenacting the story so they’re getting pre-literacy and they’re living and breathing the story they’re moving their bodies they’re engaging their senses. It’s working on higher levels skills – thinking problem solving and then some of the neurological skills and making connections in the brain.
Children’s neurological system is designed to seek out the sensory input it needs when it’s ready for that input. So if they need to spin in circles, then there’s a very good reason for that. They’re really trying to organize their brain. So we see a child spinning and say “don’t do that. You’re going to get dizzy”, we’re becoming the barrier to child development and they’re just trying to make connections in their brains. So we really need to step back and allow them to do some of those things.
Step back, but tune in – to be there and intervene only when you need to. And that kids need a big – almost like a play bubble. And when you step in that bubble, that magic bursts. So really to give them a big space where they have that freedom to feel like they’re on their own.
A tyre can be used maybe 50 different ways by one child and another child might have 50 other different ways. And so when you combine loose parts with other children they start getting all these different ideas and their creativity and their inspiration grows. And that’s how you see some more independent creative play.
During free play I feel to just wait a second. Give yourself – because your instinct right away is to intervene. But unless they are like they’re physically fighting, then get right in there, don’t wait for that one. But if it’s like arguing or having an argument, there’s no need for the adult to step in right away. Just see what happens you know. But if it gets physical obviously or they’re upset get in there.
‘The Early Years is where it happens. If we get it wrong in the Early Years, that foundation is going to be very rocky’.
The Open Air ethos was actually akin to the circumstances we find ourselves now in that children were indoors a lot. They were overprotected slightly, they couldn’t put their coats on.
I always hear the words visits and trips and feel myself grimace slightly because they’re almost lightweight words. To take children out into the community into the world around them, requires a great deal of courage and preparation on the behalf of the practitioner. It also requires trust on the part of the parent to let that practitioner take children out. I think sometimes that gets forgotten.
You’re not only building contacts and learning for the children, you’re also building a sort of hyphae, fungal hyphae, out into the community of people that know your setting. The quality of what you’re trying to do and your interlinking in another way, the children into their community and people also valuing young children, which sadly they don’t always in our society.
This is a privilege that Tina Bruce has given to some of us to train with her to be able to explain Froebel’s philosophy and practice from the ‘Gifts and Occupations’ to his beliefs on nature and working with parents and so on.
Nature plus Nurture plus Play equals Resilience.
The NatureNurture project is an early intervention project. We are working with vulnerable children using play in nature with carefully attuned adult support and so there’s lots and lots and lots of free play and lots and lots of opportunity to play outside. Our main aim really is that we help children to become more resilient.
I am always inspired by a learning cycle that was produced by a neuroscientist and psychologist called Bruce Perry, trauma expert.
So if you imagine somebody being fearful of a child climbing or fearful of them using a certain tool or fearful for them going too near some water. Of course, you have to keep children safe. But if we let our fear get in the way then the child just adopts the adult fear. They don’t really continue their exploration in that healthy learning way.
‘Nature pedagogy it’s massive. It’s about a philosophy around how we engage with the natural world in real and authentic ways to educate and care for children and youth’.
So for me, the best thing we can do is to say all right if I’m a child and a stick is a good thing in forest school then why isn’t a stick a good thing in the outdoor play area and why isn’t a stick a brilliant thing to have inside my classroom? I suppose to give children a real sense of consistency and understanding that pedagogically we believe in what people are now calling loose parts, this work around the play affordance – Gibson and Nicholson have done a lot for us in those two research papers. Taking those elements and really understanding what they mean pedagogically, I think is a real way to help children.
Often we get caught up in having to do documentation for external agencies or for quality assurance or things like that. But actually I think sometimes having both reflective and reflexive practice in your work as an adult allows us just to take a moment and say “Actually my journey is going in a different direction to my colleague but I personally am growing and am developing and I’m changing my ideas or affirming my ideas”.
So what have I seen that I would bring back? Probably those three things to hold onto – relationships, to the enthusiasm that we have and to remember how confident these young children really are engaged with all aspects – but especially within the natural world.
I think at the beginning puddle play is just all about fun. When we’re having fun means that we can do some good learning. It’s all about Frere Laevers Wellbeing idea and I think that underpins a huge amount of what we can do with children around puddles, the mud outdoors and indoors.
I think it’s a really rich place for maths learning. Right back at the beginning you said that I began my professional career as a physics teacher. Maths and science learning for me in the mud kitchen is enormous. It is everywhere in the setting but when you start to look the mud kitchen, it is very easy to identify, it is very easy to see children who are filling containers, part filling containers and then finding they’ve got an empty container once they’ve tipped all of the contents out.
Twitter: @Quackersplay my own one is @Forestbeing
Think about resources combined, so resources aren’t silos – it’s wheely toys today and it’s construction tomorrow and it’s messy play the next day. Combine them, use them in different ways so really really exploit what you already have.
Just to think about making the most of the space you have got. And the other one is getting out and about. What we commonly do is we think about the floor plane. Children are smaller than we are, they feel closer to the ground, so we think about what’s on the ground and not necessarily what’s on the walls around us or even above us.
I would say – loose parts and grab and go kits, I think are really handy. One of the things that I love is playing with objects that weren’t made for play. Scavenging I’m terrible – I can’t pass a skip without dipping in it, just to see what’s in there. I’m best friends with the guys down at my local tip.
Children have a Right – to be outdoors and to have their learning offered to them outdoors as well as indoors. But along the way the other side of the coin is how do you actually make all that potential available?
To me, involvement is more focused on bringing the – importantly – on bringing the parents in, having them contribute to the life of the setting, maybe coming in working in the setting for a period of time or helping to do development days like working bees.
But of course the biggest thing is that you’re actually naming it for what it is – you’re unlocking that ‘learning’ Outdoors. It’s not ‘outdoor play’ it is actually ‘Learning’ outdoors.
Young children learn best through hands on experiential learning.
We are actually dis-abling our young children, this generation of young children by disallowing them this authentic nature immersion time.
I took it upon myself to define what my idea of nature immersion was and it is ‘unstructured free time in nature that results in an intimate personal and deep connection with the natural world’. So this idea of unstructured time in nature is critical to the definition of nature immersion.
I really became concerned that if today’s children weren’t being authentically connected with nature in a way that made them love and respect the natural world that they really wouldn’t care later on as adults whether nature was being destroyed because they wouldn’t have built that bond and early attachment that we as humans are programmed to expect at birth.
I believe that compassion is built experientially and our children have many opportunities throughout their forest day to practice compassion, respect, kindness, spatial awareness not only with each other but also with nature. So we call our program ‘compassion scaffolded’ one. And what that means is that every opportunity we get, we encourage the children to think about ‘the other’, think about their friend, think about the nature find that they’ve just discovered. So they’re coached to have a very very gentle touch.
We really felt strongly that it was very important to front load these lessons in compassion and kindness and respect because to us those are more important lessons to really instil in children under age 6 then learning how to read and write and do simple math.
Forthcoming book: Teaching the Cedarsong Way: lessons from an award winning Forest Kindergarten’.
Dates: Outdoor learning day: May 17th
Outdoor Learning Conference: June 11th
Nursery World Show North: May 11/12th