Jan White Natural Play

Natural Play, Natural Growth, in the Early Years


Leave a comment

Announcing the Landscapes for Early Childhood Network

Digging into what makes a good outdoor environment for young children

The interface between understandings of environments and design processes on the one hand, and understanding of young children and their play and learning on the other, is a very promising arena for exploring and revealing knowledge that might enable us to create really effective outdoor environments for young children to be in. 

However, this is an area that so far has been very little explored, especially in the UK, and in both disciplines the issue of early childhood outdoor environments has been substantially neglected.  It is unusual for ECE training and research to look deeply into outdoor environments, and very rare for landscape students at any level to study environments for young children.  And yet, outdoor environments have recently received large amounts of Government funding for improvement within the English EYFS framework, and in Wales and Scotland there is continuing focus on this area of education.

Landscapes for Early Childhood is a UK-wide network that aims to bring together professionals working in Early Childhood Education (ECE) and Landscape Architecture, and from both academic and practitioner perspectives, experience and knowledge in each field – in order to dig into, explore and discuss the elements that create really good outdoor environments for young children from birth to seven, and for those who work with them.

Founded by Jan White (Early Childhood Consultant specialising in provision for play and learning outdoors) and Helen Woolley (Chartered Landscape Architect and Reader in Landscape Architecture and Society in the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield) in Spring 2011, and supported by PlayGarden, the network has so far met twice: 

 Ÿ         In February 2011 at The  University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England – with input from Helen Woolley, Jan White and Cathy Nutbrown (Professor of Education at The University of Sheffield).

 Ÿ         In June 2011 at Canolfan Tu Fewn Tu Allan (Inside Outside Centre) Colwyn Bay, North Wales – with input from Lisa Williams (Centre Leader), Marie-Christine Schmidt (Landscape Architect for PlayGarden), Cathy Kiss (President of Play Australia, Melbourne) and Sue Elliott (Senior Lecturer in ECE and Author on natural playspaces, Melbourne), and a field visit of the Centre.

 Ÿ         And is holding its next meeting in Carmarthen, Wales on 19th April 2012, where the focus will be on Nature as the Teacher (see Landscapes for Early Childhood page for the programme of the day).

Taking time to think things through...

This meeting is hosted by Eileen Merriman, Senior Lecturer in the School of Early Childhood, University of Wales: Trinity St David and will be held at the Trysordy Resource Centre, with a field visit to where teaching students are introduced to learning outdoors in the Welsh Foundation Phase. 

If you are a Landscape professional and/or academic working anywhere in the UK/Ireland who is seeking to increase understandings of strong and enabling outdoor spaces for young children’s learning and development, or an Early Childhood professional and/or academic with an interest in understanding and developing the quality of effective outdoor environments for young children, and would like to join our network or attend a meeting, please do get in touch with Jan White at jan.white@lineone.net or via this website.

Helen Woolley can be contacted at: h.woolley@sheffield.ac.uk or on 00 44 (0) 114 222 0608

Creating environments that are really good for children

All images (C) Jan White.  Thanks to settings visited in Denmark, facilitated by Inside Out Nature, for enabling us to experience the truly child-led provision and practice as exemplified in these images.


20 Comments

Words Matter – opening up a needed debate?

Poking and pondering...

I remember a conversation with Marjorie Ouvry around 10 years ago, about whether we should be saying Outdoor Play or Outdoor Learning.  We agreed on outdoor play, because of our beliefs that learning happens through children’s own play, when it has meaning to them.  However, I also felt at the time that it was fine to use whichever term helped to create change in the quantity of time and quality of experience children got outside in their early years settings.  If the practitioners, or indeed the local authority staff, needed to think of it as ‘learning’ (being an activity that carried more meaning and motivation for them), then it would be most effective to use that more valued idea.

In the last couple of years though, I’ve noticed increasing use of the term Outdoor Learning and have become uncomfortable about its ascendancy.  Words matter: as words are tools for thinking, the particular words we use in ourheads (self talk) and to communicate with others (think together) influence the way we think – and have an impact on what we then do.  I feel it’s time to open up a debate about the language we are using to think about and develop our practice outdoors.

My proposition is that what we really mean (or should mean in the UK with our traditions for nursery education from the British Nursery School) is Learning Outdoors, not Outdoor Learning.  My reasoning is this:

Firstly, I trained in the 1980’s as a teacher in Science and Outdoor Education.  When you just read the term ‘Outdoor Education’ here, such things as abseiling, creek-walking, canoeing, hiking, sailing etc. probably came to mind – actually that is Outdoor Pursuits.  Outdoor Education should mean ‘education in and through the outdoors’ in its widest sense (education about the outdoors is embedded into all experiences, as well as being focused upon at times).  Outdoor Education tends to mean a particular set of experiences that are indeed deeply meaningful and transformational for the participant, but it does not tend to mean learning in the bigger and wider sense of  ‘in and through’ being outdoors.  I think Outdoor Learning tends to set up a mind-frame, like Outdoor Education, of a set of experiences in the outdoors – just as ‘Forest School’ does (indeed another debate to be had is the almost synonymous use in many people’s heads of Outdoor Learning and Forest Schools, and perhaps this partly explains that muddling!)

Manipulating an idea to think it through

Secondly, in the UK we have a foundational tradition of children being, playing and learning through play in the outdoors (as well as indoors) from our wonderful (and admired at the time by many other countries) Nursery Schools heritage – which seems to be strangely forgotten in the new discourse around Forest Schools.  I know that what I believe in, advocate and work to realise is learning, across the whole child and the whole curriculum (whether emanating from inside the child or from external guidance documents) through capturing and harnessing what being outdoors does for and to the child – not a subset of experiences.  My own life’s experiences in teaching have shown me again and again that children learn well outdoors, whatever the learning experience is.  The learning is usually more relevant, more motivational and deeper when it happens IN the outdoors.  I think this is better described by Learning Outdoors.

Finally, as an example of how words shape thinking and understanding (and possibly jeopardise good progress), take ‘Outdoor Classroom’.  I’m really quite alarmed by the recent explosion in this concept – as being (especially in schools) a shelter big enough to seat the whole class together, so that the teacher can lead a lesson.  This ‘classroom’ is dangerously close to being the box of the indoor classroom placed outside. It may not have physical walls, but I’d suggest that the dynamics, power balance, freedom and learning processes (things people unanimously identify as key features of the special nature of outdoors) change little from teaching and learning indoors!  My feeling is that this is a serious red herring for real progress in children’s learning experiences.  The outdoors IS the classroom.  Its ceiling is the sky, the views, the rain, the sun, the wind and so on and on.  It’s as big as the space the children have access to and can see beyond the boundaries.  And it is a rich and open as nature and the adults have made it.

The wonderful and expansive learning place of outdoors

See how the words we use influence how we think, and how we share our thinking?  So, the Masters programme I’m designing is called ‘Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood’.  Perhaps it should be ‘Being, Playing and Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood’.  If we are going to develop the use of the outdoors as a deep and effective place for children’s being, playing and learning, we need the word-tools to think about and discuss what it needs to be like so as to work best at helping children to thrive and grow. 

What do you think?

Thanks to Robin Hood bilingual outdoor kindergarten in Berlin for the beautiful experience of being outdoors with toddlers, as captured in these images.


7 Comments

Outdoor Play in Winter? Go for it! New article: Making the most of outdoor play through the wonderful season of winter, Early Years Update, Issue 95, Feb 2012 p8-10

Connecting the with real world

With the recent icy conditions across the UK, this article is very timely! Here is an excerpt to tempt you outside – the whole article, full of exciting prompts, is in this month’s Early Years Update

Winter might feel like a difficult time of year to provide enjoyable and effective outdoor play.  In fact, winter in Britain is a truly exciting and intriguing time of year, with many provocations and contexts for enquiry, play and discussion.  The outdoors in winter provides great stimulus for rich, playful learning and children must have plenty of access every day in order to have relevant, hands-on experiences that build deep understandings about their world.  We have a duty not to miss the superb potential for sensory experience, enquiry, discovery, and meaning-making that being outside in winter provides.  Young children who are developing so rapidly and who need to be outside must not be kept indoors, waiting for ‘good’ weather!

Effective provision capitalises upon what is unique and special about the outdoor environment, which is greatly enriched by the cycle of our seasons.  Young children are intensely interested in the world around them, so focusing on making the most of what the outdoors has to offer in each season gives practitioners the ability to provide experiences that are authentic, meaningful and powerful.  Take some time to consider together what is special about the outdoors and being outdoors in winter.  Keep in mind that the children’s perceptions and interests are more important than adult preconceptions.

Over the course of the winter months, as a collaboration between children, parents and all the staff, gather good words related to the experiences, sensations and emotions of winter – perhaps on a ‘winter alphabet wall’ outdoors.   This collection will bring great awareness of just how much winter in the outdoor world holds, and focus attention on what children are really intrigued or inspired by during this wonderful season.

An alphabet for winter

A – adventure, active, action…

B – bare earth, bare trees, branches, birds, blanket, burrow, black, brown, buds, bulbs, beacon…

C – candle, cosy, cave, cold, coats…

D – dark, damp, decorate…

E – evergreen, earth…

F – firelight, frost, fog, flocking, footprints, fallow, freezing/melting…

G – gloves, grey, ground, garlands…

H – home, hibernation, hats, holes…

I   – ice, icicles, igloo…

J – jump, junctions…

K – kick…

L – lights, lantern, lamps…

M – mud, mixing, mud-pies, moon…

N – nesting, night…

O – owl…

P – puddles, pattern…

Q – questions, quiet…

R – rain, roosting…

S – sunset, sparkle, stars, sticks and stones, squelch, sky, snow, snowdrops, storm, surfaces, skeletons, shapes, scarves…

T – torch, texture, tracks…

U – underground, uncovered…

V – velvet, vapour trails…

W – warm, wood, waves, white, wet, waiting, wreath…

X – crossing – junctions, connections…

Y – yawn…

Z – sleep…

Thanks to Sightline Initiative’s fabulous Early Learning in Nature (ELiN) project for this image demonstrating unrestrained enquiry and possibility.


30 Comments

Exciting new Masters (M.A. Education) Programme on Learning Outdoors in the Early Years (birth – five)

Cooking up something wonderful

I’m very excited to anounce my involvement in ground-breaking training and research at Masters level!

Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood: An opportunity to dig deeply into the why, what and how of playing and learning outdoors for young children from birth to five!

Why does being outdoors matter so much for young children? What does really effective and satisfying outdoor play look like?  How can practitioners be supported to provide inspirational learning in the outdoors?  Learning outdoors in early childhood is an exciting and rapidly expanding field both in practice and research.  Drawing from the rich heritage of outdoor play inBritishNursery School pedagogy, the deep significance of spending abundant time in rich outdoor environments is becoming increasingly evidenced and ever more important in the contexts of contemporary western lives.

Designed for professionals working in the early childhood field who have a strong interest in playing and learning outdoors, this module provides an extensive opportunity to investigate the main theories and pedagogies relevant to contemporary educational practice outdoors and introduces the relevant issues and debates, encouraging critical and independent appraisal.  Both content and assignments present opportunities to acquire the theory base and knowledge that will enable participants to develop their practice with greater understanding, awareness and critical insight, and include:

  • Child development and the foundational role of experience outdoors
  • Learning and well-being theories and their application in practice outdoors in early childhood
  • Pioneers and models of early childhood outdoor provision and pedagogy
  • Understandings of space and place through environment and landscape disciplines
  • International perspectives and the provocations they pose for contesting practice in theUK
  • Reflection, evaluation and action research on current provision and practice.

Designed and facilitated by Jan White, and carried out over one year as distance learning with training days at CREC in Birmingham, this new double module will provide a postgraduate certificate carrying 60 credits, and the subjects introduced can be further researched towards an MA Education (Early Years) – it will be possible to do a whole Masters on Being, Playing and Learning Outdoors!

Further information and anticipated start date (likely to be September 2012)will soon be available on the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) website www.crec.co.uk

Thanks to Hind Leys Preschool in Leicestershire for the image from their excellent mud kitchen above.