A natural progression from a discussion about indoor environments is a discussion about outdoor environments.
There is something special about outdoor environments for children; a special kind of magic happens when children play outside. Research shows us that children play outdoors much less now than their parents did when they were growing up, so access to outdoor play is particularly important for contemporary children. At Flinders, we take outdoor play seriously. Really seriously. All our buildings implement indoor-outdoor play and our philosophy clearly states our intention to blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor spaces.
But why? Why do we commit to playing outdoors for such a long period of time? And further, why do we commit to playing outdoors for such a long period of time in natural environments? Why do we have gardens? Why do we have trees and branches and logs and stumps?
There exists currently a huge gap between research and practice in regards to natural outdoor environments. Drive past many early childhood services and you will see plastic resources, plastic matting, level surfaces and artificial sources of shade. Well-intentioned focusses on safe environments for children sucked the life out of many early childhood settings, leaving us with generic, dull, “safe” settings. What wasn’t predicted by these well-intentioned decision-makers was the long term impact on children’s ability to independently assess risk and hazards. Or the burns children have received from plastic matting as it overheats in summer. Or the potential behavioural issues that can present when children are bored.
Research tells us that children do not flourish when engaged in these kinds of settings. It instead tells us that children are deeply and intrinsically connected with nature. It tells us that children need opportunities to take reasonable risks, and to become increasingly more capable of assessing these risks themselves. Research tells us that children need a relationship with nature in order to take protective actions in the future; that children who have memories of a special place in nature are more likely to live sustainable lives. Research also suggests that children who spend time playing outside, in natural environments, are physically healthier, fitter and stronger; they are better able to focus, and are better able to manage stress.
So the research backs up what we do at Flinders. The National Quality Standard and the Early Years Learning Framework back up what we do at Flinders. But what do we see in practice?
Well, the other day I sat in the garden watching a group of children working together with sticks. At the suggestion of a fellow flinderseducator, the children began constructing a two-dimensional house out of different length sticks. Then another house. Then they began using small stones and sticks as people, acting out a day in the life of the people who lived in those houses.
I watched this play with delight, happily reflecting on how lucky we are to be able to play this way. Then it got better.
“I think I can make this like a real house. Like walls. Standing up” Scarlet says. “Like how?” Violet replies. Scarlet manoeuvres a few sticks around in her hand, held together at the top and spread out at the bottom. “Like this” she says. “Oh! Like a camp fire!” Violet enthuses, “I can get some more sticks for you like those ones” she says. “Can you get me some string?” Scarlet asks me, and I do.
Scarlet and Violet are soon joined by a group of children, all keen to see how Scarlet can make her house like a real house. She tries over and over to tie the string in just such a way that the sticks stand upright, like they do when she holds them in her hands. After several failed attempts, including each assistant attempting to tie the string whilst Scarlet holds the sticks, and vice versa, Scarlet throws her hands in the air and says; “Sticky tape will work! It’s much stronger than string!” Violet races inside and retrieve the sticky tape, ready to try again.
By this stage, the three-dimensional stick structures are the growing, with each assistant now leaving Scarlet and Violet to their task and beginning their own creations.
This play continued for well over an hour. During this hour, no less than eight, and at one point around 12, children played calmly and collaboratively together. I could see the deep level of engagement the children displayed. I could see them working together as a group to achieve a shared goal. I could see them problem solving and thinking creatively about how to create what they envisioned. I could see them extending on their own ideas. I could see them explaining to each other what they were thinking, and working to understand each other. I could see them respecting the natural environment. I could see them working towards achieving every single outcome of the Early Years Learning Framework.
And all this with things they found in the garden.
So why do we play outside? The answer is at simple and deeply complex. On the surface, we play outside because it works. But the reasons why it works are varied and complex, just like the children we work with.