Saturday, 8 January 2011

Stumbling into embracing outdoor play

I am not known for my love of the outdoors, or indeed anything remotely energetic and am more likely to be found curled up on the sofa with a book or watching TV. However, during school hours I become 'Outdoor Woman'! How you might ask did this happen? Well it all began in 2004 when my principal asked me had I ever heard of Comenius and would I be interested in becoming the co-ordinator for the school. I knew some other nursery colleagues who were involved and knew they raved about it - the chance to travel to other countries and visit schools at no personal expense, what's not to like? So in October 2004 Ian and I found ourselves in Arcola, Northern Italy meeting up with teachers from Italy, Poland and Norway to draw up plans for a project entitled 'The European Child - My World of Play". The 3 year project began in October 2005. During the next 3 years I had the chance to visit nurseries in Arcola, Lodz (Poland) and Eikefjord (Norway). The idea at the start of the project had been to swap ideas on games that young children could play in the playground without the need for expensive toys or resources.
However, one year into the project we moved into a brand new school after years of being in mobile accommodation with cramped outdoor play facilities. Finally I had a purpose built space with cover to allow for outdoor play in all weathers. I was intrigued by the nursery or 'barnehage' in Eikefjord, as they had an outdoor group with the nursery, who spent each day outside no matter what the weather.
Let's face it Norway is not known for sunny, warm weather all year round, so I wondered
how did they do it? I was very fortunate to secure funding, again from the British Council, to take part in a job shadow for 1 week in 2008 in Eikefjord, where I was able to work alongside the outdoor groups teacher. During this week, I had the opportunity to observe how the day was organised, how the children were prepared for being outside all day and more importantly to ask lots of questions! The main thing that I learned that week was how self sufficient the children were - they were totally in charge of their learning experience - they did not rely on an adult to provide resources for them. I came back to school enthused and ready to try something completely different. Luckily the assistant who works with me was as willing as me to get outdoors with the children. We started to go out everyday, regardless of the weather, we had invested in good quality waterproof clothing for children and staff, and had asked all children to bring a pair of wellies to keep in school. So 6 years on how has my teaching experience changed? Well we go outside for the first hour everyday. we have found the children part from parents/carers more easily from outside and are then more ready for settled activities when they do go inside. We, as staff, have more time to spend with the children engaged in meaningful learning outside, as we find the children are busier and much more motivated than when at purely adult led activities. We have learned to step back and allow the children more freedom to choose what they want to do. Most importantly, we now ask "are there 3 good reasons why the children should not do this?" before we stop them trying something new.

Over the past 4 years in our new school the outdoor play area has developed from a pristine space into a well used one. We have created a mud patch, we have painted on a wall, we have 3 willow structures that allow the children to observe seasonal changes as well as providing somewhere to play. 
In good weather we spend the whole day outside, on really cold days we go out for 20 minutes at a time allowing the children to play inside in the warm classroom in between.
We have become known for our outdoor play approach and make sure all parents know that their child will be outside everyday no matter what.
Many, many thanks to my friends Susette and Dag at Eikefjord Barnehage.