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Don't fence me in

So what if your outdoor play area isn't big. It can still meet all your early years needs, says Jean Evans.

Outdoor space is a great asset. It gives young children opportunities to work on a larger scale and to explore the natural world around them. You should plan to spend some time outside each day. Ideally, children should also be able to choose whether they spend time indoors or outdoors. If you share your space, draw up a timetable showing when individual groups can use it uninterrupted, and remember to include outdoor activities in your long, medium and short-term planning.

Between the outdoor and indoor spaces you can develop a complete learning environment. To make maximum use of the outdoors, begin by listing the main advantages and disadvantages of your space and decide how to make optimum use of the good points and overcome any difficulties.

Case study Nursery and reception staff in an inner-city primary school used this method to plan appropriate outdoor experiences (see the box for a key to subject abbreviations). Two classes shared access to a small outdoor area, separated from a main school playground by a wooden fence. The play surface was tarmac and there was no fixed equipment.

Advantage: a range of surfaces, which included wooden fencing and doors, stone walls, tarmac and a metal gate Linked activities: supply large sheets of paper and thick crayons to make rubbings (CD), look for patterns (MD), and talk about the similarities and differences (K and U) (CLL). Include letters and numbers chalked or painted on a wall or floor (CLL, MD). Attach signs, such as "Bike park" (CLL), to the gate and fence.

Advantage: a good view of busy street, traffic, shops and buildings Linked activities: conduct traffic surveys (MD), record sounds (CD), discover more about the buildings (K and U), look for words, signs and symbols (CLL).

Advantage: a large tree nearby Linked activities: observe the seasonal changes, discover more about growth (K and U), create observational drawings and paintings (CD).

Advantage: direct access from nursery and safe access through nursery for pupils Linked activities: encourage children to become more independent and decide whether to play indoors or outdoors (PS, ED).

Advantage: good outdoor storage Linked activities: store resources for activities and experiences covering all six areas of learning. Include mark-making equipment, role-play boxes and investigative trays. Add supply bins and brushes so children can keep the area clean and tidy, and store pipes, guttering, large brushes and tubes to extend water play. Organise larger creative materials, such as rolls of wallpaper, decorator's brushes, chunky chalk and thick crayons. Collect tubes, tyres, crates and blankets to build dens.

Disadvantage: small space Solution: organise a timetable so that small groups can access the area at different times.

Disadvantage: no fixed equipment Solution: use available indoor apparatus, such as A-frames and slides, and place safety mats in appropriate places. If apparatus is limited, improvise by creating obstacle courses with tunnels, benches and hoops.

Disadvantage: no sheltered areas Solution: create shelter with pop-up tents or A-frames covered in blankets.

Disadvantage: a lack of green space or garden to explore Solution: fill a small tray with compost and stones to attract small creatures. Supply resources to collect, observe and draw them. Supply small tubs or pots, and plant seeds and bulbs. If necessary, store these on a trolley to wheel indoors. Introduce a portable weather station, including rain gauges and wind streamers. Set up a bird observation table.

Disadvantage: children using equipment with wheels may be hazardous to others Solution: use cones or chalk markings to cordon off designated areas for riding or pushing small apparatus. Mark out areas for quiet activities, such as looking at books.

Jean Evans is a registered nursery inspector, author and in-service training provider

KEY TO SUBJECT AREA ABBREVIATIONS

PSEd - Personal, social and emotional development.

CLL - Communication, language and literacy.

MD - Mathematical development.

K and U - Knowledge and understanding of the world.

PD - Physical development.

CD - Creative development.

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