A good outside bet

7th March 1997 at 00:00
It's tempting to see the world outside the nursery merely as somewhere for children to let off a bit of steam. But while indoor activity is crucial, outdoor play is a key element in the physical development of under-fives.

Cath Arnold and Katey Mairs explain why, in part four of our series on govern ment targets for nursery children

There's no such thing as bad weather in Denmark, only bad clothes. Attitudes to outdoor play in that country are different from those in Britain. Children go to nursery prepared for wet weather. Parents accept that children need fresh air, space and access to the outdoors, and the staff make sure that children are suitably dressed. There is no such thing as the depressing "wet playtime" with which we are so familiar.

Provision is rich. There might be climbing walls, places to light bonfires, wooden prams in which babies sleep, tyres, troughs and shelters, as well as trucks, bikes and wheelbarrows.

Three and four-year-olds need to take risks, risks that involve being trusted by adults, trusting adults and trusting themselves. They need, according to the Russian child psychologist Lev Vygotsky, to be allowed to challenge themselves and to work within a "zone of proximal development" (emotional as well as cognitive). And, according to Professor Ferre Laevers, of Leuven University in Belgium, being "open, receptive, flexible, self-confident, assertive, radiating vitality and a zest for life" all indicate well-being in a child.

While we may not yet feel confident enough to build fires with children, we do need to offer a provision which is, to a large extent, non-standard, open-ended and takes children to the edge of their capabilities. It would be easy to hide behind a cloak of safety, but if we trust children they will not go beyond that "edge".

Unlimited access to outdoor play need not fill adults with fear if the opportunities outside reflect those available indoors. Tina Bruce, the writer and researcher specialising in child development, refers to this as "double provision". Playing outdoors must not be perceived by practitioners simply as a way of letting off steam. Careful recording and assessment of children's "free-flow play", wherever they choose to do it, will result in a high-quality curriculum.

Just as some children will choose to spend a lot of their time outdoors, others will choose to spend most of theirs indoors. For those children, we may need to provide alternative opportunities to climb, jump, run and to experience the exhilaration of speed and a pounding heartbeat.

Valuing all areas of learning equally can result in creative uses of space, for example keeping a corridor clear so children can run or ride vehicles up and down.

As early years workers, we need to look to areas of the curriculum where we may feel least skilled, and, as a result, be limiting the range of possibilities for children. Children can experience their bodies in a spiritual and aesthetic way.

Children "have a natural appetite for movement", says Molly Davies, the freelance consultant and lecturer in early years dance and movement. They need to feel the good touch of a relaxing foot massage and to experience their bodies at rest, as well as the opportunity to interpret their feelings through dance and music.

If we provide a wide range of opportunities and experiences for children, achieve-ments will follow.

As Susan Isaacs, the 1920s early years researcher, wrote: "For he grows and becomes skilful by moving and doing. He learns to run by running; to balance and carry by trying to balance and carry."



Jane, blind from birth, started going to nursery at the age of two. Her cognitive concerns were somewhat different to other children and she challenged the teachers' abilities and skills. How do you explain to a blind child the size of a 12 foot by 12 foot wall? She experienced perman-ence and moveability of objects by crashing in to them on a bike!

She was so persistent and assertive with adults that each day she would spend time by the railings listening to the traffic as it passed over the traffic-calming humps on the main road. She learnt to differentiate sounds, smells and speed. She needed time to stand and "watch" and adults had to learn to trust that she was an effective manager of her capabilities.



John attended nursery for two years and spent more than 50 per cent of his time outdoors. Close observation showed that he, and subsequently his friend, were involved in a complex role-play about a building site. This involved riding vehicles, transporting sand and gravel, digging, propping guttering against a wall, climbing ladders, speaking in deep voices, and a specialist vocabulary. Riding, climbing, running and carrying heavy objects were already features of their play. The extension involved creating opportunities for the children to continue the drama they had created and to refine their skills and physical abilities.

The play was extended by the provision of a site office (briefcases, clipboards, pencils, measuring tapes, a telephone, hard hats, a spirit level, walkie-talkies, maps and a compass), pulleys, sacks, bags and buckets. A visit to a real building site was arranged, as well as to local buildings of historic interest (children can become artists, archaeologists and architects as well as builders).


Equipment that may encourage children to be imaginative, creative, original and innovative includes:

* Crates, Pulleys, Buckets, Diggers

* Planks, Wheelbarrows, Tubes

* Tyres, Sand, Gravel, Tree trunks, Blocks

* Wood shavings, Bricks, String, Rope

* Cardboard boxes, Balls, Paper, Chalk, Brushes

* Guttering, Musical instruments

* Ladders and hoops, in addition to standard climbing equipment, slides and vehicles (co-operative where possible)

Children also need time and space in which to learn. Sometimes adults cut across children's learning and limit time spent on activities chosen by children, for no good reason except to keep to a routine


These "desirable outcomes" focus on children's developing physical control, mobility, awareness of space and manipulative skills in indoor and outdoor environments. They include establishing positive attitudes towards a healthy and active way of life. Children move confidently and imaginatively with increasing control and co-ordination and an awareness of space and others. They use a range of small and large play equipment and balancing and climbing apparatus, with increasing skill. They handle appropriate tools, objects, construction and malleable materials safely and with increasing control.

Cath Arnold and Katey Mairs are acting head of nursery and acting deputy head of centre respectively at the Pen Green Centre for Under-Fives and their Families in Corby, Northants.

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