Light and space feed young minds

13th May 2005 at 01:00
We've had some really good weather recently. What a shame that so many of our youngest children are unable to play outside in the early spring sunshine, looking for frogspawn and enjoying the natural environment. It's the little ones in some of our full day-care nurseries who I am thinking about. The ones who stay for 50-plus hours per week, every week except Christmas.

I spend much of my time supporting staff in full day-care. Most of these settings are as you would expect: bright, airy places with lots of opportunities to play outside. Some, however, are not. They care for children in small upstairs rooms, lit by artificial light with few opportunities to venture outdoors. Many staff in these nurseries are concerned. The constraints of the buildings in which they are based mean they are unable to provide the conditions that they know young children need.

Can it really be considered appropriate to keep babies and young children in an upstairs room with only a few tiny roof lights? Where the minimal floor space is often further reduced by steeply sloping ceilings that prevent children from moving freely lest they bang their heads?

Is it acceptable for these same children to be allowed outside into a small, outdoor play space for very limited periods (often around 20 to 30 minutes), morning and afternoon, all supposing the weather is suitable? Remember, this is not a school day; these children start arriving at around 7.30am and may stay until 6.30pm, without the benefit of long school holidays.

Personally, I am appalled. But I do sometimes wonder if it is just me.

Ofsted staff have little option but to register nurseriesthat allow children to be kept in these conditions. The only reference to natural light in the day-care standards suggests that we should "have regard" to how children will access natural light where there is little or none in the setting. Equally, there is no minimum time period that must be devoted to outdoor play; the requirement for nurseries even to have an outdoor play area is worryingly vague.

Again and again we see new nurseries being registered that provide care on three or four floors with inadequate outdoor space. Existing nurseries are also extending indoor provision to accommodate more children without being made to consider extending the outdoor area. Where children attend for sessional care (about 2.5 hours per day) this is merely unfortunate. Where children spend the greater part of their waking lives in such conditions, it is surely unacceptable.

When training courses are advertised on behaviour management and similar subjects, early years staff attend avidly, desperate to discover why some of their children are so impossible to control. It doesn't take too much knowledge of child development to work out one of the most common causes.

Helen Sanderson

Helen Sanderson is an early years consultant in the north of England. She writes under a pseudonym

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