Youngsters need more than tarmac and swings to understand the great outdoors. Douglas Blane puts on his wellies
On autumn days when a brisk breeze brings big clouds scudding across the sky and dazzling sunshine gives way to drenching rain that splatters off the roads, what could be nicer than pulling on red raincoats and yellow wellies and splashing about in puddles?
"So many outdoor play areas are just safety surfaces and a climbing frame," says early years expert Claire Warden. "It's such a sterile environment - too clean, too dry, too dull. So the kids go out and struggle to find something to do.
"We need to look at the world from the perspective of a three-year-old.
Play is how they learn. What we should be giving them is long grass to run through, muddy holes to dig in and shallow puddles to splash among. They need big rocks to clamber over and small pebbles to pick up and carry around."
Ms Warden was heading off for the great outdoors to enhance her own education about a concept new to Scotland known as forest schools. "I am taking part in this course rather than leading it, which is a nice change," she says.
Her objective is to seek out new ways of engaging children which she can then adapt to early years. A former Jordanhill lecturer and director of Mindstretchers, an educational consultancy and resource company, Ms Warden's forte is turning research and novel ideas into inventive, stimulating early years practice.
"Some youngsters do not function well in highly structured environments, such as schools," she says. "What we can do for them, and everyone else, is let them explore the natural environment at their own level. We can take children out and let them follow their interests, see what is immediately around them or under their feet, what is hiding under a leaf. These things fascinate children."
Outdoor play areas can be improved greatly, she points out, without digging up acres of tarmac, which would be the ideal solution but expensive. "We are looking at providing barrels of mud and of leaves. We are suggesting that staff get children to build their own dens.
"It's about small changes that can turn a very sterile environment into something more natural and far better for children's learning."
A rich variety of portable objects can also be taken from inside to enhance barren spaces and enrich children's activities while they are outside, she says. A simple system of bags on a waterproof backcloth, which she has designed and calls a Wego system, allows the curriculum to be delivered outdoors in all but the worst weather.
"It's quick and easy to use and can be rolled up and carried outside to hang on a wall so that the kids can come and get what they want out of the bags," she explains. "You can have a whole variety of objects in the bags: leaves, artificial bugs and spiders, mini paint sets, wooden rings for maths, stuff to make mud pies or petal perfumes, recycled banana paper in wooden boxes with little twig pencils I" Even when a tarmac area has been transformed into a great place to play, children should not be simply pushed outside to follow their instincts.
"Supervising and monitoring safety is part of it," she says, "but I'm talking about much more. It's about interaction and observation, finding out children's interests and learning styles and bringing it all together to create great opportunities."
Research has highlighted one area that Ms Warden regards as crucial to early years good practice. "We have to be aware of children's different learning styles. We need to observe how they work and play and offer learning environments that are positive and attractive to kinaesthetic, visual and auditory learners."
There is one aspect of modern society she regards as counter-productive to early years learning. "We sometimes get the idea that children shouldn't be allowed to go outside and get wet and muddy. As long as they are dressed appropriately, it is good that they are engaging with nature. Water and mud are great learning resources for young children. We have to give them the freedom they need to able to learn."
Claire Warden talks about Outdoor Play - Potential of a Puddle at 2pm, November 14