Working on the implementation of Aistear, Siolta, the First 5, Aim and Better Start programs we have always focused on our outdoor environments as creative learning spaces for children. Outdoor environments fully support the emersion of children in play as an active process regardless of the end product (Bruce, 2001).
To facilitate role play and community belonging we follow an emergent curriculum focusing on the interests of the child. After 12 years of outdoor play, we have discovered what works well with children.
Uninterrupted outdoor Play-based learning is how children learn optimally and by designing the correct environments we provide opportunities for the development of multi-layered complex levels of play. Children take more risks which leads to a deeper exploration of their ability and their environment. The importance for children to feel a sense of belonging and positive health and wellbeing is an important aspect of our work, more so due to the pandemic. Practitioners recognise that cognitive and emotional development are interwoven for children (Zigler, 2007).
Loose part materials that are age-appropriate – sticks, leaves, sand, mud, stones, log walks, etc all promote engineering, construction, and creative skills for children. Natural loose parts also provide endless opportunities for sensory exploration – through smell, touch, texture, strength, and flexibility. Plastic trugs and plastic boxes are durable and allow multiple play opportunities.
Often when discussing loose parts we tend to focus on small objects when Loose parts can also be varying sizes – such as plastic or wooden tracks from trains, plastic cars, containers, and cups of all sizes. As time has gone on through observation of, planning, reflection, and discussion with the children here we have learned together that free play is supported more through supplying loose parts in containers. This promotes a child’s creativity and multiuse of items through experimentation. Involving children in all aspects of decision making minimizes the adults’ interpretation of the child’s interest (Cooke & Kothari,2010)
Giving the child a box of mixed train tracks that are different sizes, different textures and without trains, etc will promote their own imaginative play and the results can be amazing.
Wooden cut-offs of blocks are used for building, constructing as phones or tablets. Incorporating wooden cut-offs can be a project with support from parents. We have 20 block pieces that were donated from a carpenter parent 5 years ago, all of varying sizes and are used in multiple ways by the children. This is an example of using an emergent interest of the child – building and also including the parent in the support of our curriculum
When setting up mud kitchens we always use real-life products which are recycled through the school. Kettles, lunch boxes, plant pots, plates, shovels buckets, and pans all facilitate free play while also building strength and provide endless Maths skills development.
Calculating how many buckets of mud they need to fill a kettle, or a bigger bucket or a pot all provide schema support as well as collaborative opportunities.
The use of real-life artifacts also promotes role-play, story-making, and a culture of the community. Within this community of practice, children have shared experiences, shared goals, values, and respect for each other’s knowledge and inputs.
Small Scale Gardening
Learning through play offers many opportunities for PSED in children ( Manning-Morton). Gardening is a holistic interactive activity providing endless opportunities for learning through play. Children engage all senses while developing patience, fine motor skills development, experimentation, memorising, problem-solving, responsibility, and collaboration. Children learn to co-operate and display social rules within society when given the opportunity to play and socialise with their peers( (Unicef, 2018).
Children learn about density, weight, permeability, and combination. Gardening supports STEAM in everyday activities. Composting fruit peels in our wormery is chemistry in action. Peels are broken down and over a number of weeks and months, children watch the peels break down and the separation of water and food materials is visually observable.
Exploration of seed types, flowers, nuts, vegetables, and seed potatoes allow children to learn about botany and sustainability. By monitoring the dryness of the soil when minding their plants, children become meteorologists, beginning to understand the effects of weather on their plants.
On a wider global community level, the children of today are learning how to support sustainability. As a green nature school, our focus is on building sustainable living skills through our sustainable community of play and gardening. Through gardening, children become responsible consumers and producers. Gardening also allows the children to become decision-makers in daily activities that affect them. Participation not only in the activity but in the design of the content of the gardening plan provides meaning. As Play practitioners, we are continually exploring with children how to make their environments more interactive and meaningful to them. There are a lot of small-scale garden projects appropriate for children. Filling pots with compost and adding seeds or leaving nature to provide the pot with seeds is a fantastic project for kids to watch the full life cycle of a plant.
Potatoes can be grown in compost bags, window boxes are great to add plants, and seeds and we also recycle pencil toppings as mulch to protect the soil.
Empty twistable crayons become plant supports, and tea bags and coffee grains feed the plants.
Harvesting apples, nuts, berries, flowers and vegetables which the child has watch grown from a bud or grown from a bulb or seed is hugely rewarding and empowering for a child.
Denise Sheridan (Author)
Owner/Manager – Úlla Beag Preschool
Denise works full-time as an Early Years Teacher specialising in creating learning environments where the child’s interests are paramount. She runs Úlla Beag in East Clare and is also currently completing a Masters in Early Childhood Studies through the Portobello Institute and the University of East London. Ulla Beag has been a member service of Early Childhood Ireland for 12 years.