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An Analysis of the Benefits of Outdoor Play in Early Years Settings
In the 18th-19th centuries, industrialisation caused some serious changes in the lives of people (Knight, 2009). In the UK, for instance, industrialisation significantly decreased the schools’ provision of outdoor activities. However, such educators as Friedrich Froebel, Margaret McMillan and Maria Montessori contributed much to the revival of interest in outdoor play. Due to their efforts, the outdoor play provision occupies a crucial place in a contemporary early years setting. This essay analyses the issue of outdoor play in an early years setting. It will start with the definition of the concept of outdoor play and will proceed with the discussion of the first early-years practitioners who accentuated the need to integrate outdoor play into the curriculum. The analysis will then discuss in more detail the significance and use of outdoor play in an early years setting, juxtaposing theoretical and empirical evidence. Finally, the essay will identify the challenges to the successful provision of outdoor play in an early years setting.
In view of the fact that children perceive and interact with the world using different senses, it is essential for early years practitioners to use the methods which provide children with an opportunity to learn through these senses (Ouvry, 2000). Play is especially effective for learning because play evokes positive feelings in children and thus motivates them to learn (Ouvry, 2000). According to Johnston and Nahmad-Williams (2014), it is rather difficult to understand what constitutes play within an early years setting because educators and researchers cannot agree on whether to consider structured play (e.g. play activities developed by early years practitioners) as play. Johnston and Nahmad-Williams (2014, p.273) define outdoor play as “a carefully planned outdoor environment that covers the six areas of learning”. These six areas include: 1) physical development; 2) creative development; 3) social, personal, and emotional development; 4) understanding of the world; 5) literacy, language, and communication; 6) reasoning, problem solving, and numeracy (DCSF, 2008). In contemporary early years settings, two types of outdoor play are used: free play and structured play (Johnston and Nahmad-Williams, 2014). Free play is initiated by children: in free play, children choose the resources and materials to play with, although early years practitioners are responsible for preparing the materials. In free play, early years practitioners do not control play; however, they supervise children and provide necessary support. In this regard, free play reinforces children’s independence and their interactions with each other (Johnston and Nahmad-Williams, 2014). In structured play, it is an early years practitioner who chooses the resources and materials and who prepares specific tasks for children to complete (Johnston and Nahmad-Williams, 2014). Although structured play activities are created taking into account children’s interests and needs, structured play is controlled by an early years practitioner who ensures that specific learning outcomes are met.
Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) was one of the first advocates of outdoor play in an early years setting (Riddall-Leech, 2002; Knight, 2009). According to Froebel, outdoor play contributes to the development of children’s imagination which is essential for successful learning and healthy growth. It was Froebel who opened a kindergarten in Germany to integrate the outdoor play provision. A significant focus in this provision was put on imaginative play and play with wooden blocks (Tassoni, 2007). In contrast to Froebel, Maria Montessori (1870-1952) did not consider imaginative play as crucial for children’s development. A doctor and educator who mainly worked with children with specific learning needs and who opened Children’s Houses for working class children, Montessori stimulated young children to actively participate in real life outdoor activities and thus acquire knowledge and develop diverse skills (Tassoni, 2007). She strongly believed that the best way for children to learn was through their interactions with the environment. Montessori put a particular emphasis on structured play, endowing children with constructive play materials and intentionally designed equipment to facilitate their learning (Tassoni, 2007).
However, according to Montessori philosophy, early years practitioners are not allowed to interfere into children’s play. In this regard, children learn to develop decision-making skills, independent thinking, and confidence through outdoor play activities. Many contemporary early years settings are organised, drawing on Montessori’s ideas of structured outdoor play environment (Tassoni, 2007). Margaret McMillan (1860-1931), a social reformer who worked with children from poor families, significantly highlighted the value of outdoor play (Knight, 2009; Ouvry, 2000). In the viewpoint of McMillan, outdoor play is essential for the healthy development of children. She especially emphasised such aspects of outdoor play as fresh air and movement. McMillan contributed much to the spread of a play-centred approach by opening several outdoor nurseries (Knight, 2009). Her first nursery school was opened in Deptford and was organised as a garden “with children flowing freely between inside and out” (Ouvry, 2000, p.5). For McMillan, a professionally structured outdoor setting satisfied all learning needs of children. One of McMillan’s major requirements towards a professionally structured outdoor setting was to create “a provocative challenging environment” (Tovey, 2010, p.79). It is in such a challenging environment that children acquire rich and diverse experience and thus uncover their true identities (Garrick, 2009). It is in such a challenging environment that children engage in adventurous and creative activities and acquire understanding of the natural world. This environment motivates children to learn.
Drawing on the ideas of early years practitioners on outdoor play, contemporary researchers and authors also widely discuss the significance of outdoor play in an early years setting. For instance, Garrick (2009) acknowledges that outdoor play significantly reinforces children’s physical development. Baldock (2001) accentuates the ability of outdoor play to shape children’s spatial skills and decision-making skills due to the acquired independence. In her action research, Nind (2003) drew the parallels between independent outdoor play and improved language competence. The findings of Nind’s (2003) study showed that children who had problems with English as a foreign language more actively engaged in communication in the outdoor play setting. Playing outdoors, they behaved in a more independent way and employed a variety of communication strategies to share their views with peers. However, Manning-Morton and Thorp (2003) and Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva (2004) point at the need to create a balance between outdoor activities planned by early years practitioners and children’s free activities. In the case of free activities, children acquire an opportunity to explore the outer world and express their selves through these activities. Planned outdoor activities are also crucial as they improve children’s cognitive skills, social skills, and creativity. In their study of early years settings, Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2002, p.8) have found that outdoor play activities are especially effective if they are based on the adult-child interaction because such interaction reinforces “sustained shared thinking, an episode in which two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative”.
Despite the discussed positive effects of outdoor play on children in an early years setting, there are some factors that prevent its successful provision. According to Garrick (2009, p.x), although UK statutory guidance recognises outdoor play as a crucial aspect of an early years curriculum, “currently there is no requirement in England to develop outdoor areas as a condition of registration”. According to UK statutory guidance, early years practitioners are recommended to use parks and similar facilities for outdoor play if early years settings lack outdoor areas (DCSF, 2008). Garrick (2009) goes further by claiming that early years settings with outdoor areas are often poorly equipped and thus do not provide many possibilities for learning. Ouvry (2000), Maynard and Waters (2007), and Johnston and Nahmad-Williams (2014) have found out that early years practitioners in English settings are often reluctant to integrate the outdoor play provision because they are too obsessed with health and safety issues. In more specific terms, they are afraid that cold and windy weather is detrimental to children’s health and thus rarely allow young children to play outdoors. The study of Ellis (2002) has brought into light the opinions of ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) members on the outdoor play provision. In the viewpoints of more than 60 percent of teachers, it is difficult to integrate the outdoor play provision because of poor management and the lack of adequate support.
Unlike the UK, Scandinavian countries widely integrate the outdoor play provision which draws on Froebel philosophy (Knight, 2009). In particular, a range of Forest Schools have been opened in Denmark, Sweden, and other Scandinavian countries. In these schools, the emphasis is put on free outdoor activities, the development of social skills and creativity in children, and children’s emotional well-being (Knight, 2009). In these schools, children engage in outdoor activities in different weather conditions. In the 1990s, the early years practitioners from Bridgwater College visited the Danish Forest School and greatly admired the way children acquire their skills and knowledge (Knight, 2009). Upon their return, these early years practitioners decided to open a similar school in the UK. They found outdoor areas not far from Bridgwater College and created the outdoor play provision for early years children and children with special needs. The provision has improved children’s overall well-being and has increased children’s confidence, self-esteem, and independent thinking (Knight, 2009). Due to its great achievements in the development of young children, Bridgwater College has received the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes Award. The difference between Forest Schools in Scandinavian countries and Forest Schools in the UK is that UK early years practitioners allow children to play outdoors only in warm weather. Moreover, UK early years practitioners prefer structured play; thus, learning in these early years setting is more formal than learning in Scandinavian Forest Schools (Knight, 2009). According to Tovey (2010, p.79), children in the UK “are limited by a culture of risk aversion, risk anxiety, restrictions on children’s freedoms to play outdoors and increased regulation”. In Scandinavian countries, children possess more freedom in their outdoor play.
Some recent research provides conclusive evidence that young children prefer playing in dangerous and challenging outdoor settings. For instance, Stephenson (2003) and Sandseter (2007), who studied outdoor play in early years settings of Norway and New Zealand, revealed that children specifically chose dangerous, risky, and scary places for their outdoor play. Such places motivated children to engage in the exploration of the unknown and thus overcome their fears. More importantly, Stephenson (2003) and Sandseter (2007) found that each time children played, they intentionally increased risk. Tovey (2010, p.80) specifies that the findings of Stephenson (2003) and Sandseter (2007) suggest that “it is not just the feelings of joy that motivate children but the desire to experience the borderlines of fear and exhilaration”. Taking into account these crucial findings, it is obvious that instead of creating a safe outdoor environment for young children, it is more effective to create a significantly challenging environment in which children are able to uncover all their potential. While acknowledging the importance of safety issues, Sandseter (2007, p.104) nevertheless proves that early years practitioners should pay equal attention to “the benefits of risky play”. Drawing on the findings of Stephenson (2003) and Sandseter (2007), UK policy makers and early years practitioners should reconsider their views on the outdoor play provision and gradually shift towards the creation of the environment which benefits children rather than hinders their learning and overall development.
As the essay has clearly shown, both first early years practitioners and contemporary researchers have accentuated the significance of outdoor play in the development of children. Outdoor play is thought to positively affect children’s spatial skills, social skills, decision-making skills, language competence, and physical health. On the basis of the acquired evidence, it is obvious that the juxtaposition of structured and free outdoor activities is especially effective. Unfortunately, as the analysis has revealed, there are some serious obstacles to the successful integration of the outdoor play provision in the UK, including the lack of outdoor areas in early years settings, the educators’ obsession with safety and health issues, inadequate support and poor management. Scandinavian countries, however, have significant experience in the integration of the outdoor play provision. Recently, UK early years practitioners have borrowed this experience and have opened several Forest Schools in which children successfully learn through outdoor play.
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