Early Years Outdoors Pt.3 – Risk (Or, how many accident books do you get through in a term)

The third part here of three pieces hopefully articulating why I do a lot of work in early years, why I believe that is important, how it works in practice and in this part, what are the risks and how are they managed. I of course am happy to discuss any or all of the issues raised here and can be reached by email here, Twitter & Facebook.

Lets answer that question in the head line – None!  The starting point here is the acceptance that being a child outside is going to result in the occasional bump, scrape, bruise or cut.  It just is.  Children everywhere will fall over and graze a knee on a busy high street, get a carpet burn at home, or stub a toe on the door frame.  And as for standing barefoot on a  piece of lego… say no more.  More often than not society subjects the children in our care to what WE are afraid of in terms of risk perception which in turn has led to children becoming more and more solitary and sedentary as mentioned in Part 1.

To be clear we do not want to see our own children or the children in our care get hurt at all, but it is going to happen to them at some time, in varying degrees of severity some how, so its vital we help to equip them to manage those situations when they happen, regardless of if that event is on our watch or not as professionals.  Part of that equipping is to instill the skill at spotting and then managing a risk.  Those of us of a certain age will remember videos like this (and far worse… Google ‘Apache Safety Film’ then sit behind sofa at your leisure peeking occasionally at the screen).

I come back to this quote every time I visit a new setting to risk assess the proposed or planned activity in that venue :

“we must provide a risk-assessed environment that allows children to be safe to do, rather than safe from doing.”

Future Olympic contender. Yes, Climbing is in the 2020 Tokyo games

Where I got that line from I am afraid is lost in the mists of time, but there are endless good sources of information and justification from academics, advisory bodies,government around the world and other teachers/early years professionals all extolling the virtue of risky play.  Perhaps the phrasing is part of the problem? Use of the word risk is inherently loaded with negativity I think.  I prefer the term “adventurous play”, it certainly sounds exciting!

A little context here may be helpful.  In my other world, the British Mountaineering Council (The BMC) offer a ‘Participation Statement’ which goes like this:

“The BMC recognises that climbing, hill walking and mountaineering are activities with a danger of personal injury or death. Participants in these activities should be aware of and accept these risks and be responsible for their own actions and involvement.”

Woah. Heavy stuff.  Now clearly my planned 2019 “EYFS Everest Expedition” may now have to wait indefinitely, but we must recognise our children from a very young age climb several ‘Everest’s’ worth of risk as they grow older, from leaving the hospital in the arms of new parents who could well be terrified of their new status, to learning to walk or using cutlery and simple tools like scissors, through to riding a bike and learning to drive. Taking risks is a natural process and wrapping up our charges in cotton wool does not help them learn how to manage those risks at all.  That risk management may be as simple as holding their hand out so you might take it to assist their balance. It could be more sophisticated, such as a four year old asking why they have to wear a helmet before climbing or riding that bike.  This is all helping our youngsters learn about risk.  The outdoors is a great environment to facilitate that learning journey and have an adventure.

So what are the risks and most importantly are they worth it? This ultimately is the question we must pose to determine if the play is to go ahead. If the risk is a splinter or a small scrape, but the outcome is hours of imaginatively driven physical play such as with pallets, then to my mind it is worth taking.  We can remove or bang in protruding nails, sand down excessively rough edges, use only soft wood pallets etc to help reduce the chance of that scrape further. But if they did then get a scrape – is it really that bad?  Show me the four year old that doesn’t respond to some TLC and if you are desperate a smiley face/superhero placebo plaster. More often than not I believe it is our fear of their reaction, or indeed our reaction to that event that causes more stress and upset in the child than the event itself.

Best nursery play things ever. Fact.

It is essential that children learn that their actions have real results and consequences.  I am sure most of us can think of an adult or two who could benefit from some revision in that area!

In the real world, young children are capable of assessing many of their own day-to-day risks, for instance if you asked a three year old to drop a hammer on their toe – they would likely give you a funny look and flatly refuse.  However they must have the chance to learn and practice that type of risk management.  Only if they’re well versed in critical thinking and not the habits that blind obedience creates can they achieve what to us is logical thought – which it isn’t! It is our experience at risk management that tells us not to drop heavy tools on our feet.  Children need to learn that too.   The parent who shouts, “Don’t slide down the stairs!” might well be keeping a child safe in that split second, but is also, at the same time, robbing them of a chance to think for themselves, which makes that child that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him or her what to do. How about we offer the facts (“If you slide down those stairs you might get hurt.”) and let them practice thinking things through, to consider the possible consequences of their actions, to assess his own risks, to ask herself, “Is this a risk worth taking?” or “Could I do this differently” (For the record, if it is my son you are asking this of, he will just smile at you and slide down the stairs having decided the risk is worth taking – he just might not do it head first!).

What about the zip lines, the climbing, etcetera? Well again in the climbing world the cliche line is usually ‘you are more likely to get hurt in the car on the way to or from the crag than at the crag itself’.  This really is that simple, all the equipment used is fit for purpose, used in the appropriate context by someone (me!) with the National Governing Body recognised skills to be able to use that equipment appropriately.  For those that don’t know, climbing ropes are strong enough to lift a car/small van.  They simply do not break in normal context of use.  Where there has been recorded incident is usually down to either a knot being incorrectly tied or the rope was cut over a sharp rock edge or a damaged karabiner or was exposed to corrosive chemicals and subsequently failed.  Three instances that as a climber I check for each time I use that equipment in line with my training, my own due diligence, insurance requirements, common sense and desire to keep doing a job I love.  Five pretty powerful motivators!  Using this equipment in a Nursery’s garden, where I have yet to come across acid bathed sharp rocks is out of the equipment’s usual context for sure, but one could very easily argue it is a safer one!  That said please be assured if ever I do spot acid covered sharp rocks in your setting whilst I do a site visit and risk assessment I will be sure to avoid them and let you know….  As for the knots, I keep it simple and recognisable – Figures 8’s, Bowlines, Hitches and double check each one before using the set up as planned or as if I were climbing myself.

All of these activities whilst certainly containing a ‘risk’ (which is managed) do I believe present the perception that the risk is at a higher likelihood than it actually is,  or at a comparably higher chance than an actual risk in ‘everyday normal life’ so to speak.  This makes those activities great tools for helping to teach children about risk management, help them learn to manage those emotions such as anxiety or fear and most importantly overcome them. Something I say quite often to older children – 8-9 upwards on residential courses or adventure days at various centres, when they are all to conscious of a perceived risk and the fear sets in before a leap of faith, or climbing activity is that their staff haven’t brought them here to hurt them. That’s far more easily done with less paperwork in school! That all the equipment is safe, tested, countless children before them have done this, I’ve done this and many more children will do it after them.  I offer this to help them begin to rationalise that perception of risk which has caused fear and anxiety. After all, it is natural to be fearful of some instances and certain situations but I believe strongly it is our job to help those children learn to overcome those fears for themselves, manage those risks for themselves, pick themselves up and try again having learnt from the experience so their comfort zone, or sphere of experience grows bigger and faces outward rather than shrinks and cowers inward.

Another line borrowed from a lost source is this:

Our role is simply to eliminate hazards which they may not see and then to let them take us on their own learning adventure.

Which I think concludes things nicely.

Drop me a note on social media to let me know your thoughts on this and some of the other matters I have raised in these three commentaries.

 

 

 

 

Early Years Outdoors Pt. 2 The EYFS Outdoors (Or, what that looks like in educational jargon type words)

This follows on from Early Years Outdoors Pt.1 where I consider why I do this type of work and what I think some of the benefits are.  In this piece my intention is to begin to explain how these sessions can be a part of a broader early years provision.  It also offers insight into how the Early Years Curriculum works for those that perhaps don’t know. If you do know how that hangs together, I welcome the chance to discuss it all with you. You can reach me on email here on Twitter & Facebook

So, what about the EYFS

The Early Years Foundation Stage has four guiding principals. They are:

1.Every child is a unique child, constantly learning and can be RESILIENT, CAPABLE, CONFIDENT and SELF ASSURED.

2.Children learn to be STRONG and INDEPENDENT through POSITIVE relationships

3.Children learn and develop well in ENABLING ENVIRONMENTS, in which their EXPERIENCES respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between all the adults involved

4.Children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates.

I have highlighted in capitals the bits I believe the outdoors, in whatever form, can really bring something different to the party, beyond what a classroom can deliver.  As four lines, even out of context, they make a lot of sense. Who wouldn’t want their daughter or son to fit into or at least identify with those statements?

Those guiding principals sit across seven areas of learning  usually split as Prime and Specific.  The Prime: Personal, Social & Emotional Development, Communication & Language and Physical Development. The Specific areas being – Literacy, Mathematics, Understanding the World and Expressive Arts & Design.  Now it doesn’t take much creativity to make all of those fit into or apply to an outdoor setting! Each of these areas contains a number of statements that early years professionals use to monitor a childs progress against the expectation of their age, for example in Communication and language  somewhere between the age of 30 and 50 months, a child will begin to:

-Listens to others one to one or in small groups, when
conversation interests them.
-Listens to stories with increasing attention and recall.
-Joins in with repeated refrains and anticipates key events and
phrases in rhymes and stories.
-Focusing attention – still listen or do, but can shift own
attention.
-Is able to follow directions (if not intently focused on own
choice of activity).

The Early Years Practitioner will, through casual and planned observations note down when a child consistently carries out these characteristics or behaviours.  This takes planning of course to create situations and mechanisms to initially provide the opportunity to first learn then develop and ultimately see that behavior consistently – “listens to stories…” is the obvious example. Some of that happens more naturally such as with toileting/personal care skills or the way a child eats.

This format is repeated over each specific area and age range from birth to 60 months.  It is a massive task each practitioner has with each child in their charge typically up to 10 children in a key group- theirs is not an easy job!

Here are a few more, with extracts highlighted that I believe the outdoors lends itself to. This list is not even close to being definitive.

1.Communication and language. “rich language environment” “speak and listen in a variety of situations”

2.Physical development. “develop co-ordination, control and movement” “importance of physical activity”

3.PSE. “Positive sense of self” “confidence in own abilities”

4.Literacy. Physical development – writing. “wide range of reading materials”

5.Maths. Counting, shapes, spaces and measures

6.Understanding the world. “opportunity to explore, observe and find out about people, places technology and the environment

7.Expressive arts and design. “explore and play with a wide range of materials” “variety of activities in art, music, movement, dance, roleplay and DT”

Building a Zip line. Team work! making predictions, coordination, effort, following instructions, handling tools, why & how questions, turn taking, being brave, patience, maths (lengths of equipment, weight, faster or slower) and many more.

Where the outdoors and the odd adventurous activity fits in and my take on it particularly is it offers most children something new, different and outside their usual sphere of nursery and bright coloured plastic experience.  This also provides the Early Years Professional the opportunity to focus on observing entirely natural behavior as the child reacts to me and the activity, it frees up the professional to make the observation, when usually they are delivering the activity and trying to observe at the same time, which is a tall order to do both to the high standard they would wish to.  The children are involved in how that session pans out: the timing, the structure, the activity or task itself. Every session has a plan agreed in advance, but believe me every session is very different, as every child is unique and so each responds differently to the same stimulus, which then creates different reactions from me and the practitioners and teaching staff involved. It is astonishing how with one plan for each of the ten key worker groups in a nursery, all ten are unique. Even the simple act of reading a story outside in the sun or under canvass, or in a willow tunnel, perhaps having just experienced something the characters in the story have, takes on a different and deeper meaning to each child if we have just been balancing like Jess in “The Wild Woods” or helping Owl Mummy find her babies and build a nest (Owl Babies) or pitching a tent like Maisie in “Maisie Goes Camping”.  Balancing different fruits on our heads like Handa in “Handa’s Surprise”.   The list goes on.

Making bread to cook on a fire, to then eat together.

I am told after sessions that what we have achieved or created impacts on the children’s play back in nursery, there is frequently imaginative play reflecting what we have done or directly recreating it for several days and weeks afterward. Coupled with art work and drawings helping recall and further self expression (‘how did that make you feel?’) the opportunities for following up those outdoor sessions are full of potential themselves in meeting EYFS statements.

A ‘Floor book’ used to give space for children to draw what they did, or their favourite thing they saw that session along with the chance for the practitioner to write quotes down. Photos are added to begin discussion on ‘what we did last time’, the weather and so on.

What I want to achieve with every early years session is to offer a range of activity which supports the child in their development through opportunity they may otherwise not get and offers the childcare professional the chance to view their charges in a different light and perhaps gives both some different experiences to broaden horizons.

A note on being a bloke.  It helps!  In the Early Years world us chaps are thin on the ground. There is no getting away from the fact that being male in this environment is a little quirky and offers the children a very different approach and delivery to just about everything I ask of them. if nothing else it comes in a different tone!  There is no conclusion there, it just is.

some positive adult relationships, balance, managing risk, experiencing the environment, problem solving, developing agility and physicality, developing language including prepositions, verbs and adjectives and many many more…

A common question in these activities and one that every Head Teacher/Nursery Manager is keen to ask is one of risk.  I will look at risk and most importantly managing risk in a further piece to follow. Part three shall be its name….

 

 

Early Years Outdoors Pt. 1 or (Why kids should play out more…).

As previously mentioned here, I do a lot of work with younger children, ‘the littleies’ who are at varying stages on the Early Years Foundation Stage (EFYS) curriculum. I wanted to explain why I do this and what I believe the benefits are to the children involved.  It begins….

This came about quite by accident.  Whilst working for Lancashire Outdoors Education at Whitehough ( a much missed OEC)  in 2012, I got the chance to shadow the then teacher on site run a “nursery session”. In short, it was painfully obvious she didn’t really enjoy that element of her work, where as for me with a back ground in early years (in the late 90’s I worked in a school then Day Nursery) I found it fascinating and hugely enjoyable.  The reaction of the children to the space to move around in, the way they discovered things, both contrived and naturally occurring was amazing and huge amounts of fun! The giggling and laughter is definitely infectious.  So I offered to take the early years work over – and she jumped at the chance to offload it to me.

Since then I estimate having worked with several hundred three and four years old’s from,a variety of maintained, private and voluntary sector nurseries across East Lancashire, at various outdoor centres, open spaces and on their own sites (gardens!) from one off type “experiential learning” sessions to regular, progressive sessions, structured as part of that providers broader EYFS curriculum provision.

Why?  Its about as far removed from climbing or walking up a mountain but it is still huge amounts of FUN.  Secondly because I believe it is important.

We are repeatedly told by Government and the Media that children and young people are leading more and more sedentary lives and this is contributing directly to the obesity crisis we face.  As we can appreciate and some of us will now know, through our own experience or that of family members this obesity thing leads to serious health issues further along in life.  What all that means to me is that if I can help foster an enjoyment of the outdoors in children at an early age and expose those children to outside experiences, which many of them simply would not/might not get, than that can only be a good thing.  Simple.

the simple act of enjoying what stream water feels like on your skin.

Why don’t children play out more?  This I believe is largely due to the experiences and subsequent fears and prejudices of their parents. It’s difficult to not sound overly judgmental reading that! I am trying to not be judgmental- those people had their outside experiences constrained when they were children and that has gone on to shape their beliefs and values as adults. Some cultures place little value on seemingly “non-academic” activities, despite the well documented value of ‘play’.

Parents around the age of 20 to 35 right now are the children whose playing fields were sold off by successive governments in the eighties and nineties for housing (a trend which continues to this day sadly), whose sports days were “non competitive” who were penalised for playing conkers, who became adults at the birth of 24 hour media coverage and are perhaps overly fearful  or cautious of the “stranger danger” that is often put out there, despite the fact that it is reckoned that 90% of children who are abused suffer at the hands of someone they know. (NSPCC information). So if children can go home talking positively about their time outside with me and the adventures they have had, perhaps they can open their parents eyes to the possibility of what they as parents could do with their own children in the great outdoors be it garden, yard, park, woods or fell, wherever!  If those children begin to see the outdoors as a fun place to be, perhaps they will find the fresh air first before the sofa and tablet/TV or ask to go the park at the weekend.  Who knows, maybe even the parents may benefit too!

“Lets go this way” child led exploration (off the path, up the hill!)

From a health perspective, at the age of three and four children are putting the ground work in and developing their agility, balance and co-ordination – all vital in staying fit and being able to work and play throughout life.  The gross motor movements of children at this age directly contribute to developing the strength and control needed for those fine motor movements we still value in society – like writing or using cutlery.  We have barely scratched the surface on physical health but mental health also benefits from time outdoors. With studies reporting improved mood, memory, mental energy after time outside to people being prescribed “walks in the country” to help combat depression and stress, anything we as adults can do to instill a love of being outdoors in our children can only be a positive thing and be a beginning of equipping them with the tools to manage what life is going to put in front of them.

With me so far?

In the next part I will tie the “outdoors” into the EYFS and how this contributes to each child making steps of progress inline with the development outcomes for their age.

 

 

Taywood Nursery School

So, if you have seen any of my social media feeds (Twitter & Facebook), then you cant fail to have noticed the amount of work I do with pre-school children.  Ages three and four specifically. These children typically attend Nursery settings, usually Maintained Nursery Schools; what we used to call ‘State Nurseries’.

I plan to tackle why I do a lot of work in this sector in another post….one day…  But here, as the Taywood journey finished its first part for me a few weeks ago, after two years, I thought it would be good to review what happened, how and what was achieved alongside considering some outcomes.

In April 2015, I received this email:

I am in a nursery school in Burnley and we are looking to develop our outdoor area into an outdoor learning / forest school type provision. I have been lucky enough to secure some funding to develop an area in the grounds but we would also like a practitioner to work throughout the year with the children.

First of all, would you be able to provide us with advice for how to go about developing the area?

And secondly, would you be able to provide regular forest school work with our children in the area? We are also hoping to be able to have a dedicated staff member who would work alongside you, with a view to them training at Forest School Level 1 in the the first instance.

And obviously, if it's yes to either or both, what costs are involved??

Now, lets be clear – I am not Forest Schools!  Although I certainly borrow from that ideology, my ethos is more bushcraft and adventurous activities… much more me!  So following a brief email exchange we arranged to meet on a morning in May.

I found a space with huge potential. (And a nice gateway and willow feature installed) These are just a pair of pics – I took about 30 from all sorts of angles of an approximately 150 square metre space shaped like an ‘L’ around the building.

Some pictures from the initial visit

Further discussion (and Governor Approval) later we agreed a potential year from September 2015 subject to a mutually successful Autumn Term.

 

All that remained was to design and agree the program!

 

 

 

In broad terms, working for Lancs Outdoors Education at their sites my early years work has largely been built around a story, which we then recreate elements of that journey or experience to bring it to life for the children over typically 90 to 120 minutes.  With a space to convert and multiple weeks to work it and no travel to factor in – the shackles of time came off!  We hatched plans to use a specified story to deliver a themed game or activity alongside the remainder of the sessions (one key workers morning and afternoon group) to build/dig/create long term features for the Secret Garden with some ‘free play’ thrown in.

initial session plans

Taywoods budget allowed them to invest in all  in one waterproof suits, child sized tools and various materials as required to create a mud kitchen, dig a pond, insect hotel, a fire area.  Various other fixed installations such as paths and some ‘temporary’ ones such as a shelter to go over the fire area, to still allow for a fire, but provide some weather protection.

 

 

Keeping the sessions semi structured but ultimately child led, so we could engage the children on each task to enable that experiential learning but also keep interest and let the children dictate the direction and tone of the session was without doubt the best way forward. We had a blast! some children were happy digging for 30 minutes, others were reluctant after only 5 minutes, some allowed us to discover the magical properties of pallets and really push boundaries as well as the joy of just sitting together, eating and talking around a fire.  It was without doubt a journey for us all.

So what about the Nursery staff then?  Each key worker came out with their am and pm groups with me part of the ratio.  Different staff had different views, but all led to some very interesting conversations!  Some were pro outdoors learning from the get go, others were a little more reluctant…(One in particular still is!), but all the Taywood staff team were supremely professional and welcomed me with support, an open mind and kindness.  I shall miss working with them regularly a great deal.

That first term flew by and very quickly it became clear that this was great project in the making and one that would take time, so committing to the full academic year was a no brainer.  This in turn led to an extension for another year, but with the focus being on knowledge transfer – get staff skilled up in fire lighting, erecting the shelter etc.

The sessions also progressed from less about a story/journey recreation to more about a specific activity and experience. Cue zip lines, climbing trees, pallet play etc etc.

building a zip line

This is really where it all took off in my mind, the staff relished the opportunity to see their charges in situations very few could have ever imagined and the children, well they just loved it.

As a regular (male) face in the nursery, I began to recognise and have regular interactions with parents, so although I was getting positive feedback from parents via staff, when the parents themselves approached to say ‘thank you’ or to meet the person their child “goes on about” was very special indeed.

We began to document the experiences of the children, by the children using large floor books – we would gather round the book with pens and pencils and the children would be asked to draw something from the garden they did or enjoyed to day, we added quotes from the child and photographs to create a tool for monitoring and recalling each session.  The subsequent session would start with a review of the book “who can remember what we did last time” and “what was the weather like”. They proved a great aide to supporting the children recognise and appreciate change as the seasons passed.

Floor books

 

Outcomes.  Now, I am not in the job of having to measure these as such – but anecdotally the outcomes were significant, children, gained confidence, developed language, memory & imaginative play (reflected in subsequent play) I am told by the Head Teacher that the garden and its sessions has been a huge contributor to children making progress in a variety of areas across the EYFS and created opportunities for learning well beyond expectation.  Taywood was inspected in May 2017 by Ofsted, who found the Nursery again to be “Outstanding”.  Personally I was pleased to see this line in the report:

“Outdoor learning is exceptionally well promoted and contributes significantly to the excellent progress that children make, particularly boys. The outside area is a labyrinth of exciting places for children to learn and play, whatever the weather”

Full report can be found here.

I am booked to go back for a series of “Adventure Weeks” next academic year (2017-2018), one week per term to join the two Staff who have taken on the role of “outdoors practitioner” to further develop the Secret Garden.  I can’t wait.

Some more pictures….