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Babies and toddlers outdoors

This content by Jan White comes from our out of print leaflet "The Sky is the Limit: Babies and Toddlers Outdoors: developing thinking, provision and practice"

Babies need to be outdoors

This is a time of astounding development of the senses, mind and body.  During this year, babies gradually gain command of their body, developing the arts of sitting, crawling, standing and beginning to walk.  They are intensely interested in the people, events and things around them, learning how to interact, how to get help and how to influence their companions.  They rely on adults to be tuned into what interests them, make experiences available to them and respond positively to their reactions and needs.  Babies experience a very different world to us, dominated by bodily sensation and the present moment.  The outdoors is a wonderfully sensorial place for a baby throughout this year, with lots of sensations for the body, things to notice, watch and reach for, objects and materials to touch, feel and handle, sounds both near and far to listen to and interesting places to be in with an attentive and responsive adult.  Stimulation from both the natural world and the world of humans provides multi-layered information about what is in the world, what it does and how it all behaves, and helps the baby to find out about themselves as they develop and grow.

Toddlers revel in being outdoors

This is a wonderful time of movement and exploration since the toddler thinks and understands through motion and using their whole body.  The development of walking enables the child to explore under his or her own steam, and to have their hands available whilst doing so, so opening up a vast range of possibilities.  This child is strongly driven to explore and is hugely disadvantaged if this is restricted to a range of indoor environments, however varied.  The outdoors is a fabulous place, full of interest and the opportunity for movement that they so need, and providing the direct-contact, first-hand experiences toddlers must have in order to construct understandings and grow thinking abilities.  The one year-old constantly handles and moves materials, intensely curious about the world and ardently discovering how things behave.  They are also keen to learn about their own body and find out what it can do.  They enjoy being with other children as well as with the adults that matter to them and who they need to know are keeping them safe.  Spending time outdoors with toddlers is delightful as they share their intense curiosity and bring adults’ attention to long-overlooked and forgotten details, especially in the natural world.

2-year-olds thrive outdoors

Being two is a fabulous year of emerging imagination, language and friendships that are each greatly supported by spending plenty of time each day in rich outdoor environments.  The rapid development of physical skills and manual dexterity, and the explosion in language and imaginative play each open up new ways of being and relating outdoors, and a vast range of possibilities for exploration, discovery and play.  The two year-old finds many things to be fascinated by outdoors and can now express themselves verbally, using language for thinking, communication and to influence people.  They are still highly movement- and action-oriented, with great needs for space and freedom, for ‘doing’ and for first-hand experience.  Through these they construct complex ideas and understandings about how people and the world work.  Increasing imagination deriving from a rich foundation of real experiences, alongside a growing ability to regulate feelings and behaviour, enables two year-olds to engage in very satisfying pretend play together.

The outdoors is a very special place for babies, toddlers and two year-olds, providing developmentally appropriate stimulation, deeply-felt wonder, and endless fascination.  Spending time every single day in rich outdoor environments is of crucial importance for all children, and this is especially true throughout the first three years.  As adults entrusted with the care of very young children, we are duty-bound to provide the best possible circumstances for their well-being, healthy development and enthusiasm for learning.
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Where are we now?

Observing and assessing the current use and impact of outdoor experiences for all of your children up to three.

Use

  • What are your feelings about very young children being outdoors, and what do your parents and carers think about their children going outdoors?
  • As a team, what do you believe babies, toddlers and two year-olds get from outdoor play?
  • How much time do babies, toddlers and two’s actually spend outside (including walks in the locality/community) each day, across the whole year?
  • What experiences do the babies, toddlers and two year-olds have now and what things do they most want to do?

Design

  • How easy is it to move between indoors and outdoors?  What gets in the way of going, being and staying outside?
  • How do you feel about being outside in your space, throughout the year?
  • What do children like about being outside and being in this outdoor space?
  • What do they find interesting – where do they go? What don’t they like – where do they avoid?
  • What features and aspects work well and what does not work well?

Management

  • What gets in the way of going outdoors with the under threes, such as organisational issues or staff feelings and attitudes?
  • Do ethos, policy and organisation all help the use of the outdoors and the quality of experiences there?
  • Do routines limit time spent outdoors or the flexibility to go outdoors whenever children express interest or need?
  • Are there some issues that change across the year?

Where do we want to be?

Exploring and identifying the vision and priorities for your babies, toddlers and twos, and how being outdoors can support and enable them to thrive.

Use

  • Babies, toddlers and two’s have long (or plenty of shorter) uninterrupted periods of time outdoors everyday, throughout the year.
  • All children have rich, developmentally valuable experiences that meet their own interests and needs.
  • Staff are attentive, fully available and tuned-in to each child’s agenda and pace.
  • All age-groups make short, slow, small-group visits into the local environments and community on a frequent basis.

Design

  • The outdoor space(s) and resources are easy to use and are well maintained.
  • The space feels physically and emotionally secure and comfortable, for both children and adults, and is wonderful to be in.
  • The environment provides a good range of developmentally appropriate and valuable experiences for each age-group.
  • The outdoor environment has plenty of flexibility for use and change, and is usable all year round.

Management

  • The staff hold shared, well-articulated beliefs and approaches, and these are supported by parents.
  • Adults feel confident and comfortable working outdoors with very young children.
  • Practitioners take pleasure in being outside with the youngest children and deeply understand its value for them.
  • Experiences outdoors are challenging enough, yet safe enough, through enabling benefit-risk management.

How can we get there?

Engaging all partners, including children, in identifying and planning actions and solving problems.

Use

  • Focus on understanding what the outdoors can provide that the indoors does not and on capturing this special nature (see Warden 2007, White 2011).
  • Deepen child development knowledge to realise what developmentally valuable experiences the outdoors can provide (see Siren Films 2010).
  • Draw on ongoing observations from step 1 and lots of discussion with parents to find out what the children are interested in and what they want to do when outdoors.
  • Take children to a variety of other outdoor places (such as woodland, park, shops and beach) and use photos/video, observations and discussion with colleagues and parents to identify interests and valuable experiences.

Design

  • Find out about outdoor provision possibilities, thinking and solutions from training, visits to other settings and support organisations (such as LTL).
  • Create a master list of the key experiences you want your babies, toddlers and two’s to be able to have or feel through your outdoor provision (see White 2010).
  • Consider a range of ways of providing each of the identified key experiences that might work in your situation, developing a bank of possibilities and solutions (remember that simple ideas are often best).
  • Identify the best materials (such as sand and water), features (such as uneven ground or seats) and elements (such as nature and weather) that have the most affordance for supporting the key experiences on your master list.

Management

  • Focus on staff development to increase belief, enthusiasm, confidence, competence and enjoyment in being outdoors with very young children.
  • Use the creation of a policy to support visioning, shared approaches and the development of procedures that support successful outdoor provision for this age range, such as risk management training.
  • Consider how to develop routines and planning systems so that the outdoors can be used more flexibly and spontaneously to respond to children and opportunity.
  • Improve the organisational issues identified as difficulties in step 1 (such as clothing, changing or storage) that make getting outside and using it well easy and effective.
  • Discover what is really limiting the use of outdoor environments beyond the setting and work to solve these issues.

Making the changes

Implementing the identified actions and building in review, reflection and celebration with all participants.

Use

  • Involve parents and carers in the decisions that are made about developments, and think about ways of engaging them with the changes as they are made.
  • Make physical changes to the space slowly and involve the children as much as possible – every little action can yield valuable learning opportunities, especially for the two year-olds.
  • Periodically evaluate how well each of the key experiences in your master list is actually taking place.  Are all children accessing a wide range of important experiences and benefiting well from them?
  • How well is the vision identified in step 2 actually in place?  What has been achieved?  How have these developments changed understandings and attitudes?

Design

  • Ensure that your plans will not result in the space being cluttered, overcrowded or overwhelming.  Aim for calm, simplicity and flexibility: using a few really good resources well will be most effective.
  • Ensure that places, things and experiences that are currently important to children (and adults) are not lost in the enthusiasm for development!
  • After each development, review together how well the environment works now – what works, what doesn’t?
  • Review the use of the outdoors across the year: are you capitalising on all that is on offer through the seasons, and have issues arisen about getting outside/use of the space through the year?

Management

  • It is crucial to build in plans and costs for the ongoing maintenance of the space, its features (such as sand and grass) and the care of resources. 
  • Embed observation, review, acknowledgement and celebration as key aspects of practice for all staff: recognition of small achievements can be enormously motivating and enabling.
  • Are all staff now more enthusiastic, confident and happy being outdoors with very young children?
  • Do all adults (including parents) show that they have deeper understandings and are more tuned-in to children’s pace, motivations and thinking when outdoors?

Think about

“The child is wonderfully prepared for active learning from birth.  Children approach the world with all senses open, all motors running – the world is an invitation to experience.  Their job is to develop and test all their equipment, make sense of the confusing world of people and things and unseen mysterious forces and relationships, like gravity, number and love.  Toddlers are furiously becoming … these restless, mobile characters have a drive to take apart the existing order and rearrange it, by force if necessary, to suit their own whimsically logical view of the universe.”   Jim Greenman, 2007

Places to be in

  • Wide, open spaces, paths to move along
  • Inside and between - nooks and crannies
  • Higher up and underneath
  • Seeing the wider world – visiting locality and community

Things to experience

  • People and animals
  • Nature
  • Being together, physical contact
  • Lots of ways to move, be moved and move things

Materials and resources

  • Sand, water, stone, soil, sticks, plants…
  • A wide range of surfaces, slopes and levels
  • Containers, vehicles, things to gather and handle
  • Schemas and ‘making things happen’

Organisation and routines

  • Taking advantage of opportunity – being ready and flexible
  • Sleeping and eating outdoors
  • Clothing and nappy-changing
  • Easy access and useable storage

All weather is good weather

  • Sunshine, feeling warm, dappled light, shadows…
  • Rain, wetness, puddles, drips, getting wet…
  • Being chilly, being cold, tingling fingers, frost, ice, snow…
  • Feeling moving air, seeing its effects, running with the wind…

Resources and references

Casey, T. (2010) Inclusive Play (2nd Edition), Sage

DfES (2007) CD to support the Early Years Foundation Stage – Birth to Three Matters: A review of the literature Research Report 444 in the resources section

Greenman, J. (2007) Caring Spaces, Learning Places (2nd Edition), Exchange Press

Hope, S. (2007) A Nurturing Environment for Children up to Three, London Borough of Islington

Siren Films (2010) Babies Outdoors; Toddlers Outdoors; Two Year Olds Outdoors training packs of DVD with accompanying notes by Jan White, from Siren Films

Warden, C. (2007) Nurture through Nature, Mindstretchers

White, J. (2010) All About Outdoor Provision for Under Threes, Nursery World 29th July

White, J. (2011) (Ed.) Outdoor Provision in the Early Years, Sage

Muddy Faces and Mindstretchers for clothing and natural resources for outdoor play

The Royal Horticultural Society and ROSPA for advice on safe and suitable plants

Learning through Landscapes (LTL)