Little Diamonds Pre-school, based in Forest Gate, Newham has limited outdoor space and whilst it’s not a pack-away setting, its garden is very visible, meaning much of their equipment does have to be stored overnight. The setting has expanded rapidly, being in a priority area for the new two-year olds’ provision. Manager Karrien Stevens is determined to provide the best possible movement opportunities for the children, despite the size of the garden.
At the start of the Outdoors and Active programme, I carried out an advisory visit to each of the participating settings, to help them prioritise and focus on interventions that would be most likely to have a quick impact; Karrien and I agreed that within the constraints of the space, we needed to be more generous with the range and quantity of resources. A lack of natural resources, a cramped arrangement of features and a huge tree were preventing children from making the big, energetic movements that Karrien knew they needed.
Karrien’s action research ‘query’ was ‘How can we influence children and staff to enjoy and utilise the seasons and in all weathers, to have physically active fun?’ and at a staff meeting convened to identify possible answers, colleagues agreed a detailed position statement for outdoor play, which began:
- Our staff team is committed to creating a culture that will harness and increase children’s physicality and activity levels rather than restrict them. We offer long periods of time to each and every child to access and use outdoors to its full potential.
The Outdoors and Active audit tools (see the first of these articles for more information) enabled Karrien and her team to identify gaps in provision and devise a range of interventions to test. The setting’s own progress tracker tool was also employed to measure the success (or otherwise) of these interventions, and guided by their position statement, they agreed to:
- Reorganise outdoors to provide more space to move freely in
- Resource outdoors generously, and with an abundance of natural materials
- Get out and about beyond the setting more frequently, in particular making use of the communal grassy area beyond the setting’s boundary fence
- Be pro-active in sharing children’s physicality with parents and carers.
As the one and only tree had begun to lean dangerously, Karrien obtained planning permission to have it felled, leaving the stump intact. Much of the trunk was sliced up to provide dozens of transportable stepping logs, with the rest of it chipped for mulch and surfacing. The removal of the tree allowed the whole space to be re-organised, with a tiny raised sandbox replaced with much larger level access sandpit. This transformed how children played, collaborated and moved – the generous size of the sand area meant that children could collaborate to transport, dig and construct using their whole bodies to achieve their objectives.
A group of particularly energetic and boisterous boys was thrilled by the arrival of a child-sized boxing bag, suspended underneath the transition canopy. Children’s willingness to take responsibility outdoors was highlighted by the subtle changes to storage solutions: more accessible, more attractive and better locations meant children could easily choose and collect resources, and they (mostly!) embraced the end-of-day clearing up operation.
As a small, independent pre-school, Karrien had a micro-budget to work with. One the tree had been felled, she harnessed volunteer labour to create the sandpit and a bigger, more richly resourced mud and messy play area. The area was spruced up with new paint and items that had been cluttering the tiny garden were moved to the edges to provide ‘free’ space.
Using their online tracker tool, Little Diamonds evaluated the changes the action research project had stimulated and discovered
- a 55% increase in physically active play outdoors
- 62% more use of existing resources
- 42% more activity deemed as ‘involving physicality / bodyfulness’
Karrien says, “Reflecting on children’s play and asking for their own viewpoints is now recognised as a crucial planning tool for outdoors. Far more opportunities for problem solving have been observed within the outdoor play space, with lots of open-ended questions. We observed children engaging in meaningful conversations and relaxed social interactions, with practitioners able to judge when to get involved.” Embracing risk was a recurring theme throughout the Outdoors and Active programme, with every setting developing their understanding of it to some degree. At Little Diamonds, practitioners are “inspired by learning how to encourage the children to take risks. Children are now learning how to manage risk and finding ways make their own play more challenging and rewarding,” explains Karrien, as she shows off the revamped garden, “We couldn’t have asked for more.”
A version of this case study was first published in Nursery World magazine, November 2016