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Guest blog: A once in a lifetime opportunity, by Kathryn Solly

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Friday, 5 June, 2020

The benefits of outdoors

As we start to emerge from the pandemic lockdown we have a great once in a lifetime opportunity to broaden horizons, enhance sensory pathways, build movement and whole body development, enhance physicality and the holistic health needs in our children via a responsive curriculum outdoors. We cannot put the clock back and thus we need to carefully reflect on how we assist children to recover and move on in their development and learning. Many nations including Germany and those in Scandinavia embraced indoor learning being richly enhanced by outdoor learning provision a long time ago - or perhaps they never lost it? Many countries do very little pedagogy indoors but these children flourish. This is despite starting school far later aged 6 and 7 years of age than we do in Britain. As a species we evolved outside and developmentally we still need its rich, broad and deep opportunities of being in nature.

Since the time of the Spanish flu pandemic during World War One doctors have found that severely ill patients recovered better by being nursed outdoors than those treated indoors. Fresh air provides a natural disinfectant blowing the virus away whilst sunlight is germicidal. It is known as the "open air factor" and curiously is just as effective at night time.

Building upon the open air school philosophy which was established to improve health and to help to rid society of diseases such as tuberculosis, the McMillan sisters, and Dr Susan Isaacs established a very cool indoor environment at Rachel McMillan Nursery in Deptford and Chelsea Open Air Nursery School in the 1920s and 30s because they realised that children being in over-heated and poorly ventilated rooms was a recipe for disease. More recently the common cold, chicken pox and Norovirus have been shown to spread less easily outdoors than inside. After carrying out risk assessments, rearranging spaces and the selection of suitable resources we must work hard on ensuring frequent hand washing, encouraging social distancing, where it is feasible, hygiene and cleaning. Whilst we know from research that going outdoors is hugely beneficial and of course, if some children are outdoors there is more room indoors for others.

Outdoors provides:

  • Fewer infectious diseases such as colds, sore throats etc than children in conventional indoors.
  • Vitamin D to boost the immune system
  • There is a bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae, in soil and mud which can boost our immune system response.
  • Natural light which is far better for vision and preventing myopia (short sight)
  • Cortisol and stress levels reduce and the happy hormone serotonin increases even after a period of 30 minutes.
  • Holistic, embodied learning.
  • Multi-sensory  and physical activity pathways.
  • Movement which supports both body and brain development.
  • Coronavirus appears to spread far less easily outdoors and social distancing is naturally more likely to occur with more space being available.
  • Taking classes outdoors is not only possible, it is recommended by the DfE (2020) for exercise and breaks “for outdoor education, where possible, as this can limit transmission and more easily allow for distance between children and staff.”

What children have been missing during lockdown

During lockdown many families have started to understand the need and benefits of being outdoors as well as the potential learning and fun not so feasible indoors. Critically we also need to help children to be resilient and bounce back after for what some will have experienced as a traumatic time in their short lives. Thankfully, babies are born with an innate, powerful drive to move forward and develop. They do not give up when learning to sit, crawl and walk but persist in achieving these life skills and starting to explore the world around them. We need to nurture and enrich their opportunities to build resilience through a variety of experiences including feeding their curiosity and fascinations outdoors, and through role-modelling the language and examples to persevere. We also need to provide the appropriate challenges to move them from their comfort zone into their challenge zone, whilst avoiding the panic zone. This is managed through carefully scaffolding their experiences and is of course unique to every child. It requires a calm, compassionate adult who understands attachment, re-attachment and emotional well-being in young children too.

What they need now

We’ve learnt a lot about attachment and resilience as well as from more recent events - the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, 7/11 in the USA, the Rwandan atrocities, and sadly many more. Children closest to the trauma experience the most potential harm, but time and time again the love and support of a parent, carer, teacher, sibling, coach, or peer has helped them weather the storm and come through. The stronger the network of social support the more beneficial it is. These children respond to these caregivers and recognise the presence of a calm adult for safety. Research has also shown how children need to develop a sense of purpose and connection to re-build their competencies and skills. Being economically poor does not necessarily mean that you will lack resilience. In my experience, the children from refugee and asylum-seeking families are often blessed with resilience. In most families, children will have experienced some stress during lockdown and thus we need to prioritise play and lots of physical activity as they start to return to schools and settings. For some children a break from school may have given them just what they need to enhance their competencies, follow their interests and provide suitable challenge. As Finland has often demonstrated it is the chance to learn deeply that makes a genuine difference. Adults will need to prioritise what the children really need on their return - their wellbeing and mental health plus their opportunities to be with friends and peers to work through their anxieties outdoors even if socially distanced.

The evidence is that children need at least 3 hours a day outside and as that is only a quarter of most young children’s waking hours, it is very achievable. Over time it provides an essential foundation for their lives. Having experienced lockdown many children will really need to develop their confidence in different ways:

  • to experience freedom and regain trust and confidence
  • to make genuine play choices
  • to freely run, jump, balance, climb, spin, splash etc.
  • to manage their own behaviour
  • to challenge themselves
  • to take risks and assess them for themselves
  • to co-operate, collaborate and learn together

Practical advice

Challenging physical play and rebuilding social and emotional connections can be achieved easily through outdoor play where children learn to adapt to change, compromise, negotiate, regulate their emotions, and reform their sense of identity. Therefore, playing outside must become our first message for children. This must be followed by hygiene and especially frequent hand washing with soap. There are numerous surfaces outdoors which can be touched and therefore the critical task is hand washing for 2 minutes. Juliet Robertson (Creative Star) provides some excellent guidance in her blog about hand hygiene outdoors. The provision of soapy water, bubble play and bubble machines, large wipeable and disposable loose parts for role-play, building, stacking, climbing and balancing are a good start. For solo use blackboards on walls, fences and clipboards will provide a base for drawing, writing etc. Many are providing children with cloth bags with essential tools and a place to store their water bottles too.

Scotland had already made great strides in establishing nature kindergartens and schools before the pandemic struck because they understood the developmental advantages of outdoor environments for young children’s learning. As children started to return they have changed their practice with scrupulous and frequent hand washing on arrival, throughout the day, before meals, after toileting and washing clothing to ensure hygiene is maintained. The Scottish government is only allowing its fully outdoor nurseries to open at present and is also funding an online nature school via Claire Warden to assist practitioners with less outdoor experience of outdoor learning about this new beginning. The provision of open-space education and care is being used to keep children safe and help maintain physical distancing whilst minimising risk of transmission.

Regrettably, we know there is very limited evidence for natural items such as wood at present as there simply have not been tests carried out. We know that metal and hard surfaces can retain the virus so we need to apply professional common sense in our daily provision. A good wash with hot soapy water is deemed wise by every source I’ve found for outdoor items such as blocks, tyres, quoits, cones etc.

Outdoors still presents an opportunity for fears to arise and recently I’ve seen social media posts suggesting folk should disinfect trees, wood and stones etc outside! To those folk busily disinfecting nature outside perhaps consideration of the WHO guidance would save them time: Spraying of outdoor spaces is not recommended to kill the Covid-19 virus or other pathogens because disinfectant is inactivated by dirt and debris and it is not feasible to manually clean and remove all organic matter from such spaces. Instead WHO recommends frequent hand washing and avoiding touching the face as the primary prevention approaches to reduce any potential transmission associated with surface contamination.

What else can we do?

  • In cities and urban areas where schools and settings have far less outdoor space try to find larger spaces such as parks, gardens, stadiums in the locality.
  • Invest in some quality wet/cold weather gear for the children and adults plus some sorts of provision to stay dry and out of hot sun such as tarpaulins, tents etc.
  • Ensure quality time outdoors for all children and adults. This is time to heal, to medicate through nature and to socialise through, if feasible, distanced play.
  • What is needed is calm reflection and balance. Children and adults need to be outside more than ever. So please let’s just try….

References

Hand hygiene outdoors, Juliet Robertson, Creative Star Learning, 3 June 2020 

DfE (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19): Implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings

Scottish Government (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19): fully outdoor childcare providers guidance

Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Hunter, MCR, Gillespie, BW & Yu-Pu Chen, S. Psychol., 04 April 2019 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722