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Overcoming barriers

An early task for the Outdoors and Active action researchers was to identify the barriers to taking children out and about beyond the setting.  Only by finding out what was preventing practitioners and parents from being more active with their children, could we come up with solutions.  These were the obstacles that were identified most frequently (and you can click on each to skip straight to that section):

Whilst this list appeared quite daunting, the Outdoors and Active team agreed none of the issues were impossible to overcome, and set about tackling them through desk-based and setting-based action research.  Led by Julie Mountain, initial explorations centred around the regulations and guidance associated with ‘learning outside the classroom’ and on managing risk in physically active play.

Health and Safety Gone Mad?

Over the past ten years, much progress has been made in the UK and beyond on the issue of health and safety, risk, challenge and freedom in play.  A refreshing approach to play has begun to take hold in the UK, guided by research by the Play Safety Forum (amongst others) and in line with Government policy.  The ‘risk benefit’ methodology embraces the importance of risk, challenge and adventure in childhood, and adopts a ‘common sense’ approach to managing risk.

The Outdoors and Active action researchers used Play Learning Life’s risk benefit tools, alongside guidance from the Health and Safety Executive, to implement a change in the way risky play was viewed at their settings.  Our aim was to embed the principle of risk and challenge being good for children into each setting, so that they would always look to enable exciting play, rather than using health and safety fears to prevent it.  You can download our audit tools from our dedicated page to see how we assessed the environment, as well as how we looked at risk in play, and you can use the Risk Benefit Thought Cloud sheet for your own activities.

Here are the key sources of reassurance we used to get Outdoors and Active:

The Health and Safety Executive – children’s play

  • In 2012, the HSE worked with the Play Safety Forum to produce a High Level Statement aimed at helping parents, schools and care settings strike the right balance between keeping children safe and enabling them to take essential risks in their play.  In essence, the HSE is promoting the importance of risky play and encouraging adults to plan for play that is “as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible”.
  • Key message: No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool.
  • Read the key document: www.tinyurl.com/HSEplay

The Health and Safety Executive – educational visits

  • Working with the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, the HSE’s 2011 High Level Statement was designed to counter myths about ‘health and safety’ preventing outings, trips and residentials, all of which the HSE recognises as vital to children’s learning and development.
  • Key message: Accidents and mistakes may happen on trips – but fear of prosecution has been blown out of all proportion.
  • Read the key document: www.tinyurl.com/HSEtrips

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom

  • The CLOtC was formed from a coalition of organisations (including the Department for Education) promoting outdoor learning and play.  Its website contains a wealth of information, advice and support on taking learning beyond the classroom – not just into the nursery garden or school grounds, but further afield to nature reserves, historic buildings and so on.
  • Key message: The ‘places’ where learning happens can have a significant effect on how a young person engages with a subject or an idea.  Learning outside the classroom can happen at almost any time and almost anywhere.  As an essential way of learning it should not be restricted to the summer or as an ‘add-on’.
  • Visit the website: www.lotc.org.uk

Learning Away

  • The Learning Away initiative’s vision is for more children and young people to enjoy ‘brilliant residentials’ and the life changing experiences they offer.  Its early years advice acknowledges that babies and young children are often ‘residential’ in their early years settings, insofar as they sleep, eat and play there.  The website’s case studies reflect this reality.
  • Key message: Where trips are fully integrated into the life of the setting, and planned so that learning is embedded and reinforced back in the setting, they can provide extremely powerful, meaningful and memorable learning opportunities for children.
  • Visit the early years Brilliant Residentials advice pages: http://learningaway.org.uk/resources/early-years-ks1/practicalities/

Where To Go And What To Do When You Get There

Outdoors and Active participants devised a vast array of innovative and exciting ideas for physically active play outdoors.  Much of this information – such as Top Tips for Physicality in the Park - is now on this website and you can find it using the left hand menus.

The parks and open spaces of Newham, from the tiny ‘pocket parks’ in residential areas through to Wanstead Flats are the perfect locations for physically active, challenging and collaborative play.

We made an interactive Google Map of the places and spaces we found across the borough.  If you click on a space, you’ll see information and a photograph of the park and a link to a resource that will help you make the most of the space.  http://tinyurl.com/NewhamOutdoors

One of the Outdoors and Active team’s fundamental discoveries was the ease of integrating physical activity into every day life.  Even if a trip to the park isn’t feasible today, a simple walk along the street can provide children with the opportunities to Boing, Whoosh and RolyPoly that their bodies crave.  Use the street furniture and features to support physicality – jumping over cracks in the pavement, swinging around signposts and lampposts, twirling over bike racks, weaving in and out of bollards.  Treat every journey, however short, as an obstacle course.  Plenty of adults do this ‘urban gymnastics’ too – except they call it Parkour!  For more ideas about everyday physicality, see our top tips.

Experiences, not Equipment

There is plenty of choice when it comes to resources and equipment for physically active play and recreation.  However, many of the ‘ready made’ items come with a hefty price tag, which put them beyond the everyday means of a setting or childminder.  With this in mind, the Outdoors and Active action researchers sought to find low- or no-cost resources that would really get children moving. 

Led by childhood movement specialist Jasmine Pasch, our collaborative workshops introduced new, innovative and (quite frankly) sometimes odd items, which Jasmine encouraged us to test ourselves before introducing to children.  The crucial point Jasmine was making is that children don’t need expensive or complicated equipment to get active – their own bodies offer sufficient ‘resistance’ to build strength and the outdoor environment provides a vast array of ‘equipment’ in the form of street furniture, landscape features and topography.  Agility, co-ordination, resilience, dexterity, stamina and suppleness can be developed through repetitive actions when children are out and about on daily journeys, playing in the park or garden or in their early years setting.  Jasmine Pasch’s BoingWhooshRolyPoly can be explored in more detail here

The Adult Role

In her book Every Child A Mover, Jan White describes how adults can build a movement rich culture.  We used this book as a source text for our action research projects, and most of our action researchers tested Jan’s recommendations in their own settings:

  • Enjoy and value children’s joy in movement, action and mastering physical skills

o   Young children want and need to make big movements and this non-negotiable biological imperative is best met outdoors.  We discovered that incorporating and recognising movement in ‘other’ kinds of play (e.g. in the mud kitchen or playhouse) gave additional prominence to physicality.

  • Make a conscious effort to maximise the variety of movement and action.

o   All of the Outdoors and Active settings did this, as it was at the very core of our programme’s purpose.  These webpages and downloads are the result of our many and varied conscious efforts at increasing opportunities for children to make big movements outdoors.

  • Be active yourself

o   When children see you delighting in being outdoors, and boinging or whooshing or rolypolying alongside them, it tells them that active outdoor play is valued by you, and is therefore important.

  • Talk with children about what you are doing

o   Several Outdoors and Active participants added a ‘communication’ focus to their action research project.  In the early auditing phase, they noted that children were more likely to communicate with each other and with adults when they were deeply engaged in a task, and that this happened more often when the play was taking place outdoors.  Narrating your own and children’s movements is motivational and helps children recall their movements.

  • Be present and interested

o   One of the most tricky skills to master as an early years practitioner or parent is knowing when to intervene, when to be present and interested, and when to leave well alone.  Being present but not necessarily part of the play builds children’s confidence; they know you’ll be there if they need you, and may well push themselves more physically as a result.  Our action researchers practised allowing children to ‘problem solve’ physicality play themselves, intervening only if directly requested to do so, or where the situation had become genuinely unsafe.

  • Reflect on your planning

o   Do your routines, policies or staffing decisions restrict children’s ability to be active outdoors?  We worked with colleagues and parents to examine how amendments to the way the day was planned and managed could positively impact on movement play – for example, beginning each day with outdoor play for all, and making outdoors freely available throughout the day.

Unless a particularly complex or new activity is being introduced, there is no need for greater staff: child ratios outdoors; the key to enabling freely accessible outdoor play appears to be striking a balance so that everyone spends some time outdoors, crucially, enjoying supporting the play rather than seeing outdoors as a ‘duty’ or chore to be endured.  The most enthusiastic outdoor practitioners will obviously want to be out more frequently, but it’s vital that children see all their significant adults enjoying physical activity outdoors.

Be Prepared!

Getting outdoors and active is so much easier in the summer… so claimed many Outdoors and Active participants, at our first workshop together.  With grey November skies overhead, Jasmine Pasch and Julie Mountain aimed to prove them wrong, and were partially successful!  It is indeed easier in the summer; or at least, in dry weather.  In reality, all the Outdoors and Active participants were keen to ensure they offered year round outdoor physicality play so they adopted a variety of strategies to make outdoors in all weathers easier:

  • Start the day with outdoor play – children arrive at the setting with their outdoor clothes on, so make the most of it.  Allow a good half hour of outdoor play before turning to indoor options.
  • Ensure there is a good selection of wellies, outdoor overalls and jackets (these are more accommodating than one-size-fits-all all-in-ones).  Peg them out to dry after use – children are reluctant to put on damp clothes or flooded wellies.
  • Organise storage of outdoor gear in such a way that children are able to access it and dress themselves – or attempt to.  Accessible welly racks, hanging rails and comfortable seating will all contribute to growing independence, greater manual dexterity, perseverance and joy in being outdoors whatever the weather.
  • Prioritise: what’s more important today, getting outdoor play ‘over and done with’ so that indoor snack can be on time, or enabling children to play freely, for as long as they need to, outdoors?  Practically, this means building in the ‘getting ready’ time into the day.  The logistics for a trip to the local park must include plenty of time for children to prepare; practising the ‘real life’ skill of getting ready for a task or journey is just as important as the focus of any trip.

Make Time For Movement

There’s no easy way to say this: movement is essential for children to develop and grow appropriately; therefore movement should be at the centre of your offer, not peripheral to it. 

Throughout the day, and whatever the task, children need and must have opportunities to move.  It is not appropriate for young children to be ‘sitting still’ or ‘keeping quiet’; moreover, sitting or standing still is one of the most complex actions we ask our bodies to do, requiring as it does, total control of the muscle groups that control gross and fine motor functions.

The Outdoors and Active programme was successful in part because of its ‘action research’ methodology, which gave participants permission to reflect on current practice and try alternative methods of raising physical activity levels.  The action research element meant that physical development and physicality were recognised as occurring throughout the whole curriculum, for every child, every day.  Every activity (indoors and out) was noted for the opportunities it offered for movement and it was then possible to maximise activity levels by identifying specific interventions, for example play resources, changing timetables, re-ordering tasks and prioritising movement rich activities.