What’s wrong with going outdoors?

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I have recently been asked to tender on an early childhood project that includes both outdoor and indoor play spaces. By indoor playspace I don’t mean the rooms the children do activities in either – I mean outdoor play type spaces that are indoors. From discussion with industry colleagues in early childhood education this is more and more becoming the norm. In my case the centre has a combination of both, so there are at least a range of play experiences available. My understanding however is that with many new centres there isn’t a choice and all children have available to them day after day are indoor spaces. Lets explore the implications of this.

The outdoors is good for too many reasons to discuss (I’ve managed to list a few of the obvious ones below):

  • fresh air and sunshine
  • ground to dig into
  • climate differences – cold and hot
  • seasonal change – autumn, spring, summer and winter
  • bird life
  • insect life
  • different plants with amazing sensory experiences
  • flowers, leaves, seeds, nuts, twigs, branches – found objects (not collected by adults and arranged)

In July 2015 the Victorian State Government followed the NSW State Government in introducing a waiver to children’s services centres to allow centres in the inner city (where space is of a premium)  to not have to meet the Victorian Children’s Services Centre Regulations requirement of 7m2 of outdoor space per child registered when developing a new centre. In other words centres in the inner city need not have any outdoor space at all, merely what is called ‘simulated’ outdoor space.

Lets have a look at what this might look like using a couple of examples of pre-existing centres. The images below show what we mean:

 

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What do you notice about these spaces?

Do the words controlled, fake, tidy or neat, structured, flat and contained come to mind? Yes there is diversity in materials and surfaces, some level change and some loose parts….but where is the children’s mark on this space? Can you tell what season we are in? Where’s the plant, bird and insect life? Where’s the messiness and dirt?  Where’s the fresh air? More importantly how does this really differ from the play activities offered in the indoor program? The above are better examples, but lets examine what happens when centres are less affluent or inspired.

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Pretty damn dull huh? or this one in a setting that could appear in an architectural magazine…

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Again pretty damn dull and you know why?

These are adult ideas of kids spaces, not kids spaces.

Going outdoors has been overwhelmingly proven to be beneficial for children for many, many years. I was reading the other day about the practice in Iceland of putting babies outside to sleep, even in winter. Sounds extreme but its common across Scandinavia with baby rugged up of course! The theory is that infants sleep better and deeper in the fresh air, a more rejuvenating sleep. So if babies sleep better in the fresh air, what impact can outdoor play have on the health of an active pre-schooler?

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I truly hope this trend which seems to be appearing in the inner areas of our larger cities here in Australia (because real estate is expensive) is just that – a response to limited space in urban areas and not the new ‘outdoor’ fashion….to eventually be adopted by centres in suburbia because well going outdoors is just too cold or hot or just plain messy.

Kids need to to be able to play outside and that shouldn’t even be up for discussion. So put their coats, boots or hats on and get out there!

Article in Quartz Online: For generations, Icelandic babies have napped outside in freezing temperatures by Halla Porlaug Oskarsdottir