Utilising Your Early Years Environment

In our blog on ‘Outdoor Play’ we touched upon the restrictions in terms of space and flexibility that so many settings face in terms of their learning environments. This seems to be an ever recurring problem amongst smaller settings and home-based childcare providers alike.

However, we pose the question – is the space the problem or is it us as practitioners over-thinking our environments? Are we attempting to make our environments and learning opportunities too complex? Do we actually have the space, resources and ideas to meet the children’s needs, but we are just not utilising these?

As we’ve mentioned before, it is so easy to get caught up in the day to day of creating an enabling and stimulating learning environment and so sometimes we can tend to over-complicate ideas or alternatively environments and ideas can become stagnant.

We too are guilty of over-complicating environments and activities, and who has made us aware of this? The children. A perfect example of this is a recent outdoor tuff spot activity we set up; we had logs, muddy water, leaves, grass and dinosaurs – visually it looked stunning, inviting and stimulating. But the children just weren’t interested. Instead, they collected cups from the mud kitchen and spent 20 minutes filling, emptying and transporting the water to various areas of the garden.

As practitioners it is so important for us to be critical and reflective and respond to these occurrences in order to support and facilitate the children’s learning, this is their way of telling us ‘We don’t need this. We aren’t learning from this.’

Recently, we have stripped back our outdoor planning and environment set up and have been following the children’s lead. We have watched the ways in which they access the area; which areas are most popular, and what they are doing in each area. So instead of setting up high maintenance, adult-led/initiated activities, we provide children with the resources and opportunities that capture their interests the most; and step back and watch as the children work together to develop and extend their own play and learning.

Physically we don’t have a huge amount of space, but what we have learned most recently is that it is not the amount of space that is important but more the resources  and opportunities you are providing within your environment. Again, these don’t need to be complex, high-end and expensive resources; just simple household items like buckets, cups and paintbrushes, and utilising the weather will all provide extensive learning opportunities.

For example, whilst our outdoor area is small; the children have been accessing this area of the provision constantly of late and their play has taken on a whole new meaning and the level of focus they display is phenomenal. This shift in focus is thanks to simplistic yet meaningful play opportunities such as; water painting using paint brushes and water on our garage door, tuff spots of water with various kitchen receptacles, plastic balls and guttering, and planks of wood for balancing.

Similarly, we have moved some of our favourite indoor toys outdoors and this has also changed the dynamics of the children’s play and enabled us to really utilise the ‘outdoor classroom’ ethos.

Essentially, we have come to the realisation that it doesn’t matter how big your space and environment is, and you can be on the smallest of budgets, but this doesn’t impact on the quality of your provision or practice; instead we have learned first hand that all areas of learning and development can be covered within any sized space if you have open-ended and challenging resources and a clear knowledge and understanding of how your children like to play.

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Early Years is an exciting, fun and critical time for the children, and we as practitioners should step away from the extensive planning, research and Development Matters and take it back to basics; thus enabling our children to challenge themselves and develop their own play and learning through thought-provoking and stimulating opportunities and environments.

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