I was invited to talk to Eamonn Holmes at talkRADIO the other week about a news story that commented on our intention to try and ensure that of the advocated three hours activity a day, we would encourage the children to spend up to two hours of this outside in a garden, park or green space.
I was quizzed by a woman who summed up the commonplace view that children may get sick by being outdoors, which means the very brittle tightrope between home and work frays with disastrous consequences. Anxieties about air pollution, asthma, allergies, safety as well as the oft quoted myths about getting cold from being in the cold were all cited as reasons to stay inside.
The challenge is how do we balance our anxiety and fear against the rise in child obesity and the recent research from Aarhus University which found that children who grow up without green surroundings have up to 55 per cent higher risk of developing various mental disorders later in life?
It's a shame more people don't stay in touch with small children as they instinctively demonstrate what humanity needs to remain happy and healthy.
Children need to be able to play outdoors. They need to get a healthy dose of sun and vitamin D. They need space to run and jump and gain wonderful proprioception. They need to have unstructured time to wonder, think, create, explore and take risks and generally find some space away from adults. Outside they learn to manage their relationships with peers, work out arguments and figure out their own friendships and their self-reliance and independence.
In the education world, outdoors was hijacked by policymakers as another classroom. We were forced into creating areas of learning outside to meet the needs of the Early Years Foundation Stage. I admit to getting sucked into this also, fearing a poor Ofsted result if I couldn't show the maths outdoor areas as separate from the literacy space. Until one day, like the sleeping princess, I woke out of my 100-year slumber and got a grip on the issue.
I had spent time just enjoying watching the children and I realised that our well-intentioned teachers had misunderstood how we learn outdoors. Space had been curtailed by trying to carve the seven areas of learning into the playground and the joy of the outdoors was trapped by planned activities and resources. I watched a bit more, chatted to children and teachers and removed most equipment, introduced gardening and, like IKEA, I chucked out the chintz.
We reclaimed the outdoors so the children could lie on the grass and listen to the wind, get muddy in the now obligatory mud kitchen, chase sticks and stones, make bridges and dens, plant seeds, climb trees and go for walks in local parks and forests to enjoy just that!
We rebuilt staff confidence about how to drive multi-layered learning in a more natural way. We got them to stop worrying about demonstrating maths or science or literacy outdoors in an obvious way but truly enjoy following the children's leads and build and scaffold them with fun. The panic to draw parking spaces on the ground to develop environmental maths was removed!
There is always room for an A frame, a wicker den, a story chair, fairy gardens, mirrors, water and sand trays, dolls prams, tents, balls, hoops, obstacle courses, sensory play and all the elements of good teaching. They just don't have to dominate. The central idea is to encourage the children outside in all weathers while continuing to support staff to recognise and delight in the sounds, scents and senses of urban, suburban and rural environments. The future of our planet depends on our children; there is a higher chance of this happening if they have learned to appreciate it by being outside from the earliest age.
June O'Sullivan is the chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog was first published on the LEYF website