There is nothing quite like visiting schools, nurseries and other childcare settings to gain ideas and inspiration. I’m always delighted when I get this opportunity. Sometimes, I am asked about good places to see. In my opinion it is not possible to find a “perfect” outdoor space. Instead I look for elements of good practice which are worth reflecting upon and remembering. This might be how free flow play is set up in less than ideal circumstances. Or it could be how a muddy area has been developed with children fully involved.
The places which have truly got going with learning and play outside perceive their outdoor spaces as ongoing works in progress. There is a continuous commitment to valuing and actively using an outdoor space as a place for learning and play. It is a mixture of ethos, physical improvements and careful thought about the variety and potential of a range of activities to happen in an outdoor space.
When visiting another school or establishment, these are my top tips:
1) Show sensitivity and gratitude
Remember that the staff at the school or centre will be taking time out of their busy lives to talk with you and show you around. A little acknowledgement can go a long way, such as a donation to school funds or bringing along a gift. Seek clearance in advance about taking photos – with or without children present.
2) Agree the best time
The best time to visit any setting is when children are using the space and you can observe their behaviour and use of an outdoor space. A large party of adults descending on a centre can adversely impact on children, especially if they are not used to visitors. Check what is expected of you, prior to a visit. For example, the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery has specific protocol. If you are interested in all-year round use of an outdoor space, then go and visit places in winter and see how the children are coping.
3) Discover the history of the outdoor space
It’s easy to assume that the space has magically turned out the way it is. What did it look like one year ago? Three years ago? When the centre or school opened? Ask to see photos of how an outdoor space has changed can really help. It gives you an idea of the journey or story of its development.
4) Find out about funding sources
Were grants applied for? Was the setting part of a bigger project? For example, many UK schools benefited from the RBS Supergrounds Award several years ago. Currently, Grounds for Learning have a Natural Playground Project which involves many Scottish schools, especially in the central belt. Sometimes, parents and fundraisers provide the bulk of the funds.
5) Ask about the drivers for change
What made the school or setting begin to develop their grounds? Perhaps it was a comment from a child or group of children. Was it political changes such as a new curriculum? Were parents or the local community particularly proactive? Was it a result of staff changes? Sometimes a school has a mentor, an outdoor professional who provides ongoing support or a partnership with a local organisation. Occasionally it can be the ethos or values of a setting. For example, is it a Rudolph Steiner School or perhaps it follows the principles advocated by Froebel?
6) Look for traces of play
This is evidence of how an area is used by children. It can tell you where are the popular places to play, such as a worn path beside a slide. Other clues are hedges or shrubs with holes where children hide, a less-than-pristine space and general wear-and-tear. If there are no traces of play, then it is possible that the outdoor spaces is not being used very much.
7) Think about the ownership of the outdoor space
Does the place live and breathe children’s love and active involvement? Obvious examples are signage made by children. However what ongoing dialogue happens between the children and staff that clearly leads to improvements? Is there a shared decision-making process? What routines empower children and encourage them to care for and about their outdoor space?
8) Enquire about environmentally sustainable practice
Enquire about the environmentally sustainability of the practice and approach adopted by the establishment. There may be a clear commitment towards biodiversity and making the school grounds wildlife friendly that go well-beyond a token minibeast hotel and sensory garden. The practice of permaculture may be prevalent and re-using and recycling materials a normal part of the outdoor practice.
9) Momentum and maintenance
How do the staff keep the momentum going for maintaining an ongoing commitment to their grounds or outdoor space? Are the maintenance jobs integrated into the ongoing routines and curriculum within a school? How is the area funded on an ongoing basis?
10) Think about how the visit will impact on your practice
What are you going to do or change as a result of this visit? Consider changes in the short, medium and long-term and how this fits in with the overall planning for improvement at your school or setting. What is the desired outcome or vision, especially for the children in your care? Try to avoid a “compete and compare” mindset which rarely aids the reflective process. What is needed is an authentic outdoor space for children rather than a replica of another school’s situation.
Various organisations offer professional site tours and guided visits of spaces. This can be valuable in that subtleties of design, layout and the organisation of a space can be easily missed by the untrained eye. In Scotland, Mindstretchers open up their Nature Kindergarten and Grounds for Learning have bus tours of their projects. Check in advance about how the tour happens and whether children will be present at the settings visited.
Finally many thanks to all the schools, settings, play ventures and organisations which allow me to visit and learn. There are too many to mention so have a look at the Developing School Grounds and Outdoor Spaces page for inspiration and suggestions.