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Young children, the outdoors and nature
Young children, the outdoors and nature

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2.1 A place to be healthy

If you ask early years practitioners, and probably also parents, why young children should be outdoors they will often talk in terms of being healthy, getting exercise, letting off steam and fresh air mirroring some of the conversations discussed in Session 1. This positioning of the outdoors reflects what happens once children start school; they do their work inside and then they go out to play to get a break from work. In this respect, a binary discussion has developed where the outdoors and the indoors are seen as having two very different purposes with the indoors most often seen as the default place for learning. You’ll look first at this idea of keeping healthy outdoors.

Internationally, the early years setting has come to be seen as a place for addressing public health concerns; one of these is the duty to help prevent and tackle obesity. This kind of positioning of the setting means that a great emphasis has been given to children being physically active and less emphasis given to the different ways of being outside, including those that are suitable for young children. Perhaps also there is something going on that relates to managing and controlling children and what they do (and don’t do). It could be that some practices have become the norm because they are the ‘taken-for-granteds’ that were discussed in Session 1 of ‘good’ early years practice, including health promotion. Such practices raise pedagogical questions about how to provide an outdoor environment for under twos which can support more diverse ‘ways of being’; it also raises questions about the role of the practitioner in such an environment. A role where they are encouraged to see the young child as more than the physically active child which Ulla (2017) identifies is the ‘ideal child’ in relation to early years practice. If a practitioner, or parent, is able to view the young child in a more holistic way then potentially the outdoor area would be looked at in a more holistic way also i.e., not just as a place for physical development and keeping healthy and not as somewhere separate, different and less important.

The focus on eliminating obesity has meant that the early years setting has had to take this responsibility seriously and look for ways, and more specifically places, to do this. There are bigger questions here as to whether the setting has become ‘zoned’ in accordance with what are described as more ‘performative’ agendas (things that can be measured and used to make judgements). So, for example, the indoors has become a place for learning targets and the outdoors for physical targets. Some settings use the sort of terminology with children which emphasises this separation of zones i.e., they say ‘do your work and then you can go and run around outside’ or they may look for a break in the clouds on a rainy day so that the children can get outside to be active; some settings call time spent outdoors as ‘puff and pant time’ stressing that it is a time to run and get out of breath before you come back inside to settle down and be calmer and quieter. This kind of thinking can then trickle down to those who care for babies so that the outside environment and the inside environment are seen as two distinct places with distinct purposes.

Physical exercise is very important as is a focus on physical development; this importance is not being questioned for one moment and there is often more space outside if children want to run and jump, which of course they must be given opportunity to do. At the same time, all children need to have opportunities to ‘just be’ outside no matter what their age.