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

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1.2 To free flow or not to free flow?

A baby climbing up some steps.
Figure 2 A baby climbing the steps to get back inside.

The way that space is used inside the setting could also present a challenge as it can limit opportunities to free flow access to the outdoors. The concept of free flow play between the indoors and outdoors is that children have the freedom to come and go as they please between the indoor and outdoor environments. Tina Bruce uses the term ‘freeflow’ to describe Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) ideas about being engrossed in play. She says it is important because ‘during their free flowing play children use the technical prowess, mastery and competence they have developed to date. They are confident and in control’ (Bruce, 2020). Some of this description could equally apply to being able to free flow between indoors and outdoors such as having ‘mastery and competence’ and being ‘confident and in control’ (Bruce, 2020).

Yet early years settings often inherit buildings that are not necessarily designed for the care and education of young children; they are sometimes converted old houses, schools, village halls or community centres. Childminders, meanwhile, are caring for children in their own homes. This means that the setting layout could make it difficult for the children to have free flow access to outdoors even if practitioners believe that this kind of pedagogy is important to provide. An even greater challenge is when the baby room is on the first floor of the building. This means stairs must be navigated, and children carried, if the whole group is to be taken outside.

Ouvry and Furtado (2019, p. 69) suggest that ‘imaginative practitioners have always found ways of overcoming obstacles that are thrown up by unsuitable premises’ and give some suggestions to solve the problem of a lack of direct access to the outdoor space. For instance, changing the mindset of practitioners about what ‘no direct access’ means, for instance if a corridor leading from a baby room to the outdoor space can be made secure so that children are able to use it freely. You may remember in Session 2, you learned about some of the imaginative practices that Josephidou and Kemp observed including:

  • young babies who spent most of the day outside and whose indoor environment was a yurt
  • babies who were taken by buggy to a meadow where they were allowed to run or crawl free
  • children who could crawl in and out at will from the indoor to outdoor environment, even on a rainy January day dressed in custom made clothing designed by the setting.

Although free flow is of course an important pedagogy in early years practice, in reality it can be hard to achieve owing to the complexities of building design. There are also questions around whether free flow is always the best way to allow very young children to access the outdoors. Setting owners and managers need to find the best solution for their own setting, their children, their parents, and their practitioners. Just because children have constant access to the outdoors through free flow provision, does not necessarily mean they are experiencing the best practice.