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

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2.1 Surfaces

At first, surfaces might not be the first thing that you think of when considering an outdoor environment – you might instead consider the resources or other aspects of the environment. But think about the outdoor surfaces and the opportunities they offer as a ‘provocation’. You might already be familiar with the concept of provocations and their role in supporting young children’s learning and development. Strong-Wilson and Ellis (2007) describe them as a pedagogic approach that ‘advocates that teachers pay close attention to the myriad of ways that space can be made to “speak” and invite interaction’. A provocation can be any open-ended resource that provokes children’s thinking and encourages their imagination.

A toddler playing with soil.
Figure 1 A toddler exploring soil in the outside environment.

Think about the surface of artificial grass. You might think that it’s the perfect surface for babies and young children; Kemp and Josephidou (2020) note that in their research they saw artificial grass being used. Common sense thinking might tell you that it’s ideal – it is less problematic for babies to crawl on than a muddy lawn, it is more forgiving than a concrete or tarmac surface if a baby falls over, and there is no worry about babies putting it in their mouth like a bark surface or soil. But in terms of sensory stimulation and provocation, the plastic texture offers very little. This means that there are limitations in the benefits it can provide for cognitive and physical development.

Having a mixture of surfaces such as grass, sand, bark, tarmac, rubber, concrete and soil offer provocations to young children. They allow children the opportunity to investigate and to extend their learning. These are surfaces that can be explored by both little hands and little feet. Although practitioners may have concerns that some of these surfaces, particularly bark or sand, may end up in children’s mouths, this can be avoided with close adult observation and support.

Research literature has also noted examples of how important edging is as a feature in the outdoor area; this is something that Kemp and Josephidou (2020) noticed in their observations of settings. Another word for edging may be ‘borders’, such as paving or wooden low-level logs. Morrissey et al. (2015) carried out research in the Australian context focusing on a setting which decided to revitalise their outdoor area. The researchers found through their observations that ‘the introduction of features such as edging, levels and inclines appeared to increase the level and variety of children’s physical activity, and lead to greater utilization of the space’ (p. 29).

It is important to remember to consider what the children find most provocative and what fascinates them the most. And provocative surfaces may not necessarily just be horizontal. Robertson (2017) shares the importance of thinking about vertical surfaces as well, such as ‘latticing, wall, fences and hedges to look through’ (p. 216). These allow young children the opportunity to play peekaboo, to poke items through, to have privacy and to stretch up to. The adult should observe closely to notice what young children find most provocative. These would be good indications of what fascinates them and could be incorporated and contrasted with other things (opposites like rough and smooth; reflective and opaque, for example).