Creating the perfect garden for babies and toddlers can be tricky for practitioners. Considerations of safety, temperature control, parents’ views, sleep routines etc. all play their part in what is offered but we also need to be mindful of how we can offer challenge for the children.
The importance of being outdoors for babies and toddlers is clear. They have a right to outdoor play, being under the sky and experiencing the elements. It meets their strong need for exploration of the world around them and offers a wide range of sensory and movement experiences.
Provision of outdoor experiences could be so much richer, if the risk benefits are considered along with a better understanding of what the children are learning.
The best place to start with this provision is by being with babies and toddlers outside regularly for extended periods of time, observing what they are drawn to and building on that.
“Babies belong outside. Infants and toddlers deserve natural outdoor spaces that challenge their emerging sensory and physical skills and are good places for babies and to be with babies”. (Greenman, 2007)
So what do babies and young children need from a baby garden?
Time: Make sure the children have time to wallow, time to explore, time to revisit, time with a loving adult, time with other children, time to communicate and time to be and become.
Practitioners need to be truly present and engaged, spending uninterrupted quality time as play partners.
Movement Opportunities: Babies and toddlers have a strong impulse to move. They are learning so much about their bodies and what they can achieve. There needs to be a space where they can explore and develop their muscles, strength and balance (vestibular development) as well as their understanding of their body in the space (proprioception). Young babies may need to be held, or to lie or sit on the ground with the opportunity to be mobile, alongside their significant adult. Older babies are also developing their positional awareness, core strength, co-ordination and motor abilities. Think about the children’s movement possibilities and how they can be provided for: Under and over, in and out, push and pull, up and down, dig, carry, ride, walk, run and jump etc. Is it possible to provide slopes, steps, climbing equipment and bikes?
Young children need to be able to have a go and take risks, practitioners can be nearby to avoid danger, but use encouraging language to support them to develop a sense of what they can do safely. It is important for us to be aware of the impact of what we say and model a “can do” attitude to develop their confidence.
Sensory Experiences: The outdoors has the potential to offer such a wide range of sensory possibilities. Safe plants can be planted, grown, smelt, picked and tasted by the children. The natural elements are to be celebrated. Babies and toddlers love to feel the wind on their face, notice how their hair is moving and seeing and hearing its effect on things. Hang resources that will enhance what is naturally available.
Rain and water have so much potential. Use the affordances of nature to help with your provision. You might consider making collections of resources for use when it rains, is windy, snowy, sunny or to do gardening etc. Wind chimes, brollies and wellies, collecting containers, scrapers etc. Babies get feedback from the world when interacting with it.
Natural Materials: Young children are drawn to natural materials such as soil, sand, water, pebbles, bark, plants etc. they are important for their developing understanding of the world. If the outdoor area is covered in a safety surface, consider how these can be incorporated. Outdoors is also a great place to develop their ability to tune into sounds, to make connections and to notice when they are near or far. Natural resources can also be provided for creating sounds.
Loose parts, things that can be transported, collected, stacked, balanced, arranged etc. will offer more variety of learning experiences and be more likely to engage the children more deeply. They provide opportunities for problem-solving,
Edges and provocative surfaces: Children are often drawn to edges and borders, where they can balance, notice changes and explore difference. Different surfaces will give their body feedback and they may need to use different muscles and movements to balance and negotiate themselves.
Cause & Effect: Young children need opportunities to manipulate their environment, discover what things will do and notice the effect they might have on the outcome. When children are dropping things, what are they noticing? Is it the sound, the splash, the bounce, the movement? Careful observation helps to understand what the child is trying to find out about. It also helps the practitioner to see how the child is learning, so that they can follow their lead and build on it.
Being together with adults: The presence of a loving familiar adult helps the baby to feel safe, secure and held to enable them to develop the confidence and independence to enjoy the space and its affordances. Comfortable seating for adults and children to sit and be together, have conversations and to rest and relax are also important features of the provision.
The adult’s role outdoors is also very important for interactions. Talking with the children about what they are doing and discovering or extending their vocabulary whilst being alongside them will support their language and communication skills and scaffold their learning.
Finally: Talk with parents about the importance of their child spending regular extended periods of time outside. This means that the practitioner will be able to explain the benefits to parents and talk about what their child is learning (characteristic of effective teaching and learning). Getting parents on board enables them to appreciate the importance of providing the right clothing, that will keep their child protected but also enables mobility. We can explain to parents how we are keeping their child safe but also how we are offering them interest and challenge.
“The outdoors is a wonderfully sensorial place for a baby throughout this year, with lots of sensations for the body, things to notice, watch and reach for, objects and materials to touch, feel and handle, sounds both near and far to listen to and interesting places to be in with an attentive and responsive adult”. (Jan White)
Early Learning Contacts
Nicola Theobald, Lead for Early Years Partnerships
Kate Hubble, Early Years Improvement Officer
Kate Irvine, Early Years Improvement Officer, Early Years Consultant
Beth Osborne, Early Years Consultant
Ali Carrington, Early Years Consultant