Something magical happens when children go outside. That moment the door opens to the playground and a stampede forms itself out of the door with children yelling ‘yeeeeeeaaaaaaahhh’ with their hands up in the air.
In spring 2020, Danish schools and daycares were opening after the first lockdown. The regulations by the Danish government started to be outdoors as much as possible. Some Danish settings and schools were already used to being outdoors for a big part of their day and in any kind of weather. As they say in Denmark: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing!’.
In our international setting, we did not spend all day outside and we had to adapt and rethink fast. We bought sitting mats, chalk, hardback notebooks, and baskets. We had to make use of the outdoor areas around our school because we couldn't mix age groups on our shared playground. We chose the IEYC unit ‘The World Around Us’ as we found it easier to adapt this unit to match a full outdoor day of learning.
We quickly noticed the children had no conflicts. Perhaps because we had fewer toys to learn to share with, perhaps we were all just so grateful to be back at school, perhaps it was the fresh danish breeze on our faces every day and the excitement of being outdoors. We looked at the ladybug which was found on our way and took the time to wonder about what animal dug the hole at the big tree. So much to see, find and explore. On very sunny days we would lean back against the trees with a good picture book and smell the wildflowers our friends just picked.
We used minimal paper nor photocopies during this time because even with clipboards the wind in Denmark is wild. The IEYC unit we chose, combined with the children engaging in nature, sparked an interest in being more sustainable. Lunch boxes had fewer plastic wrappers because children went home and told their families about plastic ending up in nature and not being good for the birds, hedgehogs, and spiders!
And being outdoors all day felt magical!
When the restrictions lifted a lot more in August 2020, we returned to being indoors again and I set myself the goal for this academic year to use our outdoor playground more with our learners. Where possible we moved our indoor provision areas and IEYC explore and express activities outside onto our playground and made an increase in our outside playtime too. We bought new bicycles and updated our playground with number lines on the ground. We were ready for that outdoor magic from spring 2020!
But the magic wasn't quite there – even with the warmer sunnier weather than we had had in spring- I knew I must be going about this the wrong way.
I realized that I had moved the indoors to the outdoors without planning for outdoor learning as we had done in spring. The children still had all the rules about set play areas and smaller spaces - just outside. I had also made the wrong assumption that a child engaged in a fun game of superhero would stop to say ‘Wait guys, let’s all stop chasing each other for a moment and use this number line on the floor Miss Jen spend so long making' because they used it once because it was new.
I started a new job working in a danish forest kindergarten and I noticed how most of the day was child-led and that the children were demonstrating the IEYC personal goals by thinking about safety when climbing trees, communicating with each other while making pinecone mud soup and collaborating in den building.
Children have a natural urge to learn more about the world around them and this drives them to examine, explore and experiment as they begin to learn about and understand their world and the objects and living things within it. Children need space to examine, explore and experiment and the outdoors offers space. Being outside in nature and a larger space makes way for a whole different way of playing and learning than indoors and children develop more empathy towards the environment and all living things in it.
The children in the forest kindergarten had all this space and all day to examine, explore and experiment in nature. However, there was not much of a curriculum and especially some of the older children were bored and were not met with challenges. They had made pinecone soup for 4 years now and were looking for someone to stretch their interests with developmentally appropriate challenging learning.
It made me wonder if the IEYC curriculum would be able to improve learning in a forest kindergarten and a fully outdoor setting. I tried out some explore and express activities at the forest close to my home and in our countryside garden with a small group of children. Not all suggested unit activities were possible, but a lot could be adapted to fit our outdoor needs and, most importantly, I could use it to improve learning. I also reflected on when we did ‘The World Around Us’ in spring 2020 outdoors and the great success we had with adapting it. So yes- I think that the IEYC is a curriculum that can be used to offer great learning in a fully outdoor setting.
This is why I am excited to use this interest and passion for learning outdoors to write a new IEYC unit on outdoor play! This new unit is inspired by the outside play children around the world engage in and the things they like to examine, explore, and experiment with the outside.
I am aware that not all Early Years settings around the world can commit to full days outside due to climate, air quality and safety. But hopefully, this new unit will not only excite children to play and learn outdoors but also inspire settings to look at their outdoor play space and develop their outdoor area. As well as striving to continue to plan for outdoor learning after they have completed this unit on outdoor play.
Jen (Jennifer) Fagan Simonsen has taught in Daycares, Early Years and Primary classes in various countries and has been implementing the IEYC since it launched in 2016. Today she is the owner of Little Sprouts DK.