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The Educator's Role in Outdoor Play

outdoor play climbing frame

Teachers and teaching assistants adopt many roles on a daily basis. They ignite curiosity, scaffold learning, and adapt to each child's learning style and pace, no matter the surrounding. When it comes to outdoor play, they are more than just safety supervisors; they are still facilitators, co-learners, guides and mentors. They are tasked with creating an enabling environment - one that is engaging, well-resourced, and designed to bring wonder and cultivate curiosity. It's an environment where children feel encouraged to explore, investigate, and engage in imaginative play. While the open skies and green fields of the outdoors provide a natural playground for children, it is the teachers and classroom assistants who shape these experiences into meaningful learning opportunities.


Strategies for Effective Learning through Outdoor Play

Effective outdoor learning in EYFS requires thoughtful planning and execution. It’s about creating an environment that is not only safe and engaging, but also conducive to holistic development. Here are some strategies educators can employ to enhance outdoor learning experiences:


Create a Stimulating Environment

sensory sand play

The outdoor space should be inviting and stimulating. It needs to offer a variety of experiences - from quiet areas for contemplation, to open spaces for physical play. Incorporating natural elements like plants, sand, water, and different textures can stimulate sensory exploration. Educators should ensure that the environment is flexible and adaptable to cater to the evolving interests and needs of children.


Integrate Learning with Play

Learning through play is a fundamental principle of the EYFS framework. Teachers should design activities that seamlessly blend learning objectives with play. This could be through structured games that teach counting or storytelling sessions that encourage language development. The key is to make learning so engaging that children don’t even realize they’re developing key skills.


Foster Independence and Exploration

Children learn best when they have the freedom to explore and make discoveries on their own. Educators should encourage independent exploration, providing the resources and support needed but allowing children the space to learn and explore at their own pace. This promotes autonomy and confidence in children.


outdoor play in nature

Use Nature as a Teaching Tool

The natural world is full of learning opportunities. Educators can use elements of nature to teach various concepts - from science and mathematics to art. Activities like identifying plant species, counting pebbles, or creating art with leaves can make learning both fun and relevant.


Promote Risk-Taking Within Safe Boundaries

A certain level of risk is essential for children’s development. Educators need to strike a balance between ensuring safety and allowing children to take manageable risks. This could mean climbing a little higher or exploring a new area. It's about teaching children to assess and manage risks, which is a crucial life skill.


Encourage Social Interaction and Teamwork

Outdoor settings are ideal for developing social skills. Educators should facilitate activities that require teamwork and cooperation, helping children to develop empathy, communication skills, and an understanding of working collaboratively.


Reflective Practice and Continuous Improvement

Educators should engage in regular reflection and assessment of their outdoor learning strategies. This involves observing the effectiveness of activities, seeking feedback from children, and making necessary adjustments. Continuous professional development is also crucial to stay updated with the latest in early years education.


Involve Parents and the Community

community outdoor play inspired activites

Involving parents and the community in outdoor learning can enrich the experience. Educators can invite parents for outdoor activities or collaborate with local environmental groups for special projects. This not only broadens the learning experience but also helps build a supportive community around the children.


Document and Celebrate Learning

Documenting children’s activities and achievements in the outdoor setting is important. It helps in assessing progress and also in communicating these developments to parents. Celebrating these achievements, no matter how small, boosts children’s confidence and motivation.


The Many Roles of The Outdoor Teacher


Teacher and outdoor play

Facilitator and Observer

Schools are responsible for creating an environment where children feel safe to explore, take risks, and express their curiosity. This involves thoughtful planning of activities that are not just enjoyable but also align with the developmental needs of each child. By watching how children interact with their environment and each other, teachers can gain more candid insights into each child's interests, learning styles, and developmental stages. This observational role is highlighted in the work of researchers like Bilton (2010), who emphasize the importance of educators being reflective practitioners, adept at adapting their strategies based on their observations.


Scaffolding Learning

Teachers often use the strategy of 'scaffolding' to support and extend children's learning, and this can also be applied to outdoor play. This involves providing just enough assistance to help children achieve a task they cannot complete on their own, gradually reducing this support as the child becomes more competent. Scaffolding in an outdoor context might involve setting up a challenging physical activity, then gradually stepping back as children gain confidence and skill.


Adapting to Individual Needs

Each child is unique, and this is particularly evident in outdoor play. Some children may be naturally adventurous, while others may be more cautious. Teachers must adapt their approach to suit these individual differences, ensuring that each child feels supported and challenged in a way that is appropriate for them.


Role Modelling and Guidance

Teachers are also role models in outdoor settings. Their enthusiasm and engagement in outdoor activities can inspire children and demonstrate positive attitudes towards nature and physical activity. Teachers guide children in understanding and respecting their environment, helping them learn about the natural world and their role in preserving it.


Encouraging Exploration and Risk-Taking

A significant aspect of the teachers's role is to encourage exploration and a healthy level of risk-taking. This does not mean putting children in harm's way, but allowing them to test their limits in a controlled and safe environment. This can lead to significant growth in terms of physical skills, confidence, and problem-solving abilities.


Supporting Social and Emotional Development

Outdoor play is a rich context for social and emotional learning. Teachers play a key role in facilitating interactions among children, helping them to develop skills such as sharing, cooperation, and conflict resolution. They can also support children in managing their emotions, particularly during challenging or frustrating situations that may arise during play.


Continuous Learning and Professional Development

Teacher training session on outdoor play

Learning and outdoor play isn’t just for the children. Schools must assist teachers and classroom assistants with continuous learning and professional development, and do their best to remain informed about the latest research and best practices in outdoor education in order to provide the highest quality experience for their students.


Conclusion

In conclusion, the teacher in an outdoor EYFS setting is not just a supervisor, but a pivotal figure in shaping the learning and developmental experiences of young children. As ever, their role involves careful planning, keen observation, skillful scaffolding, adaptability, role modelling, encouragement of exploration, and ongoing professional development. Through their guidance, outdoor play becomes a powerful tool for holistic learning and development.


Whether you're an educator, parent, or someone passionate about early childhood development, your involvement can make a significant difference. Start by integrating these strategies and insights into your teaching approach, or share them with educators and caregivers in your community. For more resources and to join a community dedicated to innovative early education, visit Signet Play.


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