• Suzanne Axelsson

Natural Healing

This post is about the power of getting outside and interacting with nature (and the nature bit can be done inside... but I will save that for a separate post... as going through my photos to prepare for this post I realised just how many I have and how many I really want to share with you...)


There are so many posts available explaining why being outside is important for children's well-being and physical development - to be able to engage in big play as well as fine motor play. This post is not going to cover those sort of details again... I have previously and there are, as I just wrote, many articles, and research papers that do that even better.


Being in a pandemic has put a focus on how can we create spaces for play and learning that also reduces the spread of infections. Here in Sweden we have naturally had a big focus on the outdoors... which has stepped up another notch during covid-19 times. There is often more space outside for children to engage in small groups.

One of the courses I teach at Stockholm University is about creating spaces for play and exploration outside... so the afternoon I spend with the trainee early years educators is spent exploring ideas of what kind of spaces, resources, educator attitudes are needed to do that. And I think this is a good place to start for all schools and EY settings.

Evaluate the space that you have outside, including the space you have easy access to outside the school premises (if policies allow you) - as these spaces can allow you to focus on other ideas for exploration... for instance if you have a gate on your premises that allows you to directly go into the forest or some kind of nature, then maybe you could include that as your nature area and focus on other things within your designated space? The idea is to create a holistic space for all hundred languages of learning and play.


The image to the left shows just such a gate, giving children and adults the opportunity to play in the forest as well as the preschool yard. (Molkom)

I am also keen to move away from the idea of one area being for science, another for role-play and another for art... I want a more trans-disciplinary approach, that does not mean that we should not be creating ateliers etc outside, but that we should be designing ateliers not just for art, but for science and maths etc... so that the aesthetic language is one that can explore the entire curriculum for instance.


I think if we have a focus on the word exploration it can really help with how we design spaces... to explore art, to explore nature, to explore our own physical abilities, to explore physics and chemistry, to explore maths, to explore literacy... then what we are doing is creating play where learning can be found... rather than making learning playful. it is also enabling the children to have agency... to be empowered to make discoveries. These discoveries can be observed by you as an educators, documented and then enter a dialogue with the children about what they noticed and what you noticed... but leaving the space for the children to learn through the language of play. The dialogue can wait. Some children of course need a bit more support and their play narrated, maybe to help them decode the play language, or to help them acquire the language skills needed to engage equally in play with others. There is no absolute way of doing something. be there when needed and not just because you can see a teachable moment...


I am also a big believer in a well designed surface. Not just one surface, but a surface that speaks to the children... tells them stories of play and ways to engage with the outside, engages their senses through sound, sight, touch, and also works with the educator, during times where physical distancing has become a thing, to encourage children to space out and be aware of their interactions with others... For instance during my visits to AnjiPlay kindergartens in China the surfaces were a bug guide to the different areas of exploration... the children were free to go between the areas, but the helped define them. I also saw a good use of ground surface when I visited Boulder Journey School in Colorado, USA, it was not on the same vast scale as in Anji (where their outdoor spaces were breathtaking and drool-inducingly amazing) but it clearly shows that using a mix of sand, stone, wood, gravel etc can encourage children to be aware of the space and inspire different kinds of play. I know my observations of the preschoolers I have worked with that the play surface has an enormous impact... lines, surface type etc... for instance we visited the City Hall here in Stockholm that had a series of lines in the garden - sort of pathways criss-crossing and immediately the children fell into a game of chase of a labyrinth kind... keeping to the pathways and running up and down... it was like they collectively understood the lines as there was little verbal communication about how they should be used.

There are also barefoot paths to stimulate the senses... and my dream has been to create a sensory trike path... where children could ride their bikes on different surfaces... the wheels creating different sounds, the surface impacting how hard or easy it is to pedal, slopes up and down to build muscles and to feel the speed... as well as crossing to be aware of others... and sometimes small musical fences alongside so they could bike with a stick and drag it along the fence to make sounds... and depending on speed it would impact the sound...

Bikes and trikes have often been a big attraction in play spaces - especially in urban locations where children do not have access to their own trike as there is not the space for them to safely play on them... bikes also mean a natural physical distance... and they are easily cleaned, if that is a requirement of your setting. (wouldn't it be great for some play spaces to build trike parks... spaces for young children to explore riding their bikes from a sensory point of view...? but I am digressing)


Another thing to think of is shelter... some of us live in places in the world with a LOT of weather variety and some extremes in weather too... So we need to think about how to reduce windchill, how to keep warm, how to keep cool and shaded on hot days, a roof can shelter on extreme wet days to allow outdoor play in both wet and dry (even the best clothes can get saturated when busy in play). Think about creating these spaces not just for sit down work, put for bigger and more active play too. Then there is also a need for small spaces too, to get away and have some "me" time to wind down. Some children get very stressed being around a lot of others all the time... so creating spaces to reduce stress is important for all to engage in deep play and learning. Stressed and anxious children will not be able to access that. Below is a slide show of various ideas... (I would also like to point out that in Sweden the Sami people have a shelter that looks very similar to the one built by Native Americans - and the example in the photos below is a kåta (koh-tah) - when it comes to Indigenous shelters etc, I think we should always be respectful and aware of our choices and share this with the children)


So now I am going to share images to inspire... from around the world... Sweden (various settings and playspaces), AnjiPlay in China, Dorothy Snot in Greece, Canada, USA, Iceland (from my visit with Play Iceland), Palestine, Italy, UK, Australia... take a look at the photos with the idea of not cloning anything... but reflecting on how would this impact the children I work with, does it need adapting to meet regulations I have to follow... can I achieve the same play and learning experience with different materials... how sustainable is this... for the planet and over time... as well as financially...AND socially sustainable... there is no point investing in resources and designs that your educators and parents are not yet ready for.. take it one step at a time and don't throw everyone into the deep end...


start with clothing... can you provide the clothes children need to be outside for the length of time they need to be... is there some sort of funding you can apply to in order to invest in the clothes that give children the freedom to explore. Are parents able to fund this themselves... these are important questions to ask, (AnjiPlay) Here in Sweden we can get the odd extreme hot days of over 30 degrees celsius plus all the way down to minus 20 degrees C and colder... we have a LOOOONG winter where we are in winter overalls from early October until sometimes late April... but this does not stop us going outside. Mittens are something I have a love hate relationship with, because I love how they keep hands warm, but I hate how they restrict children from exploring the way they want... especially the youngest children who experience so much by sensory processing with their hands (0-2 year olds especially). I also get very cold hands often because I have not mastered the skill of taking photographs with mittens on... I keep saying I am not going to take any more photos... and then the children do something worth documenting which I know I would be angry with myself if I did not capture it... (also after a while phones and cameras cease to work when very cold... I have learned that by experience, and shove cold phones and cameras inside my jackets to bring them back to life again!!!)


Just look at the different areas... some roofed... space to create little groups, different surfaces, access to different materials pathways are a great way to define spaces (AnjiPlay)


A sheltered corner... and a roof... making a small outdoor classroom like area... a space for children to sit and write and draw when they want to...possibly with small blocks, or do mini experiments... or the children could use it to play shop, or restaurant or hospital (a good way to process emotions for children hard effected by the pandemic). You do not have to define the space... just create a space for many uses...


Överby preschool just outside of Stockholm has created a selection of outdoor spaces... this was designed together with the children... and there was a big time line of reflections, research and decisions as well as actions taken on the hallway wall showing how the outdoor space evolved... - cycle paths, barefoot paths, areas for roleplay, sheltered areas, space to run, space to climb, and slide - there were also some small outhouses to do woodwork and as an atelier.. with tables outside too

It is not simply about creating different areas, but also being aware of how these areas connect... to also create borderlands where new levels of creativity can exist...


think about shade... trees and natural vegetation have a more complex shadow... with various strengths and movement... this is much more stimulating for the eyes and brain - and this is a good thing... it is the right kind of stimulation that is also relaxing (Boulder, Colorado)


think about nature... if you are planting things how can they help the children understand the year and the seasons... think about the size of plants too... sometimes it can be overwhelming that nature is so tall and bigger than them, at other times it can be exhilarating. Reflect on the needs of your children . Take photos and films at child height, or get down on your knees to see how the children experience it from their perspective. (Stockholm, Sweden). The below images are from the same space as above, but at different times of the year. It was a small communal garden close to a setting I worked at that did not have its own outdoor space. While I lamented the possibility of designing a space for play and exploration based on the children I worked with, I did get the opportunity to learn that children of all ages are competent to go on excursions - not just the older ones; We became a part of the community rather than an institution of childhood behind gates and doors; we got to experience a wide variety of playspaces and I learned how these different spaces impacted the way the same group of children played... I really got to see how some spaces were more about chasing, some more about climbing, some more about role-play... and I learned how to observe play spaces and get really good at guessing how children would play there because of that...



think about gardening... not everyone is going to have the great fortune to have the space to create a garden as the one above in Molkom... they also have a gardener that works with them to teach the children and staff about gardens, plants and growing things... But there are many more manageable ways to start gardening... again do this in steps, don't be over ambitious... start with a project that is sustainable, and then expand from that... below are some more images of plants being grown outside.. (although they would not load at this time... so I will get back to this later)



When it comes to materials, think about not just what you are offering the children as resources for play and exploration, but also the resources relationships with each other, with the senses and with the setting... think about the sound they make when they fall... with the purpose of creating different sounds (so children discover the qualities of different materials) think about how resources connect - and also don't connect, for both are equally important to learn... Also what is important (when you look at the images below for inspiration) remember take one step at a time; you do not have to have everything at once... both you and the children have to learn how to find them, use them and put them away in a manner that maximises the amount of play experienced by the children. If you have so many materials that the children spend more time tidying up than playing then there is something out of balance... either less materials, or a more playful way to tidy up (for me tidying up means the space is ready for play... the children know where the materials are, so that they can get it when it is needed for play... not finding a resource can mean play is interfered with... and that can be a positive and negative thing) Images come from AnjiPlay, China, Boulder Journey School, Molkom, Sweden, Stockholm, Sweden and include things as simple as a set up for International Mud Day in the local square... sometimes you do not need a lot of things to have the maximum amount of play and exploration... but it is about how these things interconnect and interact, and understanding the needs and interests of the children you are working with.



In my next post about the outside and nature... I will focus more on activities and experiences that can be offered... this post is about inspiring reflection - about what you can do with the outdoor space that you have...


For more ideas and reflections check out the following posts...and with lots of images to inspire

Land Art

The Big Sleep, (the outdoors impacts sleep quality... my husband is a sleep researcher, so there are a lot of dialogues at home about the importance of sleep and rest on well-being, stress and cognition)


Outdoor Inspiration from I Ur of Skur (Rain or Shine preschools)


Sand and Water play (AnjiPlay inspiration)


International Fairy Tea Party (this has a big focus on the outdoors)


One step at a time (AnjiPlay inspiration, but also thinking about not trying to do it all at once..)


Construction Play (in AnjiPlay they have a LOT of outdoor construction materials)


Playing with paint (AnjiPlay outdoor painting experiences)


Clay play (more anjiplay... this time focusing on clay)


Thoughts based on a Tragedy... (this post was written in response to a tragic death of a child at a EY setting... and how sometimes fear sets in motions unachievable policies of vigilance that restrict children's play. Yes play should be safe... but how safe is too safe?)


Whole body painting (an outdoor painting session I had with some children)


ladybirds/bugs are an interest... here as some ideas to explore Outdoor play v indoor play


Feel the rain... don't stop going outside just because it rains...


Trees - to climb or not to climb...


Snow Play

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Interaction Imagination

© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com 

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