“The more time we allow our children to be in sensory rich environments, the greater the opportunities there are for brain growth”

Ginny Ywich, 1000 Hours Outside

The outdoors provides so many opportunities for learning and growth

It is well documented that children need to get outside to support their development. In the outdoor world, children have the opportunity to practise a variety of skills and learn through all of their senses. At Sunshines, we place a high value on the importance of our outside spaces and utilise them every day in a variety of ways. Along with our own outside garden spaces and allotment, we also use local facilities in the community to enhance the children’s learning and development. Here are a few of the ways we support children’s holistic development using our outside spaces:

Supporting the eight senses

Alongside the five famous senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) we have an additional three senses that are honed and developed best in the outside environment (vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive). Below are the ways we utilise our outdoor facilities to support each sense:

Sight: Our gardens and outdoor spaces are designed to be visually appealing and stimulating. Using a variety of materials, both natural and man made, we can encourage our children to hunt for bugs in our bug hotels or for numbers on our outdoor number line. As the year progresses, we often take our children out for walks to spot things in the environment such as a specific shape, a number hunt, or to look at and name the different types of buildings we have in the local area.

Hearing: We go on regular “Listening Walks” with the children to support their phonological awareness – learning to listen and tell the difference between different noises and sounds supports their ability to discriminate between sounds which builds vital skills needed to learn phonics in reception and beyond. Spotting aeroplanes and helicopters, and listening for emergency service vehicles is always a fun activity while we play!

Touch/Smell/Taste: Each setting has their own growing beds and pots, which the children help to plant and grow. We choose plants for their sensory properties – they may be soft to touch or have a distinctive smell. We also plant vegetables and fruit which we then harvest and cook for snacks. By showing the children where our food comes from, and with the children taking an active role in the whole process, we hope they will be more inclined to try different tastes and textures. 

Sensory garden with spring flowers. The children planted the bulbs themselves in winter and were super excited to see them bloom in the spring!

Our vestibular system tells us where our bodies are in space – whether we are hanging upside down or the right way up – and helps us to run, walk, and maintain our balance. It helps with sitting still and upright in the classroom in later life. To support children’s vestibular systems, we provide opportunities to climb and balance on a variety of different surfaces, from logs and planks, to ladders and climbing equipment.  

Our proprioceptive sense supports us to know how our body is moving through space. It enables us to know the force we need to pick up a tin of beans compared to a cotton wool ball, without thinking about it. For our children, they need to develop this sense to support their writing: to know how much force to use as they press their pencil on the paper or reading: knowing how to hold the book and turn the pages. To support children’s proprioception, we offer them the chance to play with large and heavy objects such as drain pipes, funnels and wooden blocks; we provide opportunities for them to push and pull heavy and light objects, as well as climbing opportunities and using wheeled toys.

Interoceptive sense is the ability to know how one is feeling: hot or cold/ sleepy or energetic/ hungry or thirsty etc. By providing daily opportunities for children to be both inside and outside, we are changing their external environment and give children more opportunities to notice a difference in how their body is feeling. This, along with regular opportunities for children to decide what they want to play with, whether they need a snack or a drink at our snack station and time dedicated to exploring feelings and emotions, allows us to support children’s interoceptive sense and help them to be in touch with who they are. 

Supporting children’s areas of development

Each dedicated outdoor space encourages children to further their literacy, maths, personal and social development, gross and fine motor skills, communication and expressive arts and design skills. Children are encouraged to count, collect and describe natural materials; we have story-telling chairs and books that we use in the garden, and bats and balls support cooperative play skills while sharing bikes and trikes support children’s turn-taking skills! We paint using water, collect materials to make nature pictures as well as playing games and singing songs to teach traditional playground games. No wonder your child comes home tired from a day at preschool!    

Supporting children’s sense of belonging to their community

As well as our own dedicated outdoor spaces at each preschool, we utilise our local facilities as much as possible too. At our two Knowle settings, this involves regular visits to Redcatch Community Garden (RCG), which is within walking distance, and our RCG link worker visits the preschool if we cannot visit ourselves. The children enjoy a variety of activities that teach them about gardening, wildlife and eco-living. We also have our own allotment at Talbot Road, where the children enjoy planting, harvesting and playing and exploring in soil, mud and water. At our Whitchurch setting, the children also visit a local allotment site, as well as visiting local parks and stables to learn about animal husbandry. 

Every year we aim to organise at least three coach trips for each setting: two to our local forest school area where the children enjoy forest school crafts, exploring and building dens and running games, and one to Warleigh Lodge Farm near Bath where children are introduced to a variety of farm animals, encouraged to collect the eggs, feed the lambs, take part in stream walking, hill rolling and tractor rides. 

The open fields at Warleigh Lodge Farm

We believe these trips, and our dedicated garden spaces, and how we use them, enable children to experience the outdoors in its fullest, and strive to ensure that all children leave Sunshines with a love of nature, the environment, and their place in the big green world around them.