Often when we think about using the environment to teach young children, we focus on the natural world and ignore all the wonderful examples that exist around us in the built environment. Early Years Update discusses ways to use the man-made environment around us to develop early years learning

Investigating the local environment provides many opportunities to:

  • build directly on children’s everyday experiences
  • plan activities which involve families
  • help children build their self-confidence and sense of belonging to a community
  • draw on the rich and varied cultures which exist around you
  • promote a positive attitude to children being physically active in the open air
  • plan journeys and visits at different times of the year to look at seasonal changes and build children’s learning over time
  • encourage children to develop an awareness of danger and a sense of safety in the outdoor environment
  • increase your visibility and raise the profile of your setting within your community.

A large town or city may spring to mind when thinking about the built environment, but you can find many of the same features in even the smallest hamlet or rural locality. The built environment is made up of a wide range of places, services and people for you to explore with the children. These might include:

  • buildings of many different types
  • networks of roads and railways
  • services and utilities such as water, sewers, telephones and electricity
  • green spaces
  • signs and symbols
  • sounds, smells and textures
  • the lives of the people who live in the built environment.

Practical ideas

Outdoors with the under 3s
When you take babies and toddlers out to experience the built environment, try to use these opportunities to encourage learning:

  • Note the skills babies use to make contact; for example inclining their heads, wiggling their toes, eye contact, banging, smiling, vocalising.
  • Use the routine of a familiar walk – dressing, setting off, following a route, passing familiar land marks – to sing and talk about, and encourage babies to vocalise too.
  • Talk about what you see, hear, smell and feel around you.
  • Play and sing rhymes which encourage turn taking and responses.
  • Listen to and respond to their questions, both serious and playful.
  • Draw attention to marks, signs and symbols in the environment and talk about what they represent.
  • Focus on meaningful print such as street names, shop signs and road signs to help children to recognise symbols.
  • Take photographs to record a visit and use these to provide children with the opportunity to recall their adventure later.
  • Look for patterns and shapes in railings, brickwork, windows and doors.

Pre-school children in the built environment

  • Make the most of the learning opportunities which arise when you are planning your journey, as well as focusing on follow-up activities back in your setting.
  • Include the children in discussions about where to go and what the purpose of the visit is. Involve them in the decisions about when to go, how to get there and what to take. Don’t forget that you will need to take notice of the suggestions the children make.
  • Organising a journey will give children the experience of planning in a series of logical steps. Help them think about the whole visit and then to break it down into different aspects such as, ‘How far you can walk?’, ‘How long it will take?’, ‘How many adults will you need?’ and ‘Which route should we take?’. Ask ‘What will we need?’, ‘How will we carry it?’, ‘How can we make sure we stay safe?’
  • Plan a journey that involves following directions, looking out for and recording landmarks along the way. This activity will work best if you can arrange to take the children out in small groups of six or eight. Each group can record its own story of the journey for the others to share.

Safety first

  • Staffing ratios must meet at least the minimum recommended levels for children of different ages. You may wish to exceed these by using volunteers who are fully aware of your safety policy and procedures.
  • Identify staff roles and responsibilities, ensuring that they are experienced and suitably qualified and are familiar with the local environment and the route they will be taking.
  • Establish systems for logging who has gone on the visit, the route, the time of departure and the expected time of return.
  • Agree strategies for ensuring the safe control of children while out walking, such as holding hands, walking sensibly, staying together as a group and listening to instructions.
  • Stay in touch. Take a mobile phone and a first aid kit with you.

Links with the EYPS Standards: S8,S11,S16,S17,S19,
Links with Ofsted SEF: 3, 4b,c,d,e,f, 5i,j

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton are early years consultants, trainers and authors and edit Early Years Update. www.alcassociates.co.uk

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