The Arts Outdoors

This month Creative Skills Manager Heather explores the importance of artistic activity outside and shares a few great ideas to give a go with your little ones!

The Care Inspectorate’s publication My World Outdoors outlines the many benefits of young children being able to access outdoor spaces as part of their Early Learning and Childcare experiences. While the archetypal image of a child playing outdoors is a ruddy cheeked youngster climbing a tree (why is it always a tree?), on the Care Inspectorate’s website, and within the My World Outdoors document itself (click on the image of the front cover to download the pdf version) there are also examples that show an alternative view: good practice outdoors involving the arts, such as puppets, singing, rhymes, imaginative play and creating transient art.

Bringing the arts outdoors can serve a dual purpose – engaging children who might not usually be interested in the arts, and engaging children who might not usually be interested in playing outdoors. Does it feel like blasphemy to admit that such children may exist? When adults discuss the importance of outdoor play it’s a subject that rarely comes up, but if we want children to benefit from a wide and rich range of experiences, while still recognizing that they are driving their own learning, we need to introduce those rich experiences in ways that inspire and capture their imaginations.

There are two ways you can begin thinking about bringing the arts outdoors:

  • Are there ways to include the arts in outdoor activities we already do?
  • Are there ways to bring the arts we already do, outdoors?

Burnbank branded photo by Neil Thomas Douglas

I’ve listed some examples below, inspired by the artists and Early Years practitioners I’ve had the good fortune of working with through the Creative Skills Programme, but really, these are just scratching the surface of possibilities.

Den Building, Imaginative Play and Storytelling

Den building is already fun, but what if you were building it to hide from a witch or a troll or a massive purple eagle with a watering can? Adding a dimension of imaginative play can add extra meaning to their building and problem solving, and extend their engagement and concentration.

Once the den has been built, could it be used as a snuggly place to enjoy a story together? Some children struggle to concentrate in the typical set up of a story corner as part of a busy nursery, but outdoors, in a purpose built space, could give them the focus to enjoy stories in a new way.

Storytelling on the Hoof

Why does storytelling need to be a static experience? Take your story for a walk – you can use a story you already know, or let the story develop based on whatever you see outdoors. You could dress up as characters and see what happens, or set a challenge, like pirates searching for treasure, and facing dangers along the way.

Moving with Feathers…or even Mud?

Creative Movement can be tricky indoors in a busy, crowded nursery, and access to gym halls can be limited. With a bit of imagination (and some waterproofs) you could be taking advantage of the space outdoors.   Moving with natural materials like feathers, long grasses, moving under and over long sticks or balancing small pebbles on the back of hands or shoulders can inspire children to explore different types of movement.

Movement and mark making can be combined, using sticks or hands and feet to make sweeping arcs in sand or mud or snow. If you’re already kitted out in waterproofs this could be a whole body experience on a muddy or snowy day. If you have an ipod with portable speakers or a ghetto blaster (am I showing my age here?) bringing music into the outdoors can enhance these experiences.

Outdoor Orchestras

Have you ever taken musical instruments outdoors? If not, why not? Without walls to bounce the sound back, musical instruments, singing and chanting can take on different qualities in the great outdoors, and children can explore their full range of volume without adults having to worry about disturbing other classes (or developing crushing headaches).

Natural materials can also be used as musical instruments in their own right, exploring the different sounds that can be made, like rustling grass or clicking pebbles or swooshing sand. Gather these different sounds together and take turns being the conductor, pointing to each “section” of the orchestra.

Making Your Mark Outside

One of the best things about exploring visual arts outside is the opportunity to play with scale. Tape paintbrushes to the end of bamboo poles and turn mark making into a gross motor activity, using water on dry paving for the more mess-averse, or painting on large pieces of paper. You could even experiment with mud painting on tarpaulins.

Chalks really come into their own on paving or other hard surfaces, and can be used to mark trails for treasure hunts and storytelling trails – as well as large and small scale doodling. Add a source of water to see what happens when chalk drawings (or the chalks themselves) get wet. Clipboards with paper or small, hardbacked notebooks can incorporate mark making into imaginative play, as small explorers draw their own maps or write down clues as they solve mysteries.

Natural materials are ideal for transient art, too – make pictures with piles of leaves, sticks and stones, water trails across dry sand, feathers and shells decorating mud pies and sandcastles alike. And don’t be afraid to bring more traditional art materials outside – one of the greatest sights I’ve ever seen was a snowman covered in pink and blue glitter and stuck with lurid pipecleaners.

mud painting

We’d love to hear about your arts experiences outdoors, share your best ideas in the comments below!

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