Step inside a YMCA Auckland Early Learning Centre and what’s immediately apparent is flow between the indoors and outdoors.

“The doors to our outside play area are open all the time,” YMCA Manurewa Early Learning Centre manager Shannon Keane explains.

“Closed doors present a barrier to the children that says it’s not safe out there.”

YMCA Auckland's Early Learning Centres are part of a growing movement in early childhood education to address what’s been dubbed the ‘Vitamin N deficiency’. N stands for nature.

“We’re not experiencing enough of the outdoors with our children in New Zealand,” Shannon says.

“Instead we’re often distracted by screens or we feel too time-poor for outdoor activities.”

To tackle the problem, Shannon and her team are working on pulling back the technology and helping the children get in touch with being a bit muddy. The result is regular trips to a local bushland and the integration of a number of natural objects into the centre’s onsite play areas.

“A lot of the objects we have found and collected from local bushland have become the go-to play objects for the kids, rather than their plastic toys,” Shannon says.

Building on their success
In April 2016 Shannon and her team undertook an appreciative inquiry review through the Ministry of Education. Shannon says the review enabled teachers, students and parents to focus on how they could enhance their positive experiences and risky play in the outdoor environment, and helped them put in place a number of steps to ensure their students could explore the natural world in a safe but self-directed way.

“It really made us as teachers think about how we were interacting with the children, and how the positive experiences of risky play outside are enhanced when children explore and experiment in the environment and are viewed as capable, competent and confident independent learners.”

Feedback from parents and caregivers has been positive, Shannon says, with many finding their children were wanting to play outside more often when at home.

“It’s been really great to support our children and families in forming connections with nature and helping them fall in love with the outside world.”

Shannon and YMCA’s Early Learning Centre Group Manager Lorraine Duncumb recently presented the findings of their appreciative inquiry review at the 2017 Child and Nature Network Conference in Canada.