So, it's midwinter, and if you're a daycare provider, there's a good chance that the doors to your garden are now closed once dusk falls. If dark evenings are scuppering the progress you've made in providing freeflowing indoor-outdoor play, a few simple, low-cost interventions will allow your outdoor space to become usable all day, every day.
Playing out after dark is perfectly possible, and what's more, children of all ages relish the excitement and magic of outdoors after dark. In the UK, dark or dusky early evenings are a feature of at least five months of our year. If we don't enable our children to play out in the twilight, whatever the season, they miss out on the unique learning opportunities that this special part of the day offers.
WHY GO OUT IN THE DARK?
In the darkness, we have to rely on senses other than vision to find our way around. Hearing is heightened and hands and feet feel their way around a space, testing surfaces and seeking purchase.
The sounds, smells, tastes and atmosphere of outdoors are truly different after dark. Allowing children to explore a familiar environment when it has an unfamiliar ambience helps them develop an adventurous spirit.
At night, noises are louder. Car horns, sirens and laughter all become more insistent in the dark, and for children these sounds filtering into their setting from outside convey a new perspective on their community.
Smells are stronger - especially in the late summer, when plants release scent to attract nocturnal insects and creatures. The rich, wintry, 'ozoney' smell of night-time fills children's lungs and stirs them into movement.
The pleasure of a secret snack in the garden, a taste of mint or chives from a herb pot, or perhaps sneakily pulling a carrot or two (just like Peter Rabbit) takes on a whole new aspect in the dark: children must remember where to go and then apply their noses and fingers to the task of finding and testing the food.
Being outside doesn't just offer sensory delights, however. Children find new words to describe how they feel about outdoors after dark, and are eager to tell you about it.
Once they find their feet outdoors, they will want to explore their favourite places and test their skills against the challenge of darkness.
A climbing frame that presents little challenge during daylight hours becomes a Matterhorn at night; the balance beam conquered many months ago is suddenly as tricky as a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers; the sand feels cold and dry and silky in the evening air; splashing water splatters and bounces darkly around children's feet.
Children's consciousness of the shape of their own bodies and the space they occupy is completely transformed after dark. Their appreciation of their own physical, emotional and intellectual abilities is altered. When out after dark, children must reappraise their own competencies.
GETTING OUT AFTER DARK
Create your own light sources
Fire: children love gazing into the flames.
- Use a chiminea or barbecue if you are not confident in building a fire in a fire pit
- Play with sparklers
- Plant wax torches or citronella candles into a flower bed
Glowsticks: children find endless ways to use these low-cost resources.
- Create glowstick chains to string between the trees or fences
- Cut 'eyes' out of used carboard tubes, place glowsticks inside, then hide the glowing 'eyes' around the garden to create a creepy trail
- Swish glowsticks through the air, or toss them into the night sky
Artificial light: make the most of available sources.
- Flashlights and head torches will help children play with 'daytime' equipment such as climbing frames or the sandpit
- Play with shadows from street lights, drawing around them with chalk on the ground or casting them on to a sheet strung between two trees
- Place solar garden lights around your space
- A movement sensitive security light can be a playful (and useful) addition to outdoors
Fluorescent and glow-in-the dark items: they are guaranteed to intrigue.
- Immerse chalks in ink squeezed from a highlighter pen
- Buy glow-in-the-dark rope
- Source reflectors and hi-viz objects like snap-on armbands
Concentrate on other senses
- Share healthy snacks in the garden: lay out picnic blankets or toast marshmallows on the fire
- Taste edible plants in your garden, such as herbs or wild strawberries
- Sniff your way around the garden - plan ahead for next year by planting strongly scented night time plants such as evening primrose, border phlox, mahonia japonica and night jasmine
- Explore sounds, using, for example, rainmakers, bells, whistles and musical instruments. Lay sound trails, make music, play hide and seek or just enjoy the unusual sensation of sounds emerging from the depths of darkness. Pound shops and DIY stores are great sources of afterdark play items.
For most pre-school children, playing out after dark is a new experience, and your risk assessment should take this into account. Activities you probably don't even think of as risky - such as walking along a pathway - suddenly take on a new dimension when children are not able to see where they are placing their feet.
As advocated by the Health and Safety Executive, Play England and RoSPA, a 'risk benefit' approach to risk assessment is a constructive way to enable high-quality, exhilarating outdoor play. This means addressing risk in a slightly different way: identify potential hazards, but then consider the activity's benefits and weigh these against one another to determine the value of going ahead.
Your risk benefit assessment should include:
- a description of the activity
- potential hazards
- the benefits that children will gain from the activity
- ways to mitigate the hazard
- overall risk rating - does the benefit outweigh the risk?
Plan for play after dark carefully; key points to consider include:
- moving around your garden; getting in and out of the building
- supervising groups of children
- climbing and balancing
- hiding and den building
- using equipment and materials (for example, wheely toys and loose parts).
Remember, the EYFS makes it clear that written risk assessments are not needed for every activity you undertake. However, you may find that recording your risk-benefit assessment helps colleagues feel more confident to try playing out after dark.
Julie Mountain is director of Play Learning Life, which supplies an After Dark resource box, including sleigh bells, castanets and train hoot whistles. email@example.com.