Enabling Environments: Outdoors - All decked out

Staff at Little Acorns Nursery in Urmston, Manchester, have transformed the outdoor provision for their under-twos. Nursery manager Paula Wilkinson explains how.

At Little Acorns, we were concerned that we did not have a designated area where under-twos could move freely and explore age-appropriate resources away from the hurly-burly of the busy nursery. We wanted these very young children to be able to make free choices about where, what and how they explored resources.

To achieve this, we created a raised area with decking and organised easy access to resources and free-flow access from our main room and sensory room. With staff stationed in each of the three areas, we were well on the way to achieving our aim - that of a stimulating child-friendly learning environment.


This project has been based entirely on our own initiative, from the first planning to the organising and funding of resources.

First, we researched what our children could gain from exploring open-ended resources, colours and textures. This research provided the underpinning knowledge for our project.

As well as the essential open-ended resources, we also decided that it was important for babies and very young children to handle natural materials as well as everyday resources such as kitchen utensils. As far as possible, we acquired these for free and then bought cheaper alternatives of the more expensive items, without compromising on safety.


The layout for the decked area is designed to help children access linked resources. For example, we set up an area where shiny and metallic materials could be displayed alongside black and white objects and fabrics. This provided a contrast to the area with natural materials and brown and cream objects and fabrics. We also created a designated 'physical' area to house resources meant specifically to develop children's movement skills.

Although the area layout was there to support staff, it remains flexible so that we can respond to children's changing interests. So, what is a 'physical' area one day may become a messy area another. And we continue to develop the area. For example, we recently bought a canopy that provides essential shade, and the resources that we suspend from it give added stimulation.


Our initial staff consultation flagged up two important questions for consideration:

Are equipment and resources easy for staff to transport?

Will the children have constant and easy access to all items provided at any one time?

We bought our resources with these questions in mind and now have:

- lightweight mats in natural shades that are not too rough for babies and easy to transport on to the decking and to put away again after use

- cushions and thick pile rugs to provide comfortable places for babies to lie and toddlers to relax

- wicker baskets that are easy to transport and low in height so that children can dip in and out of them with ease. (The children also find touching and smelling the containers fascinating)

- low or shallow wooden and plastic trays that are used for resources such as shells, pine cones and dry sand. Often items, such as shells and sand or spoons and pans, are also presented together

- a bookcase indoors to provide storage space for the wicker baskets when they are not in use

- specific collections of items for sensory exploration, such as shells, pebbles and twigs. Baskets often follow a theme - for example, the sense of smell is stimulated with fresh flowers, herbs and twigs; sound-makers such as plastic bottles filled with sand encourage children to listen and notice how sounds can vary

- plants growing in pots around the edge of the area to encourage appreciation of the changing seasons and make the area aesthetically pleasing

- slides, swings and rocking toys housed in a separate area of the decking so that children can move around and enjoy physical exercise in safety.


We observe the children closely and keep in contact with parents so that we can track the children's interests, and respond by introducing relevant resources that will satisfy, reinforce and challenge the children's learning.


All our children enjoy the decked area, and their excitement shows how much they appreciate being able to access it whenever they want.

They have learned quickly that it is satisfying to replace resources in the correct containers. This enables them to create a sense of order around them, but to them it is all part of the fun generated by their new space.

They particularly like the shiny/metal area, where they can make lots of noise with spoons, pots and pans, and the addition of a canopy means the babies love to lie and watch and listen to the wind chimes and windmills. From the children's prolonged explorations we know that we have been successful in our challenge.

Paula Wilkinson spoke to Jean Evans. Urmston is one of 13 nurseries in the Little Acorns group.

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