Kicking Off Our First Out to Play for Early Years Mini-Residencies

By Saffron Gillies.

Following on from Sarah Rankin’s fantastic work in 2018 developing the Early Years strand of Out to Play, and then her delivery of Out to Play in a Day sessions across multiple early years settings in Glasgow in 2021 – I had the wonderful opportunity to carry on the baton, delving further into the Out to Play project with six nursery settings which had previously participated in Out to Play in a Day: Scaraway Nursery, Rosshall Nursery, Hamiltonhill Family Learning Centre, Ibrox Nursery Class, Govanhill Nursery and Sandyford Nursery. In this blog post I’ll summarise this new leg of our Early Years work, go into detail on the content delivered, and will conclude with a few tips based on the experience and reflections of myself and participating children and staff. 

Over March and April 2022 I visited each setting over three weeks to deliver “Mini-Residencies,” designed to engage participating children in outdoor, arts based learning for sustainability sessions; and to inspire and support staff to further develop their practice in this regard. The residencies consisted of two artist led sessions, a staff CPD planning session and culminated with sessions led by participating staff, our Out to Play Champions. Each nursery organised between three and four groups of children to take part in sessions, lasting approximately 45 minutes, and selected a member of staff to support the children and take on the responsibility of becoming an OTP Champion. We were lucky enough at many settings to be joined by additional staff members who also got involved with supporting the children’s experience. Most of the participating children were at pre-school stage, but we were also joined by some ante pre-school children.

What was really lovely for me, as an artist coming in to all of these different settings, was how the participating staff were so truly welcoming and keen to get involved with the project – I would say, from what I have seen in my journeys across Glasgow delivering these Mini-Residencies, that there is definitely a strong desire among nursery staff and leadership teams to deepen children’s connection with the outdoors, and to build their children’s team working, communication and confidence skills through arts based learning. So a huge thank you to everyone involved!

We Love Exploring

One of my favourite things about delivering these mini residencies has been exploring with the children who participated. I set up my teacher in role character as an Explorer, and I asked the children taking part to help me with my adventures. I was really struck by the level of engagement from the children taking part; who particularly enjoyed helping me look for clues and, once we had found them, interacting with them and exploring what they could mean. Use of nature objects to stimulate the senses was a fantastic tool in sparking children’s imaginations and nurturing their curiosity. Each outdoor space was very different, with different opportunities and challenges, but it was lovely to explore the different features available to us in each setting – like tunnels to clamber through, hills to climb up like mountains, beams to balance on, tyres full of water which had turned to ice on a particularly cold day, and trees to sit underneath.

Another aspect of the mini-residencies that was really rewarding for me as a drama artist, was seeing the children’s confidence grow through the three weeks of engagement. While at the beginning of the residency we had some children who were very keen from the get-go, others needed time to warm up and ease themselves into drama and imaginative play (as we all do from time to time!). It was lovely for me see the children beginning to recognise the stages of our adventures – meeting up, getting into our explorer gear, going exploring, hearing a story, drama games and making, and finally playtime! As we went through the three weeks children grew more and more confident in deciding what types of exploring outfits we should wear (in fact by the end I was being frequently told off for forgetting an essential piece of equipment like a hat, or in some cases, a sparkly explorer dress!) and where we should look, and many children were also visibly more confident in joining in with stories, and actively role-playing and pretending in our drama games and imaginative play. The children also demonstrated great resilience to some challenging weather!

From Deep Down in the Earth, to High Up in the Sky


When initially creating the Early Years Resource Pack for the Out to Play project, Sarah had established a lovely “from the ground up,” framing for the programme. I carried this on, beginning each residency with our “Earth” session, exploring soil, seeds and planting. This workshop was pretty hands on! We discovered a treasure chest with a bucket of soil, topped with some magic acorns (a favourite sensory nature object of mine). When we shook the acorns next to our ears we could hear the magic seed moving inside of them! We wondered what it could grow into – a flower, a dragon?

The Treasure Chest

Then we heard the story of The Lucky Seed, and learned that they would grow into trees! During the telling of this story I asked each child to look after a magic acorn for me, and we engaged in role play through object puppetry while listening – I encouraged the children to move their acorn and to give them a squeaky seed voice. I found this a useful tool to support children’s engagement in the story by allowing them to be active participants in it. For children new to storytelling it can be quite different to being read a story from a picture book, requiring more imagination and focus. Giving children a tool with which to be truly involved in the story can support their engagement and enjoyment. We sang songs like wiggly woo, before having some playtime with soil, digging through to look for hidden surprises – worms, root veggies, but also litter. Some children were a bit resistant to getting messy at first, but given the chance to watch their peers take part, and with the support of the brilliant staff working with each group, we all had a go. Having opportunities to get hands on with natural materials like soil can be a fantastic way to deepen children’s connection to nature. We finished up the workshop with something special to take home, some seeds and a little biodegradable pot with soil to keep them in. It was far enough into the year for us to plant some coriander seeds, which could be grown on a windowsill indoors, and if children desired, could then be planted outside in warmer weather, therefore catering to children with and without access to a garden where they could plant seeds.

Surprises in the soil at Ibrox


The following week we took a leap into the air with our “Flight” session. We followed a trail of bird’s footprints to discover our treasure chest and a soft feather inside. We had a go of gently tickling each other’s hands with the feather before hearing the story “I Can Fly,” all about a caterpillar wishing to fly, trying to copy all manner of flying things from birds to clouds to aeroplanes, before eventually transforming into a beautiful butterfly. For this story I utilised active storytelling techniques – supporting the audience to move around during the telling of the story, role playing as different characters. In this case we flew around the space, pretending to be the different things the caterpillar in the story may have been able to spot in the sky. It would be fair to say that some groups took more readily to active storytelling than others, but in my opinion simply sitting and thinking about what it is like to fly pales in comparison to experiencing it through movement; like the spreading of our wings, the feeling of wind in our faces as we move, picking up speed etc. So, while some groups needed some additional support to move around the space during the story, and then to return or to follow in order to hear the next part, it’s something I was really keen to allow each group to experience and have a go at. After our story, we created our own flying creature puppets, using lollipop sticks, modelling clay, feathers and ribbons. We engaged in some supported play with our puppets, singing songs and practicing our flying, and then the children were let loose to explore all around their outdoor spaces with their flying creatures as a free play activity. Activities like this one can be a fantastic way to encourage children to care for the creatures around them, through the act of carefully flying their creature around children can build an awareness of the needs of different creatures, and a sense of care through keeping them out of harm’s way. 

We Are The Champions

Following on from Week Two’s “Flight” sessions, participating staff took part in a planning CPD in order to create their own Out to Play session to lead in Week Three. We had a real mix of staff experience levels with drama across the six nurseries; from staff who had previously led interactive drama workshops exploring fairytales like Jack and The Beanstalk, to staff members keen to build their drama skills, to staff who openly admitted to drama not being their thing. We often say in our CPD courses and training events that you don’t need a drama degree in order to lead this kind of work, and it really is true. Practitioners working with Early Years children will likely use the range of skills required to lead drama workshops, and to be an engaging storyteller (like use of movement and gesture, varying vocal pitch, tone and pace, role playing and improvising) every day in their setting, whether they realise it or not! Through drama games and storytelling activities within the CPD session we warmed ourselves up for the challenge. 

I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate in a fantastic range of Champion Led workshops, exploring all different types of nature and sustainability topics from worms, to weather, to farm lands, jungles, forests and the ocean, we even went to the moon with one group! Each session was fantastic, and while there were too many to detail each one here – some examples of the truly lovely ideas explored were: hunting for worms hiding underneath plant pots and then making our own worms out of air drying clay; exploring farming and composting through making soup with veggies and water, then pouring the scraps onto plants in the garden; crawling around the space like cheetah, lion and tortoise while actively participating in the Awongalema story; sitting underneath a big blue tarpaulin sheet and being under the sea; creating with sticks – turning them into characters, and attaching rainbow colours to them to create our own pieces of the rainbow; and, making rainbow dust with oats, food colouring, and sprinkles as a piece of magic for the children to keep. I must commend the Out to Play Champions on taking on this challenge while dealing with the still present effects of Covid-19, particularly staff illness. At one setting, one of our Out to Play champions ended up delivering their session twice as a result of this – but it turned out to be a really valuable experience – their first go at the session went really well, but nerves were of course present, it was really lovely to see that the second time they delivered their session they were feeling more confident and in control, and as a result, what had already been a great session became a really brilliant one! We chatted afterwards about how it had turned out to be really beneficial delivering the session twice, as this allowed nerves to settle, and as a result of feeling more relaxed they were able to engage even more with the group of children they were working with, and to enjoy leading their session.

What was really lovely for me at our short feedback meetings following the Champions led sessions, was hearing some of the staff saying how their opinion of their own ability to lead drama sessions, and to tell stories, had changed! Staff who were very clear that drama wasn’t their cup of tea told me that they were excited to carry on leading sessions, and to develop more of their own Out to Play workshops. Additionally, other staff who commented that the outdoors wasn’t something they were really interested in personally, told me that they had been surprised by how much they enjoyed getting outside and exploring alongside the children during the sessions. As I look back and reflect on these mini-residencies this is something that I am really pleased and excited by. 

Top Tips

So, following on from this first block of Mini-Residency delivery, and the reflections of myself and of the participants, here are a few top tips for delivering outdoor, arts based learning sessions with early years children – and crucially, building this to become a regular part of their learning experience, as opposed to one off engagement.

Make Use of What You Have

Remember that as an Early Years Practitioner you will likely already have the key skills needed to lead an effective drama workshop – consider the ways you use your voice and movement while reading a story, and while engaging in play with the children in your setting. What works well, and how can you build this into a session outside? If you love singing songs, think about including some in your session. If arts and crafts are your thing, consider making materials that can then support dramatic play. And – good news for numeracy fans, you can absolutely build numeracy into arts based learning – perhaps through incorporating counting into your story, or building numbers into drama games (hop three times, find five yellow things), the possibilities are endless! Once you’ve identified how to bring your existing skills to your chosen theme, you’ll be well on your way to having a full session plan

Support Engagement and Build Confidence through use of Props and Materials

As mentioned above tactile and sensory objects can be a great way to catch our learner’s attention and draw them into the themes of your session. Whether it’s a shaky acorn, a tickly feather or a humble stick, all can play a role in sparking our sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world around us, and can also be a really useful tool in supporting engagement and participation. For children who may be new to dramatic play, having a visual object can support their imagination and understanding of your session topic. Additionally, if you have one of these materials yourself, you can model for the children different ways to play and explore with these materials (e.g. is it going to become a character in our story which has a voice, is it to become a rainbow that we’ll wave in the sky, or shall we wear them on our heads like hats?), building their confidence before opening up the invitation for free play.

Vary the Pace and Use the Space

Like any good story, a drama session should have a mix of high energy, fast paced moments, and gentler, more relaxed moments. Identify areas in your outdoor space that may be suit these different moments. Don’t be afraid to use the full space and move your group around during the session – one of my favourite ways to quickly refocus a group and grab everyone’s attention is to shout “follow me!” and run to the opposite side of the playground – you’ll instantly have a group of children ready and excited to hear what’s coming next. Within this, do of course keep any additional support needs and mobility needs in mind.

Tailor to Your Group

You may be working with a group of young children who are all incredibly keen and confident in joining in, but equally you may be working with a group who are predominantly more shy, and more reluctant to actively take part. My tips for nurturing confidence are: be aware of your group’s needs and take it slowly for the first few sessions, offering a mix of activities that will gently challenge them, and activities that you know will be accessible and enjoyable; identify calmer more relaxed areas of your outdoor space that lend themselves to chilled out storytelling time; and don’t be put off if they require a lot of support the first few times they take part, be patient and remember that we all need time to get to grips with new experiences – I certainly noticed differences in confidence levels week to week while delivering these mini-residencies! 

Give it a Go, and Then Go Again!

When it’s time for your first session, allow yourself to take a courageous step and have a go! Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be an enjoyable and valuable learning experience for the children you work with, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Once you’ve had a go, and a chance to reflect on the successes and opportunities for development, I’d encourage you to try your session again with another group of children – as discussed above, this can be a great way for you to further build your confidence.

I’d like to finish by saying a huge thank you and well done to all of the children who took part in these Mini-Residencies, and massive congratulations to all of the staff who took part. To the Out to Play Champions, and to those who gave support to the project, it was truly a pleasure to work with you all, and I can’t thank you enough for your enthusiasm, and openness to giving it a go! Additionally, thanks to Glasgow City Council’s Early Learning and Childcare team for commissioning this work.