Out to Play Mini-Blogs – Blog 1: Inspiration and Imagination in the Outdoor Space

By Saffron Gillies.

Hello, and welcome to the first in a series of four new Drama Artist blogs: ‘Out to Play Mini-Blogs – An imaginative approach to outdoor play & learning in the early years’! Between August 2022 and March 2023 I’ll be working with 18 Early Years settings across Glasgow on our Out to Play Mini-Residencies programme, following the success of this strand of the project in Spring 2022. 

Out to Play Mini-Residencies invite early years settings to spend three full days (over three weeks) with a professional Drama Artist, who facilitates arts-based, outdoor drama and storytelling sessions for groups of pre-school children. Each Mini-Residency also includes two CPD sessions, offering staff the chance to explore the Out to Play approach in more depth and equipping them with further skills and confidence to lead their own creative outdoor learning sessions.

To accompany the Mini-Residencies, I’ll be writing a series of Mini-Blogs designed to give early years practitioners a bite-sized introduction to the Out to Play project, and some quick, practical tips to try out in your own setting.

For this first block of Mini-Residencies, I worked with children and staff at Pied Piper Nursery, Rosemount Life Long Learning, Tower View Nursery and Onslow Drive Day Nursery, and I’d like to say a massive thank you to all children and staff involved!

This first Mini-Blog will be all about:

Inspiration and Imagination in the Outdoor Space

Spending time outdoors is great for our physical and mental wellbeing, and, from a learning for sustainability standpoint we feel that there’s nothing better than getting outside and experiencing the world around us. But that doesn’t mean we have to travel! The power of the imagination can greatly enhance, and even transform, your outdoor space – allowing you to explore a world of possibilities.

Here are some quick tips for creating inspiring and imaginative experiences in your outdoor space:

Ask yourself ‘What If?’ 

You may have some structures in your space, like climbing frames or benches. You may have vast empty areas perfect for running around in. When you look at those spaces, ask yourself, what could it become? Perhaps you could imagine that the sheltered corner at the back of your playground is actually a dragon’s cave, or that the climbing frame is a shipwreck and everything around it the sea! 

Introduce this by saying something like ‘we’re going to pretend that everything around us is the sea, what do you think could be swimming in our sea?’.

Ask the children to consider how they will move in these different terrains, and what they might see, smell, hear etc. All of these things can bring an imagined setting to life and help you to explore different facets of our natural world. You could open this up to the children; ‘these butterflies need some flowers – where is the meadow?’. Go to wherever they decide, and follow up with ‘where shall we fly next?’. Suddenly the world is at their fingertips!

Early Years practitioners participating in this first block of Mini-Residencies, had some fantastic imaginative ideas. At Pied Piper Nursery, for example, staff imagined that a pear tree overhanging the garden belonged to a dragon on the other side of the wall – the children were enthralled by this idea! Staff then created their own stories based on the dragon. Meanwhile, at Tower View Nursery, staff imagined that the hill in their playground was actually a huge pile of Giant’s poo! You can imagine what the children’s reactions might be…

Capitalise on Curiosity

Some well-placed props or materials can support our imaginations and create a true sense of magic! Perhaps you’re going to have a treasure hunt, or maybe the children will discover a sprinkling of fairy dust (you can make eco-friendly fairy dust by dyeing rice or oats with food dye!) at the bottom of a tree. Using an item or idea as a lure to hook your learner’s curiosity can deepen the imaginative experience, making it more impactful. So get creative with the items you could use to support the exploration of your topics, and how you could interact with them in your outdoor space.

As part of this round of Mini-Residencies staff used my trusty treasure chest, along with some lovely costume items, to bring sessions to life and support their learner’s imaginations. One idea I particularly loved was taking toy sea-creatures and wrapping them in string and litter, so that the children could save them – creating a sense of empowerment and agency within learning for sustainability, and allowing the children to imagine being wildlife heroes!

These techniques draw upon our imaginations to enhance our outdoor spaces. So get creative in your garden or playground, and see what you can discover!

Look out for my next Mini-Blog later in the year, where I’ll be focusing on Nature Connection. Thanks for reading!

Creating weather pictures in chalk