Tag Archives: risk

Outdoor Babies – With Gravel & Rocks

There has always been gravel in our outdoor play space.  Way back in 1997 when I first opened my childcare home we didn’t have a ‘natural’ outdoor area.  We did however have pea gravel as a fall surface under the wood and plastic play structures.

I’ll admit that back then I was one of those ‘OMG, what if they eat the gravel?’ people.  Consequently I never let babies play in the gravel area.  So today, when parents seeking childcare visit/tour my childcare home and express concern over the letting their babies play with gravel and rocks, I can honestly say ‘I understand’. There was a time when I only let babies play here;

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There was a two foot tall fence dividing the deck area from the gravel area and I never let the babies go past the fence.  I even had some wire mesh on the bottom portion of the fence so they couldn’t reach through the fence boards and get a handful of gravel.  I was keeping them ‘safe’.

In fact, it wasn’t just infants and toddlers who were prevented from entering the gravel area.  I considered children ‘old enough’ to play in the gravel area when they could reach over the fence and open the latch without assistance – most children were three or four years old before they could ‘pass the test’.

Looking back now I realize that the ‘test’ was ridiculous because their ability to open the latch is irrelevant to what they may do with the gravel.  In fact, I discovered that the longer I prevented them from playing in the gravel, the more harmful their behaviour could be. Overexcitement in the new environment meant throwing gravel was a major issue.

In the last ten years since I began allowing the infants and toddlers to play with gravel and rocks I’ve discovered that many of them actually never try to eat it.  Those that do occasionally put gravel in their mouths do so for only the first week or so and then move on to more constructive gravel activities.

Activities like making ‘gravel rain’

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Testing gravel on an incline plane

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Lying in gravel to get the ‘full body’ experience

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Gravel is the ultimate ‘loose part’

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I thought this little girl’s ‘Rock Eyes’ were very imaginative

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Walking on gravel and rocks can be a challenge for young children and gives them the opportunity to further develop their balance and gross motor skills.

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Yes, eating or throwing gravel can be an ongoing issue for a small percentage of children but it isn’t limited to infants and toddlers.  By not allowing young children to experience and experiment with gravel and rocks we’re not ‘protecting’ them.  We are preventing them from learning about textures, weight, gravity and more.

With a combination of supervision, guidance and opportunities for experimentation gravel and rocks can offer many benefits for the infant and toddler development that outweigh any concern for safety.

Outdoor Babies – Introduction

I’ve started and scrapped this post several times over the past few months – it has been a difficult one to approach.  I originally planned to discuss the pros and cons of having infants of various ages in our outdoor play space.

In the last six months I’ve enrolled several new infants into our group and I’ve done a lot of reflecting about the intricacies of outdoor play with very young children.  Many of the new parents have voiced concerns about what their babies may do when they are allowed to freely explore the natural spaces in our yard.  After all, it is sometimes wet/cold, always messy, and there are so many possible hazards.

I began by trying to decide whether it was more difficult to allow a crawling baby to explore vs. one that is already walking – and climbing. Then I decided that it depended on the season but as I started to compare ‘winter babies’ to ‘summer babies’ I realized that there was another problem.  Every time I tried to write a generalized comment I’d immediately remember all the children I’ve encountered who were ‘the exception’.

Up to this point I had been trying to base this post on the child’s age and the conditions in the outdoor environment – but there’s more.  The child’s developmental level, temperament, and mood that day are equally – if not more – important factors that will affect their explorations and my response to it.

So, instead of being a single post about taking infants outdoors this is just the introduction.  The first in a series of posts about letting babies freely explore and experience the less than perfect world outside.  I plan to write more about my experiences with babies with sticks, babies with rocks, babies in gardens, babies in snow and much, much more. Stay tuned, and if there’s something in particular that you’d like me to address then please write a comment below….

Safety

I’ve got plans for six or seven projects that I hope to have completed this spring/summer.  Some of them are minor changes that may be completed in a single weekend.  The bigger projects will have to wait until my vacation or at least a long weekend.

Some of these projects will involve changes to the daycare spaces.  As I make the plans and supply lists for these projects I always consider safety.  What types of materials will I use?  Where will I need a gate or door to restrict access to off limit areas?  What latches or locks will work best?  I try to envision all the things the children may do in the space.

As I consider the various options I briefly reminisced about an entry I wrote for my CBA portfolio.  My advisor had suggested that I create a safety checklist for my home. I used a variety of sample checklists to develop my own safety checklists.  I considered many of the items on these sample lists to be somewhat ridiculous. Items like ‘make sure stairs are free of clutter’ and ‘turn pot handles inward when cooking’ – not because I didn’t think they were unsafe but they were things that I considered to be common sense and certainly didn’t require a checklist to ensure I did them. In fact, even the items that I did include in my checklists would take less time to correct than the time required for me to complete the checklists.

In my evaluation of the checklists in this CBA portfolio entry I stated; I can see the benefit of having a simplified safety checklist for substitute providers who are not family members.  If a substitute is unfamiliar with my home and our procedures a checklist may be helpful to remind them to keep baby gates and doors closed’.

Possibly the director of a large childcare centre would find safety checklists to be helpful.  If there are many staff members there may be confusion as to who is responsible for safety checks and a completed checklist could provide evidence that staff were doing regular safety inspections.  Even then, I still think that safety checks should be a regular habit for everyone and you shouldn’t need a checklist to tell you what is dangerous and when to fix it.

Then I recalled an occasion a while back when I was visiting the home of an acquaintance.  Although we spent some time sitting in her living room she periodically went to the kitchen to check on the progress of the meal she was preparing.  Every time she stirred the food in the pots she would leave the pot handles sticking out past the front of the stove.  Each time I entered the kitchen I would automatically turn the pot handles inwards.  After doing this several times it occurred to me that maybe this was not a hazard that she recognized.

This brings me back to my original topic.  I do not ensure that my childcare home is as safe as possible.  If the environment was as safe as possible there would be no need for the children to think about safety.  I want them to learn to assess possible hazards and take reasonable risks.

There are some uneven surfaces.  Certainly there are gates to prevent infants and toddlers from climbing up or falling down an entire flight of steps.  However, there is also an unprotected single step at the entrance to the nature area.  Occasionally a child will trip on it if they forget it is there or they are not paying attention.  Sometimes a crawling baby will tumble off the step – I show them how to turn around and back off the edge safely.  I teach unsteady toddlers to hold on to the wall when then step down – don’t rely on me to hold your hand, I may not always be near enough. This single step is an acceptable risk – the opportunity for learning outweighs the chance of injury.

Before the children arrive I don’t walk around with a safety checklist and check off boxes.  During the day, if I notice something unsafe I don’t block off the area or make a note to deal with it later.  In fact, I often point out unsafe situations to the children and enlist their help to determine what should be done about it.  Rain or frost will make the deck and other surfaces in the yard very slippery.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot play outside – we just need to be aware of situation and adjust our activities to suit the conditions.

I don’t allow running or jumping indoors – there are too many obstacles so the risk is not an acceptable one.  Out in the yard we do run and jump.  As a child climbs onto a stump and prepares to jump I ask them ‘what do you see?’  They check for any objects that may be in their path and pose a hazard to them or others – I assist if necessary.  They are taking acceptable risks – they are learning.  Learning about textures.  Learning about space and distance.  Learning about force and speed.  Learning about responsibility.

If we live in a ‘safe as possible’ bubble we never learn to be aware of our surroundings, observing the environment, assessing possible dangers and taking necessary precautions.  Learning safety is a process and it requires practice – practice requires taking risks.

Ice & Snow

We love playing in the snow.  We climb up and slide down mountains of snow.  We sculpt and build with chunks of snow.  We dig tunnels and dens as homes for all sorts of creatures.  There is no end to the things we can do with snow – when we have some.

This winter we have had far too little snow.  Just look at this picture, taken last year, of the pathway through the garden;

It was one of our favourite hiding places.  This year it looks like this;

Last year the snow was piled high on the deck.  To get from one side to the other the children had to scale mountains that were taller than they were;

This year the snow pile poses little challenge other than making sure you lift your feet so you don’t trip as you cross the deck;

It is pointless to bring out the shovels since the temperature fluctuations have caused the snow to melt and freeze so often that it is now mostly ice.

There are some benefits too – for example, last winter we couldn’t even find the stumps but this winter we can still use them for balance games and follow the leader;

Did you notice the layer of ice on the top of the stumps? The children have.  In fact, in many of their games they have ‘safety inspectors’ whose role it is to point out hazards to the others.

Interestingly a ‘hazard’ doesn’t mean the area is off limits.  It simply means that when one child begins to jump across the stumps another child will stand on the ground beside them to ‘catch them if they slip’.  I guess this could result in two injuries instead of just one but they have also modified the speed and other factors in this familiar activity.  I think many drivers on the road today could learn from these children and modify their driving habits based on road conditions.

The children have also created some new activities with the abundance of ice instead of snow.  One of my favourites is the ‘music’ activity where they throw ice chunks against the gong.

Notice the skill it takes to pick-up/release ice chunks and hit the centre of the target while wearing bulky mitts.  I’d also like to point out the incredible photography skill, um, amazing reaction time, unbelievable luck it took for me to capture this picture. 🙂

Whatever the conditions are there is always something to do outdoors so get outside and play!

My Problem With Play Structures

If you ask them, the children may tell you that I don’t like play structures. They would be correct because I do think there is little value in taking a group of children to ‘play’ on a play structure. We often go on outings to places that have play structures but I try to avoid the actual structure.

First you have to consider that I have a mixed age group and although many playgrounds have a smaller structure for the 2-5 year olds and a larger one for the 5-12 year olds the children don’t read the signs and choose the appropriate one.  Even if they did that would mean that my group was playing in two different areas and I can’t adequately supervise them all.

Sure, some of these structures look pretty cool – they are designed to attract our attention.  Each one has funky shapes and bright colors but ultimately the goal is to climb up and slide down.  Now, here I’m talking about the main purpose for which the structure was intended to be used.

I remember many years ago when I was a parent council member of a school which had just installed a new play structure. For the grand opening of the structure a company rep was on hand to demonstrate and ‘teach’ the children how to use the equipment properly.  For most children, using a play structure ‘properly’ translates into don’t ‘play’ on it.

You see, real play is learning that is interesting and fun.  So, once you’ve mastered the climb up/slide down aspect then the play structure becomes boring and you have to create other ways to use it.  Ways for which it the structure was not intended to be used.

For example my own son, at four years of age, had mastered all the aspects of the play structure at the neighbourhood school – a structure designed for 5-12 year olds.  So, for a new challenge he expanded his skills and climbed onto the roof of the platform at the top of the slide.  Now standing more than nine feet in the air, on a sloped platform without a railing he was free to leap off the structure and land – safely – on the ground below.

Play structures are simply too easy to climb up. Most toddlers can manage the steps and ladders on structures designed for school-age children.  But they can’t recognize the risks – hence the sign ‘For 5-12 year olds’.

On play structures children don’t learn to identify the hazards associated with heights. They don’t learn that getting down is often harder than getting up.  They don’t learn that if you don’t wear appropriate shoes climbing is difficult or impossible.  They do learn to ignore safety rules and take unacceptable risks because there are few real consequences.

So I don’t like play structures.

I originally wanted to write about our last field trip and this was intended to be a little background information – but I babbled too much.  My ‘introduction’ became an entire post so now that I’ve explained why I don’t take children to play on play structures, in my next post I’ll tell you about why I made an exception.