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Babies Outdoors – Miles sleeps & wakes outdoors

Miles is 6 weeks old. Examine how rich sensory stimulation plays crucial role in developing vision, hearing, smell, temperature and touch.

Good for looking at

  • Spending time outdoors for very young babies
  • Sensory development

Prompts for developing practice

Organisation

  • What issues would need to be addressed through both policy and practice to help bring about the vision of babies getting outdoors every day (possibly for several short periods), throughout the year?
  • Providing the highest quality daytime sleep for babies is essential.

    Consider what opportunities for sleep, rest and relaxation children have in your setting and how sleeping outdoors could be investigated and tested. What conditions would be best (such as flat-bed prams or cots) and where they should be located?

Environment

  • Miles is comfortable and stimulated by lying on the ground in the garden, where he can freely move his arms, legs and body.

    Watch the sequences of the other children also to inform discussion around suitable surfaces to provide in your outdoor space for the non-mobile babies through the year.
  • The natural world is such a rich and important aspect of being outdoors and for providing sensory-rich experiences, but nature has a very limited presence in so many early years outdoor spaces (especially where there is high risk-aversion).

    Use your thoughts from watching all the children in this film to generate ideas for increasing ‘everyday’ access to nature for your babies.

Adults

  • Effective outdoor provision requires an ethos and vision, underpinned by a strong rationale, that babies must have access to outdoor environments for plenty of time each day, every day of the year.

    How can you develop this understanding and belief across the staff team?
  • Adults need a deep understanding of sensory development through this first year. Watch the sequences of all the children focusing on how being outdoors is supporting this so well.

    By sharing perspectives and discussion, build up a picture of the role of sensory development in the lives of children under one.

Parents

  • As we have increasingly adopted an ‘indoor culture’, parents may understandably have worries or fears about their young baby going outdoors.

    How can you engage parents in the value of daily outdoor provision for their child? What opportunities can you find in all stages of your communication with parents and carers to convey your commitment and help them understand your approach?
  • Sleeping outdoors has become unusual in the UK and might be considered inappropriate for babies.Use these sequences as a prompt to discuss the value of babies being able to sleep outdoors with parents and find out what their concerns really are, so that they can be addressed whilst remaining positive to developing this practice.

Things to notice and understand

The special nature of the outdoors

“The outdoors has a special way of supporting young children’s well-being and supplies both the medium and the means for responding to their deep drives for exploration and their quest to make sense of their world for themselves.”

 

[Jan White, 2009a]

In this short clip, we can see much of what makes the outdoors special for babies, even when they are just six weeks old. The quality of being in ‘fresh air’ is very evident, both as a place for having a good quality nap, and as a wonderfully rich sensory environment when awake and alert. Miles is breathing in oxygen-rich air that enlivens his brain and feeds the tissues of his growing body. The experience of the softly caressing spring breeze and the feeling of gently varying warmth on his face and skin, combined with the dappled light and moving shadows and leaves, together provide an environment full of sensation and interest. He also benefits from the whole-body sensations of lying in the soft grass on firm ground.

Several of the children in this collection (Miles, Ko and Lucas) experience some or all of their daytime sleep outdoors, and many early years practitioners are now rethinking how they can provide the best quality of sleep for children in their settings by making use of the outdoors. Reminded by current Scandinavian practice that is driven by the belief that young children sleep best outdoors during the day – a popular view one or two generations ago in the UK – it is increasingly common for nurseries to offer choice between indoor and outdoor sleeping arrangements, finding out which conditions suit individual children. And it is frequently reported that, so long as they are comfortable and well protected, children settle better, sleep for longer, wake more gently and are more refreshed by having their naps outside in cool, fresh air. Since sleep is such a significant occupation for babies under one, the quality of this sleep is a crucial consideration for childcare settings. Neuroscience is revealing the vital role of sleep in learning, as it allows the brain to process the torrent of sensory information the young baby experiences while awake and build the neurological connections (memory) that enables them to make sense and make use of these experiences [Karmiloff-Smith, 2010].

Sensory development

“Babies experience a very different world to us, dominated by bodily sensation and the present moment. The outdoors is a wonderfully sensorial place for a baby throughout this year, with lots of sensations for the body, things to notice, watch and reach for, objects and materials to touch, feel and handle, sounds both near and far to listen to and interesting places to be in with an attentive and responsive adult. Stimulation from both the natural world and the world of humans provides multi-layered information about what is in the world, what it does and how it all behaves, and helps the baby to find out about themselves as they develop and grow.”

 

[Jan White, 2010b]

Very young babies exist in a state of sensorial ‘here-and-now’. It is a world dominated by sensation and feeling, with no (or very little) awareness of past or future. Thus, the sensory information in their surroundings feeds how they experience life: it is very important for carers to pay close attention to this arena for babies, especially during the first few months.

Even in this brief example, it is clear that being outdoors is providing this very young baby with rich sensory stimulation that also plays a crucial role in developing several major sensory systems, such as vision, hearing, smell, temperature and touch. It is worth watching the clip several times to realise how much is happening for Miles in this place. As he wakes refreshed from a nap, he is ready and able to pay attention to a whole range of interesting inputs from his surroundings. Babies arrive in the world with many abilities and an in-built readiness to work on their own development. They are exquisitely fine-tuned to seek out and pick up on relevant and appropriate information that will do the ‘right work’ on their neurology and physiology, so that they develop in an optimal way. Since humans evolved in the outdoor world, our bodies have evolved to make use of the stimuli that are present in it to develop the abilities that allowed us to survive and thrive in it. As a result, the stimuli that we need for full development are best provided in outdoor environments – and many of the stimuli we need are relatively weakly provided in indoor environments.

Vision is a remarkably complex sensory system that is a great deal more than ‘eyesight’, and which requires a huge amount and range of different kinds of visual stimulation from birth onwards in order to develop and operate to its full potential. Natural light contains the full spectrum of wavelengths of both visible light and beyond. This outdoor environment can be seen to provide a 3-dimensional world of bright and dark, colour and tones, edges and contrast, near and far, motion and stillness. Babies can find the bright lights indoors and the brightness of direct sunlight difficult to cope with and will protect their eyes by closing them, so it is important to be alert to this to help in moderating such over-stimulation. Hearing is likewise complex and has several components that the brain has to build, such as discriminating one sound from its background, recognising or interpreting what that sound means, and working out which direction and how far away the sound is coming from. Miles is bathed in sounds coming from within the garden and from the world of the city beyond. In particular, he will recognise the familiar (and security giving) sounds of his brother and his Mum. Smell is very highly developed in newborns – much more so than in adults – with this part of the brain being taken over for vision as it develops to become the dominant sense in adult humans. Babies are therefore much more tuned-in to the subtleties and complexities of smells that fill the world outdoors and change throughout the year. Finally, but very importantly, we can see that Miles is very responsive to touch, responding with a smile to the pleasure of contact with his Mum. Being aware of the wonderful variety of touch and body sensations that the outdoor world offers will help adults bring the full range of this vital stimulation to the child.

Miles’ brain has to do more than pay attention to and process information coming through each sensory pathway. These senses also need to wire up to each other as they develop to become smoothly interwoven (sensory integration), so that the body can work in the highly effective way it is capable of [Stock Kranowitz, 2005]. In such an integrated system, each individual sense makes great use of the others – they interact and work together to be far more effective. Having well-developed and well-integrated sensory systems is incredibly important to life functioning and learning, so it’s not surprising that babies work so very hard on developing their senses and the integration of them over this year. The richness of being outdoors, especially in a nature-filled environment, for multi-sensory input cannot be achieved indoors. At the same time, perhaps because the body is designed through evolution to seek the stimuli that are available in this kind of environment, this richness seems to be more gentle and less overwhelming than when equivalent stimulus is received indoors. However, it does also explain why babies get tired so quickly after an interesting or active session outdoors (see Bobby at 3 months)! Several short periods outdoors are likely to suit young babies much more than occasional long ones.

Personal and social development

Being with others is hugely beneficial for babies. Outdoor provision that separates babies in order to meet their less-mobile needs (or keeps them indoors due to ‘bad’ weather) is seriously lacking in one of the most important aspects of development for this age group. Babies are intensely interested in what humans are, what they do and what it means to be human. As one of the most socially oriented animals on earth, this is not at all surprising: as humans evolved, we could only survive by living in groups and depending on each other, so that now this is deeply ingrained in our interests, learning and well-being [Roberts, 2010]. While adults are the main interest of babies, they are also intensely interested in other children, especially perhaps those who are older and more mobile. Miles feels safer by being outdoors with familiar people and finds interest and stimulation through sharing the outdoor space with other children. Outdoor environments can and should accommodate a range of ages and can often be the time that age groups can mix effectively.

Adult support and interaction

At this time of his life, Miles is very vulnerable and completely relies on adults to keep him safe. He does however have a strong inbuilt drive for survival and his own powerful strategies for making adults look after him, such as smiling (a beautiful example of which we see here) and crying. As we see here, being ‘there’ when the baby looks for you – being in the moment and attentive to the child as an individual – is a potent role for adults, building a sense of security for the child through sending clear messages that they matter, that you have them in mind and are looking out for their welfare at all times. Security is a primary driver for all children; and only once they are assured of consistent support from adults can they pay attention to the world and enjoy learning from the experiences it offers [Roberts, 2010]. The quality of attention and companionship that Miles experiences also goes beyond this:

“Recognition is to the psyche what nourishment is to the body. It’s identity food. The sentient gaze of another human being confirms our very sense of being… Recognition is the meat and potatoes of our identity. It is as indispensable to mental health as food is to physical health.”

 

[Robert Fuller, 2004]