Children and play: ‘I was probably the only one offering a massive ethos on the outdoors’
It is a far better way for them to learn problem-solving and social skills
Kildinan Pre-school located on Miina Murphy’s family farm in Kildinan, Co Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
When Finnish native Miina Murphy opened a pre-school on her husband’s family farm in Co Cork, she found herself having to defend her approach to early childhood education.
A few parents of the children in the first group to attend her Kildinan Preschool in 2015 were questioning the amount of time they spent playing outdoors.
“I was probably the only one offering a massive ethos on the outdoors,” she says, pointing out that it was only in 2016 that new childcare regulations here made it mandatory for new early childhood education centres to have an outdoor space. Miina and her husband John had come from Finland in 2013, when their daughter was three and she was pregnant with their son.
She felt that because her ethos was so different, parents believed that children were losing out on the academic side because, in their eyes, they “were just outside playing”.
Miina realised she needed to educate the parents about “all the good stuff” that the outdoors and free play brings for this age group. She emailed them a copy of the Barnardos information booklet Outdoor Play Matters, outlined some of her experiences over 15 years working in day-care and quoted other research.
It seemed to be enough to convince the few doubters and, in the three years since, she believes parents coming to her now have a much deeper understanding of how “we are preparing children for life”, rather than just preparing them to sit in a school classroom.
Parents have seen for themselves how the children thrive and the message about the benefits has spread through the community by word of mouth. She has since expanded to two three-hour sessions a day and is fully booked for this September.
The maximum size of the group is 17 and she works with a fellow staff member, as well as a third person they have been able to hire under the Access Inclusion Model, which supports centres such as hers that include children with additional needs in the State-funded Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme.
Outdoor play is much more than fresh air and exercise, she stresses. It is a far better way for them to learn problem-solving and social skills, through working in a group outside. In the winter, they spend about an hour outdoors but in spring and summer they may be there all the time.
Children come to play with the ideas, she explains, “and I am just accommodating that, with the different materials and in the way that we really know all the children and see them as unique individuals”. In the Finnish system, preparation of individualised learning plans for every child is mandatory, so it is something Murphy does here, in consultation with parents.
She does not use digital technology except for occasionally looking up a website as a group for further information on a topic. For instance, when they were learning about different countries, they looked at online photos of children in different parts of the world.
“I understand it is good to teach media skills,” she adds, “but we are talking about a group that is very young and I think they get it a lot outside the preschool.”