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Workshop Blog: Outdoor Learning and Mud Kitchens

COVID-19 blog series

On Saturday, October 17, 2020, I was privileged to lead on a part live, part virtual training workshop at Creative Learning Kids, an amazing early childhood setting in Spartanburg, SC. The event was organized and hosted by Quality Counts (winner of the 2020 Dick and Tunky Riley WhatWorksSC Award), a program of First Steps Spartanburg. It was a beautiful autumn morning, and the sun was rising majestically as I drove to Spartanburg at 7:15 am. On arrival, I was so impressed to see so many attendees had beaten me to it!

The theme of the workshop was Outdoor Learning and Mud Kitchens and not only was it going to be both live and virtual, but it also included an outdoor activity while being linked to five other early childhood settings in Spartanburg, all participating in the Quality Counts Continuous Quality Improvement program. When I had discussed this with Tammy Compton (Director of Quality Counts) and Barbara Manoski (Director of First Steps, Spartanburg), I suggested the part live, part virtual way of working and they were enthusiastically receptive. Thank heavens they have very savvy IT experts as part of their team who did an outstanding job to make this all happen, while seeming effortless.

There were eight early years educators participating live, all masked and suitably social- distanced and I was so impressed to see them all washing their hands continuously during the course of the workshop. The first hour consisted of a presentation to the group which was also Zoomed to the five participating settings. We discussed the benefits of outdoor learning and looked at early brain development and how exercise cues the building blocks of the brain. We watched videos and did a reflection, and it was such a treat to have participants feeding back on their experiences with enthusiasm and good humor. We also discussed resilience and risk taking and touched briefly on Forest Schools and then looked at Mud Kitchens and their relevance in children’s play and how to design and develop a Mud Kitchen. Each participating setting had already received a starter pack for their Mud Kitchen with a “handy tips” handout and things like a bag of sand, bag of pebbles, handy pouring bucket and numerous other relevant resources. (For those interested in learning more, we recommend the resources used at our previous event, archived here).

Before we all donned our jackets to go outside on a chilly autumn morning, I gauged the enthusiasm of the participants in our live setting, most were keen to get on with it but one practitioner seemed slightly reluctant as she spoke about all that mud and having to clean up afterwards. I jokingly said I would make her a born-again Mud Kitchen enthusiast by the end of the session! Two of the practitioners had brought their young children to the session and I asked if they could participate as the involvement of the children is so important.

First Steps had done a great job delivering two pallets to the setting together with other resources and the staff got involved in creating a kitchen in the older child play garden as well as in the younger child garden. The children became incredibly involved and once they had designed and created the kitchens the children played happily while we took photos. Tammy emphasized that this activity was not only for the benefit of the children but also to make the teaching life of the staff easier and more productive. I was adamant that these kitchens must not cost much as the pallets are free and Tammy said some builders merchants have stainless steel sinks going for free as they replace them for customers. Goodwill and other thrift shops are a wonderful source for getting all the resources needed at next to nothing and indeed parents usually have old pots and pans that they are willing to donate. Natural resources such as acorns, leaves, twigs and flowers are also free and wonderful for children to use in their “cooking” and “potion” concocting. In fact, the acorns were dropping on our heads as we constructed the mud kitchens at Creative Learning Kids.

The forty minutes allocated to this activity sped by and before we knew it, we adjourned back to the classroom to link up on Zoom with the practitioners from the other settings which had been following a similar plan. Each setting gave feedback to the group, showing photos of their activities, and it was lovely to see how each one had come up with their own interpretation which suited their environment. We had a brief but beneficial questions and answers session and tackled the thorny question of how to persuade parents who do not want their children to get dirty. There was a suggestion that, finances permitting, there could be rain boots and all in one weatherproof overalls for the children (this is something most settings in the UK adopt) and I suggested simply asking parents to send their children to the setting in old clothes or keeping a set of old clothes for the children at the setting which they could change into. We also discussed health and safety which again is always foremost in our minds and I said that I have had discussions with the Department of Social Services here who appear to be working towards more lenient regulations with regard to outdoor learning, provided suitable risk benefit assessments are carried out – so watch this space!

The event was over so quickly but appeared to have been well accepted by the participants. For me the best feedback was from the slightly reluctant practitioner who said that as she saw the smiles on the faces of the children (one of whom was her daughter) and how engaged they were in the activity she understood the benefits of Mud Kitchens – music to my ears!

Thank you to Quality Counts, First Steps Spartanburg for being innovative in the “new normal” of live/virtual workshops which appeared to work and special thanks to the two IT experts who, despite losing connection for five minutes managed to carry it off smoothly and on time!

Mary MacKenzie

Senior Fellow, The Institute for Child Success

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