My setting is very much an outdoorsy setting. Whatever the weather, we’re outdoors, because that’s where we’d rather be. There’s nothing that is traditionally done indoors that can’t be done outdoors, and that includes our daily yoga and meditation. But even if children do want to be indoors, our space has a rather outdoorsy feel. I guess this is easy for us as our room opens directly out onto the garden. It’s south facing so we get lots of natural light and every child, even the baby having tummy time has a clear and uninterrupted view of the flowers, shrubs and trees; bees, bugs and butterflies; rain, hail and snow. They can see every leaf fall, every bud open, every bird land. But the outdoorsy feel is no accident. The muted colours, the organisation of the comfy armchairs, shaggy rugs, furry cushions, wooden furniture, the natural resources and materials, the potted home-grown plants and organic storage containers have all been carefully planned. But not in a contrived way: in a way that’s developed – grown if you like – organically over time.


Think about your own indoor space.

  1. Do the children have enough space to play?

  2. Is there anything there that never seems to get used?

  3. How do the children behave?

  4. Is it communication friendly?

Our ambient and nature-inspired indoor space has a very positive impact on the children and the team: on our relationships, our behaviours, our sense of well-being and our attitude to our work and play. And, for us, organising the space always starts with doing what we do for our daily risk benefit assessment – getting down to the child’s height – only in addition to looking for and minimising potential hazards we are looking for what children can see, smell, hear, touch and even taste. So at the most basic level of planning we are looking to achieve a sensory – and holistic – experience for babies and young children in every aspect of our provision.

One that reflects the culture and diversity of everybody who uses the space. It can be as easy as taking some petals from the vase of freshly picked flowers on the table top and putting them into a dish on the bottom shelf for baby to look at, to touch, to smell, to taste even. Our indoor space isn’t perfect and it probably never will be because we’re always moving forward, ever-evolving. These indoor vertical gardens? I sooooo want one. How gorgeous are they?


challenge: you may not have a garden so how can you bring the outdoors in?

Our larger wooden shelving units (reclaimed from a school skip and up-cycled) are on castor wheels so that they can easily be moved from indoors to outdoors to take full advantage of a beautiful dry day. (Not that wet or windy days aren’t beautiful too mind). Each unit has been adapted in a way that makes them multi-functional, to be utilised however children choose to use them. We’ve seen them used as doll houses, car parks, caves and dens. Heck, we’ve even seen them used for storage! The back panels are either covered with cork boards, felt, flat lego boards, stainless steel panels or white perspex sheets.  They’re all velcro-ed so we can swap and change to shake it up a bit. The sides are inset with perspex mirrors and have knobs to hang story sacks, busy baskets, singing sacks, babble bags and talking totes from, all of which can be taken to be used elsewhere (although children know where to bring them back to at the end of the day).


Pushed for space (and money)? Units outdoors, same units indoors

Planned thoughtfully, there is no reason why one standalone unit cannot be inclusive and accessible and safe for all children of all ages and stages of development. Bottom shelves for rollers and crawlers, upper shelves for toddlers, and higher shelves for all those things you don’t want that lot getting hold of. Taking each child into consideration when planning this enabling environment makes them feel valued, secure and included. This is truly their space.


When was the last time you really looked at your setting? When you changed something purposefully? Why not invite a ‘critical friend’ in to give you a completely objective perspective?

We use the tops of the units for our interactive displays and then each shelf is planned in a way that ensures that there are rich and stimulating provisions for each and every area of learning and development. These provisions can, and often do, change from week to week, day to day, hour to hour. This responsive planning is not as difficult as it might sound and in fact can be done in quite a simple and obvious way for those just starting out using the environment, rather than paper, for planning and places children firmly in the centre. Now, I bet you have a continuous planning sheet tucked away somewhere don’t you? It might be old and tattered these days and most likely unused, even un-looked-at, since your last ofsted inspection. Don’t be ashamed, I’m not. I’ve done loads of them over the years but they’re not used today because they’re totally unrepresentative of what we’re doing these days. We know what continuous provision we offer on a day by day basis and we know why we offer it – to meet the needs of each child we currently care for, not the children we cared for back in 2014 – or even last month.


We use a whole range of everyday things to get our work recorded, from quite expensive A4 perspex display stands (which I wouldn’t use at all but for my teaching and training work where I try to look a bit more corporate and a bit less ‘make do and mend’). An upside down corner yoghurt pot with a dry wipe board wedged in is just as good. Then there’s the pound shop A4 picture frames. Sheet of plain white paper behind the glass and then write notes straight onto the glass surface. It might be a research question, cues for open-ended questions we might ask, a note to remind us that we’re supposed to be finding out whether a child is left or right handed, whatever. A photo is taken of the note so that the frame can be used again. And you don’t need specialist dry wipe board paint on your surfaces either. A plain light coloured piece of fablon (most around £3.50 per square metre in The Range) draped over, staple-gunned or hot-glued to table tops or sides and backs of units works just as well.

See this surface? It’s a piece of chunky plywood covered with fablon. We use it as a table top which we can write observation notes directly onto. We take photos of the observation notes and then wipe it off (or more often than not the kids wipe it off after they’ve have had enough fun tracing over the top). This image will accompany the photo of the child engaged in activity then shared privately with parents with a suggestion for next steps. That’s about as time-consuming as our paperwork gets.

Poundshop shower curtains (try to find the least flimsy you can), plastic disposable buffet plates and white plain melamine serving trays are all great to write on and wipe off too. All really cheap, all easily replaceable, and all useful for you and your team to make your marks.


Going paperless does not mean having to use an online software package. Schedule a trip to your local pound shop. Your mission is to find 3 other things that you can use as alternatives to recording notes on paper. 

And the work we’re recording all day every day is observational notes, open-ended questioning prompts, learning intentions, things the children say, things to remember to buy for tomorrow or to ask parents about. We take photos of this work throughout the day as things can and do change over time. Picture this: it’s Friday afternoon, you’ve all been to the beach and collected your “beach bling” and you really thought you’d be teaching Sid Squid about molluscs and algae and how to sort the clam shells from the cockles, cones and cowries next Monday and you forward plan accordingly. Only Monday morning comes around and we overhear him telling Manky Franky that he’s been at Granda’s allotment all weekend and he’s been digging up spuds and sharing eggs into batches of 6 to sell at the local independent garden centre. He even knows about dozens and half dozens and how hens and roosters are female and male chickens. He’s talked and talked about nothing else since he arrived and right now he’s in the middle of the sand pit molding damp sand into eggs after turning the mud kitchen into a hen coop with raffia he brought along from his trip to the garden centre. We can only imagine what he’s doing next. Still think sorting shells from pebbles is gonna float his boat?


Ideas for extending and developing activities arise naturally, usually from listening to what the children are saying to one another. Children’s interests are very fluid (more on following or not following children’s interests another day) and we need to be extremely flexible, respectful and responsive if we are to effectively facilitate their learning: to give them opportunities, time and space to explore and experiment; to become deeply engaged in their work; to continue to be ever curious and motivated to learn about the world around them. Only responsive planning can meet the momentary needs and interests of each child.

Research “planning in the moment”. Trust me, you’ll never sit and pore over forward planning sheets ever again.

And, as many of our resources are natural, wondrous, versatile and completely open-ended objets d’art from our frequent scavenger hunts in the local woods and beaches, they are not only wonderfully tactile and deliciously fragrant but we each have our own experiences and memories invested within them  – every pebble, twig, shell, fir cone and piece of driftwood has it’s own little story to tell and re-tell. Fabulous displayed in wooden or glass bowls, or used inside sensory bottles, or used for design and creative work, or used in treasure baskets – what’s not to love? They’re all are stored in boxes, baskets, sacks and trays made from wood, wicker, bamboo, sea grass, hessian, cotton or other natural materials which are so much lovelier to handle and to look at than man made materials. But don’t think we don’t have some plastic though because we do. We’re not complete eco-chicks… yet.


further reading

Principles for Early Years Education

Enabling Environments