Could footwear transform outdoor play in our early years settings? I think it can and does, so bear with me!
I’ve now travelled to Japan twice, and have visited over a dozen early years settings. Schools and settings in Japan, like all public buildings and private homes, make clear distinctions between indoors and outdoors, and footwear is key to maintaining this. Outdoor shoes are removed before entering the building, and a simple pair of slip-on slippers is worn indoors.
At schools and settings, most ground-floor classrooms have doors that open directly onto the outdoors, and the perimeter of the building is ringed with a covered ‘connection space’ – what we in the UK might call a transition space. Unlike the transition spaces here, though, Japanese connection spaces are utterly uncluttered, and contain only storage for footwear. All ‘outdoor’ resources are stored outdoors, in sheds, lean-tos or watertight boxes.
Commonly made from decking, the connection space provides a clear distinction between indoors and outdoors, and allows pedestrians to move between classrooms, and often in larger settings, between upper and lower levels of the building on what appear at first glance to be external staircases but are in fact part of the ‘indoor’ circulation routes.
Children enter and leave the setting by the same entrance – usually into their own classroom, through doors that lead directly on to the connection space and the playground. On arriving at nursery in the morning, children swap their outdoor shoes for a pair of slippers. Outdoor shoes live in pigeonhole storage units on the connection spaces and each is labelled with the child’s name.
Children and parents don’t enter school via the main entrances or side doors, meaning their shoes / slippers are always in the correct place. Visitors to settings are greeted at the main entrance by a small lobby area, where outdoor shoes are placed into pigeonholes and swapped for ‘mule’ style slippers provided by the setting.
Schools and settings provide identical elasticated slippers for children and the routine of changing in and out of shoes is smooth and speedy. We observed even the youngest children persevering at taking shoes off and putting slippers on – and vice versa – with minimal adult input. Shoes are generally trainer style, with Velcro fastenings, or slip-on. No buckles or laces to slow children down and fatigue or frustrate small fingers. Children can also choose wellington boots for outdoor play and were very capable of dealing with these themselves.
So what difference does footwear make? Here area few benefits:
Dirt from the loose surfaces outdoors, or mud and water, are not brought into the building on children’s shoes; indoors stays clean.
Outdoor shoes are robust and easy for young children to manage, meaning they feel more confident physically, and are willing to be very active and take risks.
The routine of changing footwear is crucial in Japanese culture, and children learn how to do this independently, at a very young age. The only children we saw being helped with footwear were babies and toddlers – from age 2, child
ren were in charge of their footwear.
Because outdoor shoes are removed before children step onto the connection space, it also remains clean, meaning children and adults are able to sit and read, play games or observe the playground from a dirt-free place, and slippers don’t get grubby.
From my observations, outdoor play is transformed by footwear because of the message outdoor / indoor footwear conveys to children: it’s perfectly acceptable for these shoes to get mucky, scuffed, scraped or wet, because that’s what outdoors offers, and it’s these shoes’ job to cope with it.
Sensible, sturdy outdoor shoes = freedom to play and take risks.