We recently shared an image on social media which showed children from a Canadian early education centre sleeping on stretcher beds in the snow. It prompted some very lively discussion and strong reactions, including shock and concern from some. In this article we explore cultural assumptions around outdoor sleeping, bust some myths about cold weather and illnesses, and speak to Australian early educators about how they have implemented year-round outdoor sleeping policies in their centres.
Outdoor sleeping is a cultural norm in many colder countries
There is a long cultural tradition of using outdoor spaces for sleep in some colder countries in the northern hemisphere. In many of these countries the practice is believed to establish a connection to nature and to provide health benefits.
“After spending 5 years living and teaching in northern Germany I came to learn about and understand this practice,” Carly Bonnor shared in the comments on our social media post. “I had my second daughter while we lived there and was advised by my midwife to let her sleep in her bassinet outside for naps. It may challenge us culturally as Australians, however we need to be open to practices of other cultures and their knowledge and beliefs about different weather conditions. Minimising illness, exposure to daylight in countries that have very limited daylight hours in winter and limiting time in heated rooms are all reasons I was given by German teachers.”
Mitchell Hughes, an Australian educator at an international school in Sweden has found that outdoor spaces are used in Sweden throughout the year for learning, play, and sleep, but that parents from other countries may not be prepared for this and often need to be talked through the benefits of the practice.
There’s a Swedish saying which states: ‘There is no bad weather, just bad clothing’, suggesting that the key to using outdoor spaces in the colder weather is preparation.
Did you know that many Aussie centres also embrace year-round outdoor sleeping?
Many early education centres in Australia offer outdoor sleep as part of their program, and it isn’t confined to the summer months.
Niki Moodie, Preschool Room Leader at the Rumpus Room in Newcastle, explained that children at their centre are given the choice between indoor and outdoor activities throughout the day. Offering outdoor sleep was a natural extension of this, and the overwhelming majority of families gave consent for their child to sleep outdoors if they wished. Not only does outdoor sleep fit with The Rumpus Room’s philosophy of appreciation for the natural environment and respecting each child’s choice, it also provides flexibility to provide for a child’s individual needs.
There is no particular set temperature limit at which The Rumpus Room do not offer outdoor sleep, but comfort and safety is obviously a priority, so the option is assessed on a day by day basis. If The Rumpus Room team feel that they are unable to provide a comfortable and safe space due to weather or outdoor conditions, then indoor sleep will take place instead.
At Woden Early Childhood Centre in Canberra, outdoor napping is offered all year round. The only time children nap indoors is when it’s very hot, or if the concrete is wet. Director Reesha Stefek told ABC News that she was inspired by the trend in Nordic countries and borrowed the idea from Kiwi childcare provider Childspace.
“We discussed the idea with our families and made a decision to do a trial to see what it was like.
Staff found that the children settled more quickly and it was just so positive that we continued on.”
How do you set up an outdoor sleep space?
At the Rumpus Room, Niki told us that they make sure the areas used for outdoor sleep can provide for a safe and comfortable sleep time, and that clothing, bedding and blankets are chosen according to the weather. Niki spoke of the importance of going into it with an open mind, saying: “I would love for people to take a look at the benefits without their own preconceived ideas of what should be done.”
Of course every sleep space should follow safe sleep and rest practices.
What are the benefits?
At the Rumpus Room it has been observed that outdoor sleep provides a quieter sleep space, that the natural environment is calming for the children, and that children who find it hard to sleep indoors fall asleep easier outdoors. Sleep times have also been longer outdoors, consistent with the findings of a study in Finland. Niki tells us there has been a noticeable decrease in illnesses since they introduced outdoor sleep, with other centres such as Little Learners in Fremantle also reporting this (read the results of a study on this topic reported by Little Learners).
More recently, outdoor sleep has allowed exposure to fresh air and social distancing between children which has offered the benefit of minimising risk during COVID-19.
Exposure to the sights, sounds, and smells of nature (such as rustling leaves and birdsong) support relaxation and this may be of particular benefit to non-sleepers, with research by the Queensland University of Technology finding an increase in the stress hormone cortisol in non-sleepers at mandated sleep times indoors. While outdoor play also provides health benefits, using outdoor spaces for rest and sleep provides a particular experience of nature as a place of relaxation and rejuvenation, and provides opportunities for mindfulness in a way that play may not provide.
But doesn’t being in the cold lead to illness?
There is a myth that cold weather causes illness, however according to Harvard Medical School, it is viruses that cause illness and they tend to survive and replicate better in lower temperatures and lower humidity. People also tend to spend more time together indoors in the colder months allowing viruses to spread more easily in confined spaces. Clothing and bedding should be chosen to provide appropriate warmth for the climate, as some researchers have found that being cold may affect the body’s immune response.
How could you go about introducing the idea?
Jennifer Moglia, Early Childhood Education Sector Specialist at CELA recommends that centres work in partnership with families from the planning stage. Jennifer also suggests that guest speakers on the topic can be helpful. As part of the planning process, educators can talk to the children to find out what the change means for them, what they see as positives, and if there are any concerns that need to be addressed. Sleep policies should always be linked to research and the service philosophy, and made available in writing.
How do you manage risks?
For services looking to introduce outdoor sleep, Jennifer recommends using ACECQA’s risk assessment resource as a starting point in relation to managing potential environmental hazards and ensuring safe sleep practices are followed.
The Little Learners centre in Fremantle has put together their own guidelines that include outdoor temperatures needing to be between 16-31 degrees Celsius, along with other weather considerations. You can read their sleep policy here . When considering opportunities for outdoor sleep, local weather reports should be monitored for risks to avoid heat exhaustion, hypothermia, or smoke inhalation.
What if you’re still feeling nervous about getting started?
Niki from the Rumpus Room says the best approach is to be realistic with your expectations, take pressure off yourself to succeed straight away, be prepared that it may not work the first time, and keep in mind that it “can just be an offer for those who are interested.”
With ‘Outdoor Classroom Day’ coming up on 20 May 2021, this could be a great time to take a look at how outdoor spaces could be used for sleep and rest time at your centre!
Further reading and resources
ACECQA – Risk Assessment resource