Why you should consider taking children's naptime outside

Published on Tuesday, 30 April 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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There's nothing strange about seeing a young infant rugged up fast asleep in a pram or baby pouch while out with their parents but did you know that in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, it's also normal for children attending early childhood services to have their naps outside - even in winter?

It turns out there are numerous benefits to both children and staff for heading outdoors for nap time, which is why centres in both New Zealand and Australia are taking up this practice.

We all know that fresh air is fantastic and there's nothing like a cosy nap on the grass or beach. But why is sleeping outdoors just so good for us? Here are just a few reasons from Sleep Junkies:

The benefits of outdoor naps for kids

  • Natural light exposure
    This resets the body clock and adjusts with circadian rhythms, and you produce more melatonin for a more restful sleep, unlike artificial light which interferes with sleep quality.
  • Increased immunity
    Plants give off phytoncides to protect themselves which humans can benefit from for lower blood pressure and other health boosters.
  • Better functioning of body and brain
    Higher quality oxygen will improve functioning of the brain and body for better productivity, mobility, recovery and more. Whereas stale inside air laden with carbon dioxide can lead to lethargy and slower metabolism.
  • Reduced stress
    Just seeing trees has been proven to reduce stress levels, as has listening to the sounds of nature and the outdoors.

How does this relate to early childhood education and care?

This all sounds amazing, but not surprisingly there are even more benefits for young children. Here are some direct results of changing naptime from indoors to outside, as reported by various childcare educators:

  • Reduced illness
    Air conditioning spreads germs and dries up children's sinuses, leading them open to infection. One centre reported that over an 11-week period during winter (when colds and flu are usually rife), they only had a total of less than 1 per cent of absentees which they attribute to outdoor napping.
  • Improved learning
    As children sleep longer, deeper and more serenely when outside, they're more refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to learn when they wake. Their cognitive attentiveness, alertness and awareness is higher compared to napping indoors.
  • Better physical and emotional development
    Outside sleeping can increase children’s brain, bone and muscular development, along with their social and emotional wellbeing.
  • They settle faster
    Educators report that children fall asleep more quickly when in an outdoor setting, requiring less hands-on settling time.
  • Better sleep quality at home
    Sleep begets sleep, and therefore the better quality sleep children have in the day during care, while also being exposed to sunlight, fresh air and nature, can result in better sleep at night for parents.

The early childhood service leading the way in NZ

One early childhood service that's been an early adopter of sleeping outside is Wellington based Childspace.

"At three of our centres, children sleep under trees and shade sails or covered decking and we provide appropriate bedding and blankets to ensure children are warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer," says the Principal of Childspace, Lauren Ryan.

"We have one more centre that unfortunately doesn't have a suitable outdoor space, but if it was possible to have the children sleep outside there they would!"

According to Lauren, there are many reasons why Childspace adopted an outdoor naptime policy at their centres.

"We believe in sleeping outdoors for children's well-being and health reasons. Sleeping outdoors is peaceful and calm, and children seem to sleep longer and more soundly outdoors and when surrounded by birdsong and distance noises of children playing," she says.

Apparently, the response from parents is also very positive.

"There is much research about nature education for well-being and sleeping outdoors is one way we can promote positive connections to being in nature. Many parents liken it to fond memories of camping as a child!" Lauren adds.

"We also find that sleeping outdoors in an early childhood centre environment is better for children's health as they are breathing fresh air with much better ventilation than is possible inside."

How to introduce outdoor naptimes in your centre

The evidence is in, so how do you now go about introducing an outside sleep setting for the children in your care? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find a suitable space
    Depending on how many kids there are, you will probably need quite a large area. Under a large tree, grass or on a veranda are all good options.
  • Ensure appropriate bedding
    You may need more suitable beds and blankets or ask parents to supply sleeping bags. You will also need to ensure there is sufficient shade, so additional shade sails may be required or tarpaulins for light rain cover, and have children wear hats plus sunscreen.
  • Determine your age group
    Generally, the best age for outdoor naps is 2-5 years old. In a centre environment, it's best that babies are kept indoors within cots due to their individual sleep patterns. However, if you're a nanny or run a home daycare with fewer kids, then it could be possible to have babies sleep outside on low camp stretchers or porta cots.
  • Communicate with parents
    Give detailed materials to families regarding the new proposed sleeping arrangements, including all the research backed benefits. Encourage questions and give them an opportunity to opt out of the new policy as well.
  • Adhere to safety guidelines
    Just as you would with indoor sleeping, ensure your outdoor nap procedures follow the official regulations regarding sleep in early childhood settings - such as regular monitoring of temperature, breathing and length of sleep. Given the children are outdoors and not contained, it's imperative that they're supervised at all times too.
  • Have a weather policy
    In times of extreme weather, such as soaring temperatures, rain, sleet, heavy wind, dust storms and lightening, it's best to stay indoors for sleep.
  • Be mindful of exceptions
    If a child has recently been ill or doesn't want to sleep outside, then don't force them. Use common sense to determine if it's appropriate for a child to be outside, especially when it's cold, and allow all children to have the option of sleeping indoors or out.
  • Provide results and feedback
    Put a strategy in place with your educators to record the results – both positive and negative – of outdoor naptime in your centre over an initial trial period, including looking at whether absences decreased for this time. Then provide a summary of results to parents and educators ahead of declaring it a permanent policy, to ensure it is in fact working for all.

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