The Scottish Government is very supportive of outdoors education, supporting it firmly in its Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning which recently translated into giving Glasgow’s first forest kindergarten the status of a partnership nursery. With this status, the statutory entitlement to early years education for 3 and 4 year olds can be claimed through hours delivered at the kindergarten, reducing cost for parents but also sending out a clear message that outdoors education meets the curriculum for early years.
If I look at how my 3 year old sees it all, in her first year, so far she has no preference for either indoor or outdoor nursery. She liked both. Come 4 years of age, woohoo, forest kindergarten rules. Even when she seemed indifferent, there was a marked difference: There were no reports of pushing or hair pulling behaviour of other children from the outdoors nursery. She seems to get on better with the children there, but also choose her interaction much more freely. While indoors, she can’t avoid to interact with the children she’d rather not play with. The difference may also indicate that in an outdoors environment, behaviour of all children is more balanced and that children in general get on better, because they can make more choice, have more space, are more in control of their space (and aren’t stuck in one small room for most of the day).
Alison Hammerton, in a blog post on a visit to outdoor education centres in Norway, observes that: “The children were clearly healthy and resilient, and there was no evidence of any conflicts between children. Staff allowed them a great deal of time to engage individually in the nature around them, with plenty of opportunity for imaginative and creative play, cooperation and communication, and for developing balance and motor skills.” It seems that one of the benefits of outdoor education is a reduction in conflict and the development of individual interests, which would match my impression of my daughter’s feedback.
In more general terms, outdoor education has many lasting benefits. “Research indicates that the use of greenspace or ‘green exercise’ improves health. In particular, learning outdoors generally results in increased levels of physical activity. In addition, interacting with greenspace (walking, gardening, etc) improves emotional wellbeing and mental health.” Outdoor education thus makes for more active children, healthier children, happier children. This is the obvious impact, but more than that it offers an opportunity to engage with the natural world, and a very different environment from that at normal child care centres.
In our case, my daughters’ indoors nursery is particularly keen on its eco status – so most toys are wooden or of natural origin (baskets of shells, pinecones, etc), craft activities are done with recycled materials, the outdoor space has plenty of raised beds. However, compare the play materials (aka toys) of a “normal” nursery with those in the outdoors: Colourful, plastic, blinking, beeping items on the one hand, leaves, twigs, mud, trees, bushes, grass, flowers on the other. Outdoors education gives an opportunity to make things that occur naturally into toys, to modify the use, be creative with what’s there and thus develop imagination, creativity and resilience. Children manage the risks they take themselves, they make their own decisions if they want to climb that tree or slide down that muddy slope, while nothing in the indoor space has a potential for risk that has to be assessed. These are qualities which are transferable all the way into adult life: “Outdoor experiences motivate our children and young people to become successful learners and to develop as healthy, confident, enterprising and responsible citizens.”
So, the bottom line is that there should be more opportunities for outdoor learning in its many forms. Bring on farm kindergartens in rural areas, forest kindergartens whereever there is an appropriate space, green spaces near and far that can be used by nurseries and schools on a regular basis, gardening project and bringing nature into nurseries.