Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The excellence of learning outdoors

This past weekend, we've been indoors a lot. Not all the time, but more than usual. There was football, tennis, a trip to the hairdresser being tied to a chair, then Sunday spent watching her first full length film followed by a car trip to granny and grampa and staying indoors due to heavy showers and granny's current reduced mobility. Over the course of Sunday, Cubling slowly but surely showed us that she was still a spirited child, as she let go of the accumulated energy while shopping. I waasn't on my own, had I been on my own, we would have had to abandon the trip and survived on porridge for the rest of the week. It was that bad. Not badness in the sense of naughtiness, just unbound energy and inability to respond to request of appropriate shop behaviour. She tried, she wanted to cooperate, but she was in overdrive. The following night's sleep was disturbed, the following day ended in unconsolable whining as the tiredness took over and was not to be alleviated even by the best mummy cuddles.

Lesson learned, Cubling needs more opportunity to let go of her higher than average energy levels. Which she usually gets both at the forest kindergarten which she attends two days a week, and our usual weekend activities.

The Scottish Government is very supportive of outdoors education, supporting it firmly in its Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning and I hope that this will in the near future translate 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. So far, the process has been delayed, not because of any issues with the provision at the forest kindergarten, but the uncertainty of imminent cuts and how that translates into Early Years Services.

If I look at how Cubling sees it all, so far she has no preference for either indoor or outdoor nursery. She likes both. The difference I can see is that she does not report 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. 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 Cubling'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 Cubling's case, her indoors nursery is particularly keen on its eco status - so all toys are wooden or of natural origin (baskets of shells, pinecones, and not a single plastic toy), 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.

In fact, Cubling's indoor nursery isn't doing too badly at all, with two projects happening soon: a greenhouse to be built out of recycled 2l milk bottles and a seaside mural. And of course Cubling is already collecting empty milk bottles and shells.



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