Outdoor learning, exercise and play are highlighted in the Scottish government’s action plan for early learning and childcare.
From next month, it will publish guidance for all early learning and childcare (ELC) settings, which it says ‘will promote well-designed outdoor space in all new-built and refurbished or extended settings created as part of [this] expansion’ [to almost double the free entitlement to 1,240 hours a year by 2020].
Ministers want to build on the commitment to a minimum of one hour a week outdoors by encouraging all providers to have access to ‘a stimulating outdoor play area for children’, including daily opportunities to be outdoors. For full-time children, part of their day should be spent outdoors.
The Scottish government’s ‘Blueprint 2020’ report says, ‘We know the benefits of outdoor learning, exercise and play for young children in terms of their health and well-being, physical and cognitive development. ELC settings have embraced Curriculum for Excellence’s emphasis on broader learning experience, including active learning and learning outdoors.’
One Edinburgh nursery taking part in the trial ahead of the entitlement expansion is looking at setting up an outdoor nursery through a nature kindergarten.
Early learning providers are also being encouraged to organise a ‘Daily Mile’ or age-appropriate activity for children. Guidance on the Daily Mile in ELC settings will be published in the autumn.
Commenting on the Blueprint, Dr Lala Manners, director of Activematters, said the inclusion of ‘Access to outdoor learning, exercise and play’ in the strategy was to be applauded. ‘Overall this is a very encouraging document and it is pleasing to see childminders and parents afforded the support they so deserve.’
But she added, ‘“Outdoor learning” and “outdoor play” seem to be interchangeable terms and, yes, children are “exercising” their bodies as they move about during the day.
‘What we have to be really careful of is not simply moving the indoor learning environment outdoors – that children just end up “doing numeracy and literacy” with bigger resources (chalk instead of pencils) in the fresh air. It is imperative that the outdoor environment remains a place of relative freedom – to explore, contemplate, cogitate, express and engage if/when desired – and that the learning which emerges from these experiences has parity of value and status with more formal activities.
‘Encouraging providers to aim for a Daily Mile is concerning. Granted, this is easy to organise/evaluate/monitor – and there is no need for specialist equipment, clothing or training – but the danger is that this is used as the classic get-out clause to avoid designing anything more interesting and meaningful to support children’s physical activity. What would be considered as an “age equivalent activity” for younger children – and at what age would children be expected to run a mile?’
The founder of Mindstretchers, which was involved in the consultation, education consultant Claire Warden, said, ‘We very much welcome the inclusion of outdoor learning in this document. However, play and learning outside needs to be afforded equal importance with indoor play and learning. If all children are to thrive, they need prolonged daily access to nature-based, outdoor areas that are full of irresistible fascinations.
‘My doctoral research clarifies the concept of nature pedagogy as a way of working with nature that should be embedded in undergraduate and postgraduate training. This would provide a skilled group of professionals who are able to make this achievable across the variety of settings. In this pedagogy, play and learning are embedded inside a setting, outside in play areas and beyond, in models such as Forest School. The Daily Mile is a specific activity/health focus and not the same as outdoor play and learning. It should not be seen as reducing the requirement for, or replacing, outdoor play.’
Chief executive of Early Years Scotland Jean Carwood-Edwards said, ‘We have long championed learning outdoors. We do, however, feel the target of one hour outdoors per week sets the bar far too low. We hope that the Scottish Government recognises the unique challenges of many partner providers who face barriers when it comes to having an appropriate outdoor area.’
Commenting on the Scottish government's childcare expansion plans, Carolyn Lochhead of campaign group Fair Funding for our Kids said, ‘We welcome the fact that childcare is now seen as an important political issue, and we give credit to the Scottish Government for recognising this.
'We are glad of the current entitlement to 600 funded hours of childcare. But there is no national system for early learning and childcare. And two-thirds of all nursery places are for half days only. This means that for many working parents, the 600 hours are a myth. Indeed, last year the Care Inspectorate confirmed this, reporting that a third of three- four-year-olds are not receiving a funded place. So we’d like the Scottish Government to properly deliver on its current commitment before seeking to double it.’