The Great Outdoors

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One of the joys of helping to run a pre-school is seeing the children connect with the natural world, says Sue Cowley


Sue Cowley, educational author and trainer

One of the joys of helping to run a pre-school is seeing the children connect with the natural world. We run a forest school session once a week, when the children spend the day in a wooded area close to our setting. We also operate a ‘free-flow’ system during sessions, and children can spend time in the garden, or playing in the outdoor space, whenever they want.

Study after study has shown that children are spending less and less time outdoors; recent figures tell us that a shocking 30 per cent of children are overweight or obese. The World Health Organisation regards childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century. Clearly there is a vital need for children to be more physically active, and outdoors is the place where this is most likely to happen. Being outside can help to restore a sense of calm in a busy world, and it is beneficial for children’s levels of vitamin D.

At this time of year, the leaves on the trees are changing colour and falling to the ground. Conkers are ripening and seed pods are drying. The outdoors becomes a place of wonder and opportunity – whether kicking through leaves or foraging for natural materials to use in art or to learn about science. There are lots of resources and schemes available to promote learning outdoors. Our setting has joined schemes from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Horticultural Society. The other day I watched a child explore her fascination with the snails that inhabit our outdoor space, and build a home for them with the help of a practitioner.

We live in a world where children are being tested, from the moment they start school and throughout their primary years. While the pressure might be on schools and teachers to demonstrate progress, it is the children who have to sit the tests that measure the system. One of the most valuable opportunities we can offer children in the early years is the chance to connect with the natural world. Because it is a reminder that learning is not just about putting pen to paper – it is about understanding your environment, and being part of the wider cycle of life.

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