Fully outdoor nurseries are finding their way and something magical is happening. We are leaving behind the slight sense of 'enthusiastic cottage industry' and taking responsibility for making ourselves attractive to the mainstream of parents. The potential is enormous.
The connection between parent, child and setting is most important. Increasingly, we deliver an experience to parent and child that is as relevant and joyful as it is well grounded in pedagogy and care.
It may well be that C19 accelerates that change. Certainly, Stramash’s two key worker hubs in Fort William and Oban are finding answers to many C19 related questions. We are living through operational adaption in real time. Outdoor nurseries have always had a lot to offer and we are seeing this ever more clearly in a C19 world.
My own professional background is in system and organisational change as much as it is in early learning and childcare. It leads me to reflect that the ongoing context for all ELC is major government investment as part of a larger journey to providing comprehensive ELC.
The investment recognises the importance of early years to society and its role in creating strong foundations for life lived thereafter. To capitalise on the investment, the very nurturing culture of ELC is facing all the highs, lows, frustrations, joys and achievements of major change. There is near universal agreement about what we should be doing, but the challenges of getting there are significant and not to be underestimated.
Within this context the benefits of outdoor ELC have been well discussed, observed with lots of children and predominantly accepted. It is the work of moments to track down statements such as 'access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development'.
Equally those self-same benefits appear not to have taken root systemically - not nearly enough families are able to access registered outdoor ELC. Of the 30 or so outdoor settings registered in Scotland I estimate they are capable of serving around 1 per cent of the population of children that could benefit. Some 99 per cent of children do not have access to registered outdoor ELC in Scotland, and I’m sure the picture is not markedly different UK wide.
So why is this? It seems counterintuitive given much that seems compelling. If one takes the view (and I do) that there is little if anything that can be learned indoors that cannot be learned outdoors then the additional benefits of being outdoors rather than indoors are exactly that – additional. Enhanced levels of child health, resilience, socialisation, environmental stewardship and, ultimately, family wellbeing.
Under C19 more benefits appear. We do not for example have the limits of indoor surfaces that are repeatedly touched, we have natural outdoor surfaces that do not need to be sanitised. We are not constrained by a prescribed square meterage per child, we have no walls and our environment is elastic. Viral transmission is simply less likely to happen outdoors.
So, maybe a tide is turning towards fully outdoors provision, and I do hope it is.
- Stramash Social Enterprise runs four outdoor nurseries in Scotland - Oban, Fort William, Elgin and Tornagrain. The organisation won Nursery Practitioner of the Year and was Highly Commended for Nursery Group of the Year in the Nursery World Awards 2019.