Nursery classes in woods give kids taste of freedom

The Outdoor Nursery. Picture: Toby William
The Outdoor Nursery. Picture: Toby William
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THE children huddle together as they listen to the familiar lines from the worn pages of a storybook that’s clearly been well read.

“A Gruffalo, why didn’t you know…” chant the youngsters as they rattle off the list of terrifying traits the fearsome creature living in the deep dark woods possesses.

But these children aren’t scared. They know that when it comes to exploration in the “deep dark woods”, there are bigger dangers than Gruffalos to worry about.

These intrepid young explorers all attend the Outdoor Nursery Edinburgh (ONE), the Capital’s first and only nursery which is centred around al fresco learning.

Recently opened at Mother Goose on Howdenhall Road, it is based on the Scandinavian forest kindergarten, where learning takes place almost exclusively outdoors.

Children are encouraged to explore as much as they want, with the teachers there to assist rather than lead, shaping the learning experiences.

While the idea of letting their beloved offspring loose in the woods might send a collective shiver down the spines of most parents, the reality of it is far less dangerous and chaotic than one might expect.

In fact, it is quite the opposite. Children are fully versed in the potential dangers they could face in the woods – and forewarned is definitely forearmed.

There are rules for everything to ensure that they are not put in danger and to make sure they can have as much fun as possible whilst staying safe.

But the rules are simple and easy for the children to digest and understand.

They can’t climb trees if the trees are higher than a teacher – or else how would they get rescued if they got stuck? They can’t eat anything other than the snack that has been brought for them. And they must stay within view of a teacher at all times.

“Don’t touch the mushrooms. Don’t touch anything jaggy. And keep away from dog poo,” the youngsters add as they prepare their advance into the great unknown.

It’s sage advice for anyone to follow.

The children are immediately at ease under the cover of leaves, skipping off in all directions to focus on collecting sticks for the fire, searching for bugs, picking up pine cones and climbing trees.

“One of the best quotes I had was from a prospective parent,” says Jenny McAllister MBE, nursery manager at ONE. “She said that we are giving children our childhood. And she’s right. When we were little we were always outside playing. I think that stops with a certain generation so we want to bring that back.”

She adds: “If you said to a group of 30-year-olds and above, if your best memory is of something you did inside, then sit down, no-one would sit down. If you said the same about whether their best memories were with adults, it would be the same response.”

And looking at the faces of the children running around her in the woodland, you can see she’s not wrong.

Life-long memories are being created right here, right now.

In one corner there’s a small group of children sitting on a log listening to a story. At the same time there are two children making a treasure map, while off in another direction a group are peeling bark off a tree stump to find bugs underneath. Other children are swinging in a hammock, whilst another is getting a hug from a member of staff.

“I found a slug,” shrieks four-year-old Robbie, who is getting well and truly stuck into the nursery’s ethos despite it being his first day there. The rest of the children come running over to examine his find, approving of both new additions to the ONE family.

Robbie’s light coloured clothes are covered in mud, a beaming smile plastered across his face.

“His parents will learn,” laugh the nursery staff, who have watched as mums and dads – some quite sceptical to begin with – slowly came on board with the idea of outdoor learning.

“At first they kept asking me what we would do if it rained”, recalls Jenny. “I told them we just put waterproofs on and go outside. It’s as simple as that.”

All the children are provided with waterproof suits – as well as rucksacks and water bottles for their outdoor adventures.

And it wasn’t just the parents who had to get their heads around the concept.

“I was in Ocean Terminal with my mum one day,” says Laura McAulay, one of the staff members at ONE. “She asked me if I 
wanted to go into New Look. I said ‘no, I’m going for a look round Trespass’.

“My mum said ‘you’ve changed’,” laughs Laura. “And I have.”

A self-confessed girly girl, Laura has been one of the biggest converts to the outdoor learning experience, throwing herself into building dens and finding bugs.

“I brought my son and partner down to the woods one day to show them the den I made. I sawed the branches myself,” she announces proudly.

On the sound of an owl hoot, the children gather around the camp and sit on logs reciting some more rules while Jenny lights the fire.

One by one they accompany a staff member and toast a piece of bread to have with some jam for their snack.

Their eyes light up when the marshmallows are brought out, their tongues literally hanging out of their mouths in anticipation as they patiently wait their turn for a toasted treat.

“We don’t have behavioural issues and we don’t have fighting because they have got enough space to do what they want to do,” explains Jenny, a qualified primary school teacher specialising in outdoor learning, who was recently awarded the MBE.

“This should not be seen as an alternative method of child care and education – it is the most natural way for our children to grow and learn.”