Learning in the great outdoors

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A TRAILBLAZING nursery is offering a radical approach to outdoor play – only a third of the centre is indoors.

Arcadia Nursery, based at Edinburgh University’s King’s Buildings, offers a Scandinavian-style learning experience where children are encouraged to escape the confines of the classroom by wandering through the gardens, stopping to play in the mini allotments or to teeter along the elevated walkways to the treehouse.

Designed by award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser, the so-called “wilderness nursery” opened on August 4 to provide care for children up to five years old.

The focus of the nursery is on “free play”, where children are encouraged to make their own choices on what they want to do each day, rather than their play activity being directed by adults.

As well as the extensive gardens, there are three different classrooms – a harmony room for under-twos, a peace room for two to three-year-olds and a serenity room for three to five-year-olds.

Mr Fraser, right, said: “Garden play is fundamentally important to children’s development and this has given us an opportunity to create a building that reflects that. The children are delighted by it and they love that they can run between the rooms and visit their siblings who are different ages.

“I think they understand the idea behind it, that they are free to do what they like. There’s so much variety.

“When I visited it the other day they were shouting ‘We love our garden’, and one child told me ‘This is my building’. It was just 

One of the inspirations for Arcadia was the Cowgate Under 5s Centre, in the Old Town, which won nine “excellent” ratings from Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate in March.

Cowgate allows children to decide what they want to do at the beginning of the day and little ones are encouraged to take ownership of the nursery.

This set-up inspired the university and the architects on the Arcadia project, who created the plans through a collaborative approach.

Earlier this week, Mr Fraser hit out against “bland” buildings in the Capital, which he claimed was facing an architectural crisis.

He said the nursery was a reaction against such “straight jacketing”.

“I believe we need to take a bit more joy in the city and the architecture,” he said.

“So I thought that this was a nice way to approach a nursery building.”

The Arcadia nursery – whose name derives from Greek mythology – was built using 
timber and natural insulation, with copper cladding on the outside giving the building a golden sheen. The final cost of the building is estimated to be around £2.5 million.

Arcadia’s innovative approach has been welcomed by Councillor Keith Robson, the city’s play champion.

The Labour councillor, who represents Liberton and Gilmerton ward, said: “Play is important for so many reasons and outdoor play is very important for children to help them make sense of the world in different environments.

“It is amazing that they have created this environment in that area of town, which is very urban.”

The new Arcadia nursery has brought together the teams from the university’s former nurseries – Uni-Tots Nursery, in George Square, and the Day Nursery, in Dalkeith 

Rhona Connell, childcare manager at Arcadia, said: “We are absolutely living the dream. I have been in childcare for nearly 40 years and I think this is amazing.

“These ideas have been 
developed over the years and outdoor play can have such a positive impact on children. You should see their faces – they absolutely love it.”


THIS model of outdoor play is informed by examples from Scandinavia, where a high importance is placed on connecting with nature.

Forest kindergartens have sprung up in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany since the 1950s. The first forest kindergarten in the UK is the Secret Garden Nursery, which was established in woodland in Cupar, Fife, in 2008.

At the nursery, children engage in full-time outdoor play in a woodland surrounding using natural resources.


By Marguerite Hunter Blair, Chief executive of Play Scotland

The concept of free play is “proper” play where children make up their own minds about what they want to do, rather than when they are told they should do some colouring in.

It is self-determined and self-motivated. When deciding to play a game, children learn how to share toys with other children and manage conflict.

Through this they learn social skills which they need in adult life.

It also helps with brain development as if people keep telling you what to do then you only approach a task in that way.

If you make lots of new choices then the neural pathways in your brain can be built on.

There’s lots of physical development as well. If children are using building blocks then they develop hand-eye coordination and balance.

There’s also emotional wellbeing which comes from being exposed to nature and green spaces.

Children also develop long vision if they are outside and focusing on the horizon.

Opticians are saying that lots of children are presenting without properly developed long sight as they are so often staring at screens.

We aren’t saying there is anything wrong with computers but we think there should be a mix.

If children are involved in play they tend to be more active so there is less investment needed in health and social care in later life.