A NURSERY without walls, where children play outdoors all day, is proving so popular with parents that it has become a full-time service.
The Secret Garden Nursery in Fife has no premises except a tent set up in the woods – though that is used only in the very worst weather.
Cathy Bache, the nursery's founder, began piloting the concept of outdoor play and learning for children aged two to five in September 2004 and has expanded to a full-time nursery with 14 children.
The drama and primary teacher believed that providing a physically and intellectually stimulating environment that was safe and secure for children to play in would boost their development.
The idea, which originated in Norway, is that fresh air and movement stimulate young children and their learning.
Youngsters spend their entire days at the nursery playing with imaginary dinosaurs and space aliens in Letham Woods, even if it is raining. But they can retire to the stove-heated tent if the weather gets too much.
The Secret Garden recently won prestigious prizes for outstanding practice.
Children's minister Adam Ingram visited the nursery yesterday and praised it. He said: "Helping children learn about the environment through touch and play is vital to their physical development and imagination, particularly during the early years.
"There is a cotton-wool culture that has developed in Scotland and encouraging young people to get out and reconnect with the natural world can only enrich their lives."
Morven Cuthbertson, administration manager for the nursery, said children attended two or three days a week.
She said: "They start the day when they arrive at Letham Park and make their way up to the woods where the nursery is actually based.
"The day is very much dictated by what the children want to do but they generally gather at around 11:30-12 in our tent for lunch, and some might then take a nap."
She stressed poor weather was not enough to stop the group enjoying the outdoors: "We find if the children are dressed appropriately, they have fun in almost all weathers."
Sharon and Tom Hedley's daughters Anna, four, and Isla, three, attend the nursery. Mrs Hedley said: "I heard about it several years ago when Anna was a baby so I had it in the back of my mind.
"I'd read if children are well enough equipped and warm and dry they don't notice the weather. My children have been going for seven weeks and they've never mentioned the weather in a negative sense.
"Isla last week asked me if I could be the last mummy to pick her up. I was amazed because it was really cold that day."
Mrs Hedley said the girls loved the nursery, particularly Isla, whom she likened to "a candle that has been lit".
She added: "They had been going to nursery and playgroup already and learnt about autumn and the seasons, but I think for them to really feel it outdoors gives them a deeper understanding, rather than simply sticking leaves on to a bit of paper."
What lessons can we learn from the hardy Norwegians?
NORWAY could provide answers to some of Scotland's biggest educational challenges, a report claimed last year.
The research compared the two nations to discover why Norwegian children stay in education longer and are less likely to fall into poverty. Earlier this year, a Unicef report placed the UK at the bottom of a table of the world's 21 richest countries for child wellbeing – Norway came seventh.
Dr Bronwen Cohen, the chief executive of Children in Scotland, said she believed Norway's focus on outdoor play could help to enthuse Scottish children and make Scotland a healthier nation. Children at about a third of Norway's nurseries spend entire days outdoors.
Dr Cohen said: "An interest in the outdoors will stay with children for the rest of their lives, and learning about their environment by picking berries and mushrooms, as they do in Norway, could help children to learn about nutrition."