Caroline Freeman and Nicola Simpson: A breath of fresh air for kids at Scots nurseries

Kids at Fenton Barns Nursery enjoy outdoor learning
Kids at Fenton Barns Nursery enjoy outdoor learning
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Whilst the luckiest of Scotland’s school and nursery pupils enjoy stunning vistas of mountains, villages, farmland or beautiful cityscapes from the windows of their ­classrooms, many of these views are experienced from behind glass. A common perception is that ­Scotland’s climate doesn’t necessarily lend itself to enjoying the outdoors, particularly for the younger ­members of our society.

However, there is a fast-growing movement asserting that the rich outdoor landscapes provide the perfect environment to ­motivate and excite children, leading to an enhanced learning experience, and that with the right preparation, learning can take place in any weather!

It has even been recognised that Scotland is leading in this field and keen to drive even ­further forward, with Minister for Childcare and Early Years, Maree Todd, announcing earlier this year an injection of more than £860,000 to encourage and support greater use of outdoor learning in early years.

Fenton Barns Nursery near North Berwick in East Lothian is one of the pioneers of outdoor learning ­during pre-school years. Meals are usually enjoyed inside but the children spend an average of 80 to 90 per cent of their day outdoors, all year round, come rain or shine, climbing trees, fire building, doing transient art, ­running free, and taking part in imaginative play.

Owners Caroline Freeman, an ­occupational therapist, and Nicola Simpson, former director of charity Countryside Learning Scotland, saw the benefit of outdoor learning from the start.

They said: “We knew from the outset that an outdoor learning environment was what we wanted to create. We believe that it fosters child-led learning, enabling children to develop their own sense of curiosity, risk, problem solving and creativity.

“We make use of our own purpose-built nursery garden to play, grow vegetables, build go-carts and learn about wildlife, in large part inspired by the Forest Schools ethos which focuses on relationships being built through trust and self-exploration in a natural environment.

“As many hardy Scots would say, there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes! Whilst our staff sometimes need an extra layer, the children are so active and engaged that they never seem to notice when the sun isn’t shining! The Scottish Government also recently released a document entitled Space to Grow, which outlines how childcare providers can improve experiences for children and their access to outdoor spaces.

“The document asserts that ‘simply being outside in fresh air is beneficial, but when children are helped to actively explore nature for themselves the dividends for improving outcomes are exponential. If staff help children to develop their own free-flow play activities outdoors they can learn through nature. From this, we can begin to see children flourish’.”

Caroline and Nicola added: “An ­outdoor environment not only improves mental wellbeing among our children and staff, but also their general health, fitness and cognition and we see our children flourish ­every single day.

“It’s not just what we do with our bodies but also what we put in that helps us to grow and learn. We are passionate about using fresh, local produce and fostering a strong sense of healthy eating and lifestyle. The children often eat vegetables they have grown themselves in our ­garden and seem all the more enthusiastic for eating it when they know they have grown it themselves.’

­Fenton Barns is one of an increasing number of nurseries in Scotland embracing this whole body, outdoor ethos. The recent Scottish Rural Awards, in which Fenton Barns Nursery was a finalist in the Education category, saw another, Craighead Country Nursery, victorious in the Business Diversification category.

Caroline said: “We were delighted to meet with the Craighead team during their development process and offer any advice we could.

“They are showing that the best way to offer a superb outdoor learning experience is to learn from those who have gone before. We are always happy to talk though our ethos and our learning goals with anybody keen to understand more about why we believe that outdoor learning is key to helping our little acorns grow into wonderful oak trees.”

Caroline Freeman, occupational therapist, and Nicola Simpson, former director of charity Countryside Learning Scotland.