This was in response to the Scottish Government’s extension of early years provision and the drive to increase access to outdoor play and the natural environment.
That vision became a reality when we became the first college in Scotland where students at all levels of childcare qualifications experience outdoor learning from the start of their course. Achieving this took a concerted effort to create the forest classroom, training staff, build partnerships with local nurseries and primary schools, and update qualifications.
First, we identified a site for the forest classroom on our campus. Students, lecturers and estates staff created a woodland learning space that was sympathetic to the environment by using recycled materials to build a fire pit and mud kitchens.
In parallel, recognising the importance of outdoor learning in supporting children's development, we adapted our teaching practice to prepare students for what they would experience in work. We provided training for lecturers so they understood the benefits of learning outdoors and had the confidence to pass this on to their students. All childhood practice lecturers attended a training course on supporting children in an outdoor environment which included an introduction to bushcraft skills.
Next, outdoor learning was integrated into our qualifications. Scottish Forestry trained lecturers on the development of a Forest Kindergarten unit that is now delivered to all HNC students, instilling the ethos of outdoor learning as an integral part of childhood practice and helping them gain the confidence and skills that prepare them for this vital aspect of early years practice.
In autumn last year, all HNC Childhood Practice students completed Forest Kindergarten training in our forest classroom to prepare them for work placement. In a year when most colleges were unable to organise work placements, all of our childhood practice students benefited from placements arranged through our excellent partnership with West Lothian Council’s Early Years and Childcare team. All students had sixteen days on placement prior to the winter lockdown followed by a five-week work placement in spring 2021. Thanks to this, they were able to complete their HNC and achieve the SSSC (Scottish Social Services Council) registrable qualification as early years practitioners.
Work placements were also made available to students on lower level courses that enabled students to achieve the units required to register with the SSSC to secure jobs. Our Foundation Apprenticeship students benefited from virtual placements with Knightsridge Primary School where they worked with children on storytelling activities.
Sustained collaboration between the college and the council’s early years team focuses on the skills that students need, including outdoor learning pedagogy, so that they are able to meet the needs of nurseries and early years settings. Council practitioners are partners in joint planning processes to ensure our course content meets future needs. Specific qualifications that reflect their priorities, such as Supervised Toothbrushing and Paediatric First Aid, are included in our courses. And, as well as embedding Forest Kindergarten into our curriculum, we have integrated Froebelian pedagogy ensuring students have the skills that will set them apart in future employment.
Another benefit of partnership working is joint training between the college and council, where early years practitioners and lecturers have access to each other’s professional development opportunities. Even in a year dominated by the pandemic, college staff took part in the council’s early learning and childcare conference, lecturers attended the council’s Oral Language course, and local authority practitioners supported our online early learning and childcare conference for students.
Lecturers and students have made the most of our outdoor spaces throughout the pandemic, showing that anything taught indoors – storytelling sessions, scavenger hunts and craft activities – can be delivered outdoors. If you go down to the woods today at West Lothian College you will find lecturers and students learning outdoors, come rain or shine!
Anna Styles, Learning and Skills Manager, West Lothian College