Monday, April 22

My Outdoor Education Journey to Early Years

Jo currently works at Willow Den, a fully Outdoor nursery in Edinburgh with 3 -5 year olds. She is working towards an Early Years qualification at a local college, runs Duke of Edinburgh expeditions with young people and is an Associate with Thrive Outdoors. Jo is passionate about sharing the benefits of outdoor play and learning, along with increasing opportunities for connection to nature for young people, through incorporating more outdoor learning in the school day. She is interested in the holistic benefits the outdoors can bring to people’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being.As a Forest Kindergarten trainer, Bushcraft Instructor, Lowland Leader and NNAS Tutor she is eager to equip others with skills to embrace outdoor learning, and in turn help more young people engage with, and benefit from, the natural environment.In her free time she enjoys photography, travelling, hiking, sea swimming along with good coffee and cake!Originally from Dublin and now living in Edinburgh, I graduated from GMIT Castlebar with a BA in Outdoor Education and Leisure in 2004. After graduating I travelled around the world and worked in a variety of outdoor based jobs in Ireland, UK, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Borneo, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka. I’ve worked on environmental education programmes in Central America, with international schools running their Outdoor Education programmes in Switzerland and their service-learning trips in Asia, and taught climbing in New Zealand and Austria. From this wide variety of experiences, I have seen what outdoor education, environmental education and experiential learning can offer to young people, the many benefits it brings and the personal insights and challenges it offers. Wanting to continue my own learning and develop deeper understanding, I completed an MSc in Outdoor Education at the University of Edinburgh in 2016. I now work part time as an Outdoor Early Years practitioner and a freelance outdoor instructor here in Scotland. I love the close proximity to the sea and the mountains and how beautiful and wild Scotland is, offering so many opportunities to connect with nature whilst still living in a city!How Early Years found me…After spending the last 20 years teaching a variety of outdoor activities including kayaking, rock climbing, navigation, bushcraft, archery, abseiling, nature studies and biking, how did I switch to early years education? Well, it was not a premeditated career move, but something that evolved over the last few years out of my experiences. I had just come back from running a school trip in Borneo and I took a part time job here in Edinburgh to see me through winter, as many outdoor instructors do! It was with a charity Thrive Outdoors whose vision is for a sustainable Scotland where children and young people can play, learn and thrive outdoors. Thrive Outdoors is a fund within the Inspiring Scotland charity, a unique organisation which uses philanthropy investment along with government and other funding to identify and solve deep-rooted social problems, to tackle poverty and disadvantage across Scotland.What was initially a 4-month temporary position morphed into an amazing 2.5 years, and it was through this experience that I realised the potential for outdoor play and learning in the Early Years. Thrive Outdoors had a variety of projects which we worked on, focusing on the promotion, delivery and development of outdoor play and learning. It was great to be involved in such a breadth of topics such as development of sector guidance, supporting and developing communities of practice and generating commitment to Outdoor Learning in the Early Years sector. One project was supporting the Scottish Government on their Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) expansion, working with local authorities to help them improve and grow their outdoor provision as funded hours were increased. Here in Scotland, children from age 3 years to school age, are entitled to 1140 funded pre-school hours per year, so our aim was to help make more of those hours, outdoor based. A lack of guidance on how to access outdoor spaces to create safe, nurturing and inspiring outdoor learning experiences was identified, so we were asked to facilitate the drafting and publication of Out to Play, a national guidance on creating outdoor play experiences for children. This is a step-by-step guide for those settings that wish to improve or increase their access to the outdoors, so that more children can access quality outdoor play and learning experiences every day.We also brought together a round table coalition to draft Scotland’s National Position Statement on Outdoor Play and Learning, to harness the energy and commitment from signatories to work together to embed playing and learning outdoors for all children and young people in Scotland. In January 2020, on behalf of the Scottish Government, we created a series of films that showcased the benefits that outdoor nurseries can have on early years development. Take some time to watch these short clips, although a warning … you may want to change jobs and work outdoors in early years after watching them!Click here – Outdoor ELC for practitioners; what’s it like to work in a fully outdoor nursery? – YouTubeBecoming the change…After years of promoting the benefits of outdoor ELC and supporting more outdoor nurseries to open, Inspiring Scotland decided to use the knowledge gained from the Thrive Outdoors team and set up our own Outdoor Nurseries, and so Willow Den was born. After working from home over lockdown I really missed working outdoors and engaging with nature and people. So, I decided to make the switch, working part time at the outdoor nursery whilst also gaining a childcare qualification, and on the side running Duke of Edinburgh expeditions as a freelancer. Willow Den in Edinburgh is an outdoor nursery open from 8am to 4pm, where the children spend their whole day playing and learning outdoors, in our garden area, mud kitchen, or woodland area. People often comment that the weather is too cold/bad/wet to be outside all day, but once dressed appropriately the children thrive in this environment and build resilience and self-confidence…and also have a lot of fun!The Outdoor Nursery sector here in Scotland, although not yet the norm, making up less than 2% of all ELC provision, is definitely a growing sector. I feel lucky in the fact that outdoor learning is valued enough that it is in the Scottish curriculum, from early years through to secondary school, and all children are entitled to outdoor experiences during their educational life. I wish that this had been my experience growing up in Ireland and I wonder what the potential is for Ireland to also engage with Outdoor Learning in the Curriculum? The Scottish Government are quite committed to supporting this, and although experiences and provision can vary across locations, the fact that it is identified as an entitlement is wonderful.’the children spend their whole day playing and learning outdoors’In the Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning document, Scotland’s vision for outdoor learning is that all children and young people are participating in a range of progressive and creative outdoor learning experiences which are clearly part of the curriculum schools and centres are providing regular, frequent, enjoyable and challenging opportunities for all children and young people to learn outdoors throughout their school career and beyond teachers and educators embed outdoor learning in the curriculum so that learning in the outdoor environment becomes a reality for all children and young people.Holistic benefits: The importance of outdoor play and engaging with nature There is abundant research showing the benefits of spending time in nature for both children and adults alike. I think if you work outdoors with young people, you will have observed how crucial nature experiences can be. The natural environment offers different opportunities for learning and thinking, and brings physical, social, emotional and cognitive benefits. There are also daily opportunities for risky and adventurous play which helps develop a child’s self-confidence, resilience, executive functioning abilities and even risk-management skills. But it is not only children that can benefit, as adults, our mental, emotional and physical health improves when we spend time outdoors. I know during lockdown my mental health was challenged with stresses, isolation and desk-based work, sometimes not leaving the house on a day and I’m sure I am not alone in that experience. Returning to working outdoors has improved my energy, physical health and reduced my stress and anxiety levels. Listening to the practitioners in the video clip above, describing the positive impacts working outdoors has on their own mental and physical health is amazing and fully resonates with me.The national practice guidance for early years in Scotland is Realising the Ambition and along with My World Outdoors, a resource which highlights the benefits of outdoor play for children attending early learning and childcare, there is growing support for outdoor learning in the early years in Scotland, with the benefits clearly understood:…daily, high quality outdoor play experiences have a direct and positive impact on children’s physical, cognitive, social, mental health and emotional development….the direct link between a child’s movement and coordination development and the development of fine motor and concentration skills must be made, valued and demonstrated in practice by us as early years educators (Realising the Ambition: Being Me, p54).My main focus has always been sharing experiences outdoors, connecting with people and with nature. I lean towards the social and emotional benefits outdoor learning can provide, rather than the technical skills side of it. Creating opportunities to connect with nature not only has a long-term positive effect on human wellbeing but also has a positive effect on environmental sustainability. My MSc research looked at Connection to Nature in a primary school where the children partook in a gardening and environmental education programme. It was through this research that I uncovered the worrying statistics of how little time children spend in nature, rather spending their days learning indoors in a classroom and increasingly connected to devices. ‘Connection to nature concerns the human‐nature relationship and’ can be described as “one’s appreciation for, and understanding of, our interconnectedness with all other living things on the earth … and an understanding of the importance of all aspects of nature” (Nisbet et al., 2009). It is a strong predictor of children’s interests in environmentally friendly practices, which makes sense. Experiences in nature affect our relationship with the natural world and in turn how we feel about it and how we act in it. Some key affective influences on the development of positive environmental behaviours were identified by Christie and Higgins (2012) including connection to nature, a sense of place and direct contact with nature. If children love something, they will protect it, and looking to the future we need to protect our environment and live more sustainably. What better time to offer that experience in nature than in the early years, to inspire a love of nature at a young age and to create opportunities for connection, learning and development, which in turn can lead to positive environmental behaviours.Providing these opportunities in our education sector from an early age, is crucial to cultivating an environmental awareness whilst also supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals such as SDG 3: Health and Wellbeing, SDG 4: Quality Education and SDG 13: Climate Action. For example, the young people’s leadership observed in Fridays for Future movement was inspired by their awareness and connection to environmental issues, demanding urgent action on the climate crisis because they had a care for, and a connection to, the planet.David AttenboroughWorking with young children, you may have observed that curiosity and sense of awe and wonder that children have for the natural world. Rachel Carson (1956) believed that a child’s sense of wonder is rooted in the emotions and allows them to discover the “joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in”, but opportunities for these experiences are dwindling. Modern lives are led increasingly indoors, either at home or school and with our reliance on devices, this means often we don’t get to spend time outdoors. However, outdoors, in nature is where the passion for learning, the creativity, and the inquisitive nature of children can be cultivated, children can learn by doing and problem solve in an organic way. This is not a new theory to combat our modern life of screens, Fredrich Froebel introduced the concept of ‘kindergartens’ in 1850s. He saw the power of playing and learning outdoors and some of his principles such as unity and connectedness, autonomous learners, the central importance of play and engaging with nature, reflect the present day focuses in outdoor early years education. Utilising Froebelian theory in a modern setting, adapting theories of outdoor learning and applying it to our modern-day curriculum, can complement our educational provision and provide opportunities for learning and development that are often missing.Having not worked in the Early years sector in Ireland I am not aware of the opportunities for the growth of outdoor play and learning, but I do wonder what Ireland needs to do to start this journey? The benefits to health and wellbeing are evident, but there needs to be policy and support from the top for grass roots to grow. Scotland and Ireland are similar in many ways but I am not sure if there is a national recognition of the power and potential outdoor learning can offer. Given the evidence that show the benefits to health, wellbeing and environmental sustainability, now is the time to tap into the opportunities to improve wellbeing, cultivate connection to and a love of nature in the early years.Sharing my day with 3 to 5-year-olds I see the natural wonder and awe they have around nature; they are curious and eager to understand how things grow and why worms/spiders/bees are so important. They learn in a holistic way and they thrive in the fresh air. They move their bodies and use their muscles in a way they didn’t know they could. They pick things up extremely easily because they are interested in learning and absorbing all of the information around them. When they sit quietly, they can listen to the birds, to the wind, and they know there is no such thing as bad weather! Why? Well because weather can make rain, and beautiful rainbows, and of course rain makes puddles and they LOVE puddles! Jumping and splashing and laughing…what sound is better to hear than a 3-year-old’s peal of laughter as they jump in a puddle. They are not aware they are learning and growing, they are just being. The outdoor environment provides them with a space to discover and learn who they are and create a connection to nature and community.I leave you with the wise words of Rachel Carson, an environmentalist who understood the need for connection to nature.“If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love- then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.”Reference ListCarson, C. (1956) Help your child to wonder. Woman’s Home Companion. July, 1956, 8.Christie, E & Higgins, P 2012, The impact of outdoor learning experiences on attitudes to sustainability: A brief review of literature. Field Studies Council Report, vol. 06/2012, University of Edinburgh.Care Inspectorate (2016) My World Outdoors, Dundee: Communications. Available at: https://www.careinspectorate.com/images/documents/3091/My_world_outdoors_-_early_years_good_practice_2016.pdf Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Murphy, S. A. (2009). ‘The nature relatedness scale: linking individuals’ connection with nature to environmental concern and behavior’. Environment and Behavior, 41,(5), pp. 715-740.National Improvement Hub (2022) Scotland Summary of Outdoor Learning Resources[online] Available at: https://education.gov.scot/improvement/learning-resources/a-summary-of-outdoor-learning-resources/ (accessed 1 March 2022) Froebel Trust (n.d) Froebelian Theory [online] Available at: https://www.froebel.org.uk/about-us/froebelian-principles (accessed 15 March 2022)Scottish Government (2020) Out to Play -creating outdoor play experiences for children: practical guidance [online] Available at: https://www.gov.scot/publications/out-play-practical-guidance-creating-outdoor-play-experiences-children/ (accessed 20 March 2022)Scottish Government (2020) Realising the Ambition National practice guidance for early years in Scotland, Livingston: Education Scotland. Available at: https://education.gov.scot/media/3bjpr3wa/realisingtheambition.pdfScottish Government (2020.) Scotland’s National Outdoor Play & Learning Position Statement, Edinburgh: Inspiring Scotland. Available at: https://www.inspiringscotland.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/National-Position-Statement-Dec-2020.pdf

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