"I asked one of the parents what she was doing at the weekend. She looked and me and said `I'm making gingerbread men.'"
It was a normal enough activity, but it had extra significance as the child had spent four weeks using the gingerbread man's story to get ready for the transition from nursery to primary school. The parent was speaking to Elaine Nelson from Nursery Rhymes pre-school in Cardross.
"I was surprised by how into it the children got," Ms Nelson says. "They were looking for the gingerbread man at home and coming back to nursery the next day, saying they had seen him at the bus stop and the train station."
Nursery Rhymes is a private nursery in Argyll and Bute that feeds children to Cardross Primary. At the suggestion of Emma Hobson, principal teacher of early years for Argyll and Bute Council, Ms Nelson planned the gingerbread man project to introduce their nursery pupils to their future school and the Primary 1 pupils with whom they would soon share a playground.
The project started inside, with the nursery class singing songs and reading different versions of the gingerbread man story. From there they moved on to baking gingerbread men who, of course, escaped from the oven and left a trail of crumbs for the children to follow across the nursery and into the garden.
The trail led out of the gate and towards Cardross Primary, and prompted the children to ask the P1 pupils for help tracking down the rogue biscuits.
"The children like doing planned activities outside, rather than just running around all the time," Ms Nelson says. "We had a circle time outside, went on the gingerbread hunt, and acted out the story with hand- puppets and masks made from display paper."
Having the story at the centre of the project gave the children something to take ownership of and using the outdoor space encouraged them to learn actively, which Ms Nelson and Emma Hobson were keen to encourage when the project began.
Outdoor education is only one of a number of areas that fall into Ms Hobson's remit as a principal teacher of early years, but she and her colleague Caroline Fothergill are evangelistic about its benefits for nursery and early-level children.
"Sometimes I feel a bit like a travelling salesman," Mrs Fothergill says, "asking people if they might be interested in some outdoors education."
In Argyll and Bute they have the advantage of "a rich rural environment in which to teach and learn," according to local councillor Isobel Strong: "Our children's educational experiences are significantly enhanced by maximising the potential of the outdoors. We encourage our pre-five units and schools to embrace this potential whenever possible."
Before taking the job as principal teacher of early years, Mrs Fothergill worked on the island of Luing when an enthusiastic headteacher at the primary school took on pre-five provision. Together they exploited their easy access to the natural environment and a small school roll to change the style and structure of the nursery classes.
"We had no workbooks and no worksheets - which, for a teacher, was very hard," she says. "It was very challenging but a really positive experience for me, and it totally changed my approach to teaching.
"Young children can become disengaged very quickly. There was one little boy in P2 who, if you gave him a worksheet, would sit and look out of the window all week. But if you give him a box of coloured chalk and let him choose his own colour to take outside, he would be very engaged."
Children can benefit from being outside and at play for longer periods of time, she says, and are generally much more resilient to the weather than the adults. Besides this, using the resources the natural world leaves lying around can be especially appealing if budgets are tightening.
"We are living in a very difficult economic environment, so we encourage teachers not to invest in large expensive pieces of equipment that do not support active learning. Most of the resources for an outdoor play area can be found in the woodlands or on the shoreline, and if children are involved in collecting these, then it means so much more to them," Mrs Fothergill says.
"But not everyone has ideal access to the outdoors, so some outdoor education has to be planned very carefully. This could mean having boxes of resources and books to take with you."
LET'S GO OUTSIDE
Create a storytelling area outdoors - with a bench, chairs or an arbour and a storytelling cloak.
Go on a sound hunt - for initial or final sound recognition - or a rhyme hunt.
Dig for letters in sand or sawdust, or hang letters from branches. Find one sound, or find three sounds and make a word.
Go on a story walk, e.g. "The three bears", "We're going on a bear hunt."
Make a writing or mark-making basket with pens, pencils, clipboards, paper, wallpaper rolls, paints, brushes, water bottles, chalks, etc.
Write recipes for leaf stew or stone pie.
Leave messages on a tree for garden fairies, elves or animals.
Write instructions on how to make a den
Record observations of animals, people, plants or vehicles outdoors.
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