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If you go down to the woods today

Miranda Fettes on a course for teachers wanting to use outdoor kindergartens to help children relax, learn and challenge themselves.Early years officers and primary teachers in Fife have been revisiting the freedom of their own childhoods as part of a CPD course promoting the benefits of outdoor learning.

Following a nature kindergarten conference in Kirkcaldy in September, at which Anders Farstad, who heads an outdoor school in Norway, was guest speaker, 80 practitioners signed up. Four groups of 20 have undertaken the three-day course.

Thirty nurseries in Fife take their charges out into nature at least once a week. Chris Miles, the pre-school education co-ordinator for Fife's education service, is passionate about the benefits. "It's all good news," she says. "We have case studies of children who have become more relaxed and happy and more confident and developed leadership skills. One nursery head said to me that, on the morning of the day they go to the woods, the children are enthused."

Day one of the course involves the philosophical ethos of outdoor learning. Participants are encouraged to recall memories of their childhood, of being outside in nature. "It's all about reflecting on the learning experience and how to support that, not how to teach it," says Mrs Miles.

"My emphasis is on adults recognising that very small children have serious enquiries of their own. The role of the adults is to practically and physically enable children to have access to the outdoors, to make sure it's safe and to participate, but not prescribe. Children have ownership of the place and how they want to challenge themselves."

Day two is spent in the woods with the Forestry Commission. In addition to risk assessment, the purpose is for adults to become confident and comfortable in that environment themselves.

The final day of the continuing professional development is spent with children from a Montessori school in north-east Fife who spend time outside every day, to see how it works for them. As well as teachers and early years officers, there were officers from the pre-school home visiting service, which works with children who have additional support needs.

"Inclusion isn't an issue," says Mrs Miles. "Nobody has indicated that the children are apprehensive. People have said how much children who are a bit lively or withdrawn have benefited, because they can move around and breathe."

Mrs Miles, who has given presentations on outdoor education at international conferences, will be taking a workshop at the HMIE's dynamic learning and practice conference in Edinburgh on Monday. Teachers and headteachers from all over Scotland are due to attend: "I'll be telling people how we go about setting up forest kindergartens and how we make it work."

Mrs Miles gave a workshop at Learning and Teaching Scotland's outdoor learning festival in April. Sixty people signed up for it.

Fife's education service plans to send a questionnaire out to parents and carers of the children in the nurseries that already take them out into nature, to ask: do they sleep better at night and do they eat better at home? If you ask parents those questions, I'm pretty sure I know what the response will be," says Mrs Miles. "There's the whole-health agenda as well as confidence, self-esteem, responsibility and development."

Nationally, she believes outdoor education is destined to grow. "The next challenge is taking it into P1 and beyond," she says. "We will have nursery children who have been in the forest every week going into primary school. Most of the nursery classes are within a primary. We need to look at how to roll it out further up the school. The interest is there; it's just about the logistics of organising it with more classes."

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