Children as young as two are happily spending the entire day outside, even when the temperature turns sub-zero. Being among the elements, no matter how extreme, is integral to the Secret Garden in north-east Fife, Scotland, which is to become one of the UK's first open-air nurseries when it opens later this year. It is planned that the children will stay outside all day, every day, whatever the weather.
"There is no such thing as bad weather - you just need good waterproofs,"
says Cathy Bache, who will be heading the nursery. She already looks after 17 children during the week on the nursery site, and, once they are kitted out in wet-weather gear, they spend the day walking through the woods, rearing chickens, climbing trees and tending the vegetable garden.
Last February they played outside, without complaint, when the temperature plummeted to minus 6. Cathy came up with the idea for the open-air nursery after living in Norway, where outdoor education is embedded in the culture.
But now the trend for open-air classrooms is gathering momentum across the UK.
Karen Brush, managing director of the Institute for Outdoor Learning, says:
"It's early days, but there is definitely a growing trend to get out there."
Wales is leading the way with its new foundation phase, which encourages schools to teach three to seven-year-olds through structured play outdoors rather than in formal lessons. The programme has been trialled in 41 schools and will be rolled out across Welsh schools from September 2008.
"The children are so much happier working outside," says John O'Brien, head of Cadle Primary in Swansea. "They don't see it as learning because they are not inside with a worksheet, but they are picking up so much."
The school was one of the few that stayed open when it snowed last spring, and quickly turned the experience into a valuable learning resource. "We made snowmen during a maths lesson and measured their height, width and weight. It was a wonderful day," says John. At other times of the year, pupils make camp fires, build log benches and plant hedges. The boys in particular appear to thrive on it.
At Kitchener Primary in Cardiff, the children have gained a greater understanding of how weight imp-acts speed and distance by playing with water balloons in the playground; and because they are having fun, they remember what they learn.
"It helped some of our Bengali girls come out of their shell," says Fran Gluck, head of the foundation phase. "They are quiet and shy in class, but outside their natural curiosity emerges. It allows them to be children."
Attendance has also shot up to 96 per cent from the mid-80s, and there are now no pupils at the school on the special needs register for emotional and behavioural difficulties.
England is also waking up to the benefits of outdoor education. Last November, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, unveiled a pound;2.7 million package to promote learning outside of the classroom.
Labour is joining forces with more than 100 organisations, such as local authorities and activity centres, to launch a manifesto of commitments to encourage teac-hers to get pupils outside.
Pott Row First School, near King's Lynn in Norfolk, hit the headlines in Decem-ber when every pupil was given a waterproof jumpsuit so that they could have their lessons outside regardless of the rain. Since then, 30 primary schools have contacted Michelle Petzer, the head, wanting to introduce the initiative.
Pott Row holds a quarter of its lessons outdoors, but aims to provide half outside by the end of 2007. Teachers have already reported an improvement in concentration, behaviour and speaking and listening skills. Although there has been no dramatic improvement in results to date, pupils have progressed on average by at least two levels over a one-year period.
The school now wants to use outdoor education to drive writing skills.
"Children need a reason to write," Michelle says. "We are writing instructions about how to plant seeds in the vegetable garden, when to harvest the crops, and ideas for how to sell the produce. The curriculum lends itself to being outside."
At Farley Nursery near Salisbury in Wiltshire, pupils spend about 90 per cent of the day outside, only coming in to bake, cook and go to the toilet.
Within six months of becoming an outdoor nursery, Ofsted described the hands-on learning, which includes preparing fires and playing in the mini builders' yard, as outstanding.
In addition to its 37 two to five-year-olds, Farley has started to enrol babies, who will be wheeled out in old-fashioned prams to sleep and play.
"It is amazing to see how the children have grown in terms of their confidence, capability and health," says Sue Palmer, head. "In the first six months, we had no absences due to sickness. Everything we did inside, we can do better outside. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the children often refuse to go home at the end of the day."
Farley Nursery has access to an adjacent two-acre field, but even urban schools can take advantage of open-air learning through a potted garden or a weather station. It can also be extended to secondary schools, according to Michelle. "We don't learn outside for the sake of it, we learn outside because it's more effective. Maths, literacy, art, music, science and geography all come alive outside. Why children learn about the weather while cooped up in a class is beyond me."
Forest schools were originally developed in Denmark for pre-school children and aim to transform woodlands into educational environments.
Scandinavian children who had been to them arrived at school with strong social skills, the ability to work in groups effectively, and generally had high self-esteem and confidence. All these attributes proved to raise academic achievements.
Forest schools were introduced in the UK in the 1990s and have offered thousands of British children an educational approach to outside play and learning.
Forest school leaders take pupils of all ages from mainstream schools out to wooded areas to learn through the natural environment.
Visit www.forestschools.com for more information.
HISTORY OF THE OPEN-AIR CLASSROOM
At the end of the 19th century, urban populations suffered from the transmission of airborne diseases. It was suggested that open-air classrooms could cleanse the body.
The first open-air classroom opened in a pine forest near Charlottenburg, Germany, in 1904 with 95 poorly children selected from local schools.
Twenty-five were completely cured while 48 showed distinct improvements, and the school's success meant that pupil numbers expanded to 250.
Britain followed suit with its first open-air school in Kent in 1907. By 1908 three more schools opened near London, followed by ones in Bristol, Bradford, Sheffield, Halifax, Norwich, Birmingham, Barnsley, Manchester and Liverpool. In 1939 there were 155 open-air schools across England and Scotland.
The classrooms consisted of opposing walls of glass doors which could be opened to allow fresh air into the rooms for the small groups of pupils.
With improved public health, these open-air schools steadily declined from the 1950s.