A children's charity has called on the regulator of Scotland's nurseries to help - not hinder - the development of outdoor kindergartens by reviewing its policy on handwashing.
Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, has called on the Care Commission to accept the "sensible measures" being taken by the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife to keep children's hands clean. The nursery says its survival is threatened because of the commission's health and safety rules.
The Secret Garden, a pioneering outdoor nursery, uses hand-wipes and sanitisers for cleaning the hands of children and staff when they are visibly soiled, after outdoor toileting and before eating. But the commission, based on advice from Health Protection Scotland, wants the nursery to carry out hand-washing with soap and running water in some circumstances:
- after using the toilet or changing a nappy;
- before and after eating, drinking or preparing food;
- after sneezing, nose-blowing or coughing;
- if hands are soiled or dirty;
- before going home.
This, it says, would be the most effective way to prevent the acquisition of gastrointestinal pathogens, including E.coli O157, which can lead to kidney failure in young children.
The Secret Garden claims compliance with these rules would put the nursery's nomadic nature at risk and prevent more outdoor nurseries, with all the health benefits they bring, from emerging in Scotland.
Linda Holt, a parent and director of the Secret Garden, called the rules "potty". She said a family going on a picnic would bring wipes but not a supply of fresh running water. "Everybody involved in outdoor education is extremely worried," she added. "This is going to have huge implications."
Dr Cohen questioned why Scotland was insisting on children washing their hands in fresh running water when in countries such as Norway, with a long history of outdoor nurseries, there were no national regulations and they used "general hygiene principles".
In its research, the Secret Garden found anti-bacterial wipes were commonly used in Sweden, while many Norwegian forest kindergartens fixed hand-sanitiser dispensers to trees for children to use. To comply with the commission's regulations, Secret Garden staff would have to haul 10 litres of water into Letham Woods, where the children usually play, every day.
Some exposure to germs was important in the development of children's immune systems, said Norwegian early years expert Wenche Ronning, of the Nordland Research Institute.
She said: "Children will always eat a bit of soil and half an ant or even worms - my eldest son's first love in kindergarten ate worms and was highly respected for it!"
Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said the use of alcohol, via gels, had been a critically important factor in the fight against MRSA in hospitals. E.coli O157 was "very unlikely to be a significant risk in a wood", he added.
The Care Commission said it was in talks with the Secret Garden and Health Protection Scotland to find the best way forward so that "acceptable hand hygiene levels can be safely delivered". It stressed that no decision had been made yet.