Take small children to the woods and they will learn more than you expect, writes Miranda Fettes
At Magus Muir, a small broadleaf woodland near St Andrews, toddlers in red and blue weatherproof all-in-ones are running around the trees and undergrowth, smiling, laughing and having fun.
Some are playing with sticks; others are sitting on a tree trunk. They bring nothing into the forest and take nothing out, except the experience of running around, exploring nature.
Forest education appeared on Scotland's primary school radar some time ago, but only now is it beginning to enter the consciousness of nurseries.
Forest kindergartens, outdoor pre-schools, nature nurseries: whatever you call them, they are huge in Norway, where some children spend all of their nursery time outdoors. In Scotland, the idea is to introduce an element of forest schooling at nursery, with children regularly spending some time in a nearby wood.
Its proponents say children learn about trees, wildlife and the environment, while exercising in the fresh air, gaining a respect for nature and developing responsibility and self-esteem.
Children in Scotland, the national agency for organisations and individuals working with children and families, is advocating nature nurseries nationally. "We want to set up a network of nature kindergartens," explains the agency's early years development officer, Catriona Thomson.
"Outdoor play in the early years is so important. Evidence from forest kindergartens in Norway suggests children's progression through primary school is very positive. If this was taken forward in Scotland, it would be very beneficial in terms of behaviour, self-esteem and confidence.
"A lot of research shows the benefits. There are considerable benefits to children who have additional support needs."
Chris Miles, Fife's pre-school education co-ordinator, is very keen to advance the idea.
"In March, pre-school educators in Fife heard about the outdoor kindergartens in Norway from Anders Farstad, who leads such a kindergarten, or barnehage," she explains.
"Anders had previously spoken at a conference in Peebles in 2005, run by Children in Scotland, about the health, self-esteem, confidence and growth of young children in this system, and set the conference alight. He had the same effect in Kirkcaldy. Course participants are now exploring the possibilities of taking children into the woods regularly to try to echo this experience."
Mrs Miles says the idea is not about trips out to different places in the country every so often, instructing children about nature. It is about visits to the same place at least once a week, giving children continuity of experience and a flow to their discovery.
It is important, she believes, that teachers avoid being too prescriptive in directing a focus for the children, instead allowing them to pose their own enquiries.
Ann Prentice, the headteacher at Leslie Nursery, which has a roll of about 60, takes her charges out to a local woodland weekly. Ten children are accompanied by five adults - two teachers and three parents or other relatives.
"It's like an outdoor classroom," she says. "We bought 10 all-in-one Goretex suits, so there was never any reason why no one could go. We've been there in rain, snow, sunshine and it doesn't seem to matter to the children."
The visits stimulate discussion and generate a sense of wonder, she says.
"They come back into the nursery so excited, telling people what they've seen and done."
Mrs Prentice says the trips address almost the whole pre-school curriculum, particularly knowledge and understanding of the world and personal, social and emotional education. They stimulate countless lines of enquiry, an appreciation of nature, from making patterns with fir cones, sticks and stones to observation of seasonal changes, and co-operative play.
"You wouldn't think you'd be doing physics with a 3-year-old but we were the other day. We were looking at levering and pulling.
"It's problem-solving. From the minute you step into the forest, you're working your way through different challenges.
"It also ties in with our eco-schools project, which encompasses looking after the world and biodiversity."
Children identify the flora and fauna and animal tracks and build dens.
"They ask why the leaves are turning brown and falling off. They notice so much.
"It encourages imagination and stimulates language."
Mrs Prentice hopes other nursery heads have the courage to venture out to their local woodland.
"I think people can be put off by how to get to the woods, clothing issues, what you do about the toilet and so on. We just pack stuff into a back pack, take an old ground sheet, take stuff like ropes, magnifying glasses, a bucket," she says. "Apart from that, we take nothing in and we take nothing out. If they're collecting cones we leave them in the forest."
Parents have also responded positively, she says. "I think they thought they were going along for a picnic but they've realised it's not like that, that it's an educational experience. One or two have said 'I'm going to bring my children back'. It's super that it has impacted on them to that extent."
Sandra Edwards, the headteacher at St Andrews Nursery, is similarly fervent about forest education. "We have a bus load of children out this minute, out in the rain," she says.
The nursery, which has a roll of 70-80, borrows a minibus from a local primary and visits Magus Muir, between St Andrews and Strathkinness. Mrs Edwards says the ideal would be for every child to go every week, but they make the outing every three weeks, going in groups of 12.
"They see the changes in the woodland, so they're very aware of the seasons. They have the most wonderful time exploring, looking at deer footprints in mud, finding insects in fallen trees, scrambling around, exploring rotten logs, so they can see how the tree decomposes.
"It's amazing how much of the curriculum is covered by being outdoors.
"One of the most amazing things this week was (the reaction of) a little boy, who had never been out of town before; it was the first time he had been in woodland. Seeing his sheer joy and amazement was truly wonderful."
Mrs Edwards believes the nursery is giving the children the kind of experience she enjoyed as a child but is now uncommon.
"Town children nowadays don't have that freedom to go out and play like I did. They are more anxious. It's a sad reflection of society.
"To me it's idyllic; it's the most wonderful way of providing awareness of the world we live in.
"Another element that has been taken away from children is taking risks. I like to think they're taking risks but we're still there giving them safety.
"Going to a forest kindergarten is constantly providing them with challenges," she reasons. "For a lot of children, it's building their ability to think on their own. You don't need to tell the children what to do; they just get on with it and explore. They'll move logs around and balance on things and swing on trees. It's almost children regaining what's instinctive; exploring. It's developing responsibility, respect, self-esteem, confidence. You find quiet children are out there running around with the rest of them."
One of the main aspects, Mrs Edwards believes, is that forest education is not adult-led. "We try to stand back and give them the freedom to go and explore and try out their skills," she says. "They're using all of their senses, touching things, listening to sounds, noticing smells, looking at things in detail."
Another valuable factor, she says, is the sense of pride in their environment the visits give the children. "It instils a sense of the importance of taking care of the countryside.
"Also, on the journey there and back, they see farmers working, fields being ploughed, crops growing, shoots coming out from the ground, sheep being born. So there's the whole impact of what's going on in the countryside."
The commitment of the staff has contributed to the success of the initiative. Involving parents and keeping them informed is important too, says Mrs Edwards. The nursery displays pictures and shows videos, so that parents can see what their children have been experiencing in the forest.
If all Scotland's nurseries have the courage to follow suit, Mrs Prentice and Mrs Edwards are certain it will be a healthy move.
"If you can catch children at this age, you can give them so much more depth to their lives," says Mrs Prentice.