Henry Hepburn looks at how fearless Italian nurseries are defying a risk-averse culture to let children explore nature and take risks - despite the worries of their parents
An open space of bright bricks, colourful paintings and the constant buzz of pre-school play: a place where nursery children learn.
A black cave of dank air, sodden walls, and silence broken only by the metronomic echo of dripping water: the stuff of childhood nightmares.
These two environments seem poles apart, but nurseries in the Italian city of Verona are showing that exposure to nature's dangers is as important as creating safe play areas. Their young charges are facing up to fears of the unpredictable world outside their nurseries' confines, whether dark cave, deep river, or precipitous hill-top.
Verona Nature Adventure Project has also struck a chord in Scotland, where a book about it has been translated into English and a call has been made to the Scottish Government for a national movement to "nurture children through nature".
In the foreword of the English edition of Adventures in Nature, Colwyn Trevarthen, emeritus professor of child psychology and psychobiology at Edinburgh University, says: "The teachers who have contributed to this book understand that children should not simply be presented with a breathtaking view or a curious object in the hope that they learn to appreciate the natural world. Children must be encouraged in their impulse to observe and explore all kinds of environments to find wonder within the ordinary.
"Educating people to pay attention to the everyday environment and to rediscover the value of the most basic forms of life and the simplest natural phenomena is of the utmost importance in our world, the ecology of which is under threat."
Dozens of teachers have been trained for the project, in which they are told that children must become more than passive participants. Teachers decide on suitable outings, based on observations made of children's play, but the three to six-year-olds must themselves be involved in later planning of the outing.
An adult must follow the group's progression and allow it to make mistakes, according to Rosanna Zerbato, a psychologist in charge of Verona's nurseries who wrote an overview of the project for the book. Teachers at Primo Maggio Municipal Nursery, for example, become concerned when children pick up sticks to look for things. They decide not to intervene, even when a boy starts slamming his against a tree.
They are rewarded for their forbearance when one boy finds a hole which he is convinced is a "dinosaur foot". This fires the imagination of the other children: one claims they are all "small dinosaurs hiding in our mother's footprint"; others decide to take on the alter egos of "Spiderman", "little jumping monkeys" and "Tarzan's friends the jungle explorers". Teachers Simonetta Boscaini and Chiara Zanott, remark that the impromptu game has created "happiness and social bonding".
Ms Zerbato says: "Many teachers say how the project has enabled them to see children in a new light, capable of ideas they had not come across in a school setting before."
An obstacle to taking children underground, on water and up hills is that parents fear for their safety - often, say the teachers canvassed by Ms Zerbato, to the point of "obsession". "Families often encourage us to avoid activities that pose any type of risk," she says. "Adults have different perspectives on the balance between safety and exploration. By working with them to show how risk-taking often brings about the situations that create enjoyment, however, they can be won round."
One of the most productive environments has been underground, whether caves or man-made passages beneath Verona, as Ms Zerbato explains: "To descend into an opening in the ground, to feel the temperature change, to brave the dimming light, to hear the echoing sounds ... this encourages children to feel grown up and courageous in a context that is experienced collectively, and is clear and reassuring."
Children may prepare for a cave adventure by exploring hidden corners of their school. They will enter a darkened hall filled with dry ice to simulate the atmosphere and textures of a cave, and run their fingers over stones and through soil.
They are also encouraged to invent stories about fear of dark. They may be read the legend of Ulysses, which evokes strong emotions: fear of unknown environments, curiosity for new situations, and pleasure in finding solutions.
At Carso State Nursery, children visit an unfamiliar cellar in the school. Despite deciding that it was a witch's house, they pluck up the courage to open a door. Sunlight spills into the room, after which, having conquered their fears, they try to work out where they are in relation to the school.
Teachers find that, once underground, group solidarity and a need to help each other emerges spontaneously. If they let children voice their thoughts, solutions are found: one child at Carso Nursery takes a doll in her bag for courage; another suggests that the most frightened should hold hands with the bravest.
Elisabetta Venturin, a teacher at Barbarani State Nursery, helped children explore Verona's underground passages. She remarked upon the "powerful experience" of having "measured ourselves against the unexpected - difficulties, emotions and sensations".
The children afterwards climbed a staircase that led out of the tunnels and up to a tower, then to the roof of the city gate, where there was a "breathtaking view" of mountains - a transformation in surroundings that had a profound impact.
"Below is the city with its cars, buses and sirens," Ms Venturin says. "Looking around us we get our bearings, recognising first the bell towers near the children's homes and then of St Zeno, near our school. Looking up we can see the snow-covered peaks of the mountains that frame our city. From above we learn to recognise the signs of the underground passages we explored.
"We are filled with emotion and our faces, eyes and smiles are filled with happiness. Some children chatter while others are amazed."
Luigina Mortari, who, in a concluding chapter, explores the theory behind the experiences, explains that there are two ways in which humans can live in relation to their surroundings. There is "relationship", where individual experiences feel "intimately connected", or "separation", where individuals experience the world and themselves as "two distinct, separate realities".
"Western culture seems to prefer the second type - a restricted and restrictive path which appears to have played a decisive role in the loss of natural roots required for living."
She points to the theory that children, rather than being given animals' names before seeing them, should have direct experience of wildlife. "School education has largely disregarded these ideas, offering us a sanitised form of nature lacking in smells and noise."
Ms Mortari believes that educating people to pay attention to the everyday world is of the "utmost importance in one which is ecologically and environmentally under threat".
But there is no need for extravagant outbound adventures, as rewarding forays into the outside world can often take place without venturing far from school.
Children in Scotland believes children's relationship with the natural world is "under threat", largely because of anxiety about child safety, and has called on the Scottish Government to take action. For an example of how to do it, the charity looks to Verona, which has shown that the natural environment is not to be feared or avoided - it can create "powerful educational and character-building experiences".
The effects of letting the young confront fear and risk became clear when Barbarini's children go underground and - despite the reluctance of their guides - the lights are turned off. Even in the pitch-black and "incredible silence", broken only by water dripping into a puddle, no one is afraid. Instead, they are fascinated, and five-year-old Tracey speaks for the group: "Let's go as far as we can."
Children are encouraged to talk about summer holidays and their experiences of water. They read the start of Gulliver's Travels. They build boats using household objects, then test whether they float. A faxed invitation arrives to visit an uninhabited, virtually unexplored island on the River Adige; excitement grows. Some parents are concerned but are reassured that the river is not deep at this time. The teacher is impressed by the "sense of wonder" the children gain from their surroundings; one girl remarks that the sun's reflection is like "diamonds". The shallow water means, unexpectedly, that the raft runs aground on their return. The children are scared, but then everyone wants to show their independence by leading the way back on the unscheduled walk. They all take turns, making the trip even more rewarding than hoped.
Children go on an outing to the hills. Beforehand, they climb trees, hear stories about journeys to mountain peaks, and giants, and listen to fairy tales about growth and the discovery of personal resources. On the trip, they climb a hill, where emotions rise as they see the panoramic view. Some try a solo ascent on a small climbing wall.
Children are divided into small groups supervised by adults, and use maps to search for an enclosed "Tarzan" games area, with deer and other animals, in a wood. Beforehand, they improve their skills in orienteering, guiding, map-making, map-reading and searching for clues, in the school garden. Listening to and making up fairy tales helps them prepare.