EDUCATION

Everybody in the vegetable patch!

No desks, no pencils: Welcome to the U.K.’s first outdoor preschool

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS January 22 2007
EDUCATION

Everybody in the vegetable patch!

No desks, no pencils: Welcome to the U.K.’s first outdoor preschool

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS January 22 2007

Everybody in the vegetable patch!

No desks, no pencils: Welcome to the U.K.’s first outdoor preschool

EDUCATION

BY CYNTHIA REYNOLDS • There areno jungle gyms or swing sets at the Secret Garden nursery school in Fife, Scotland. Nor are there boxes packed with toys in the nursery. In fact, there is no nursery. When the cold Scottish rain starts to fall, Cathy Bache and her group of eight preschoolers, aged 2 to 5, get out their raincoats and rubber boots and go for a hike. When the temperatures dip below zero, they bundle up and head for a clearing in the woods, where one starts a fire, over which, like hobbits, they roast potatoes skewered on sticks. And if, as happened recently, a boy accidentally falls into the stream, such is life; the next day the group goes back. “The parents wanted a more robust lifestyle for their kids,” Bache says, “and the kids love it.”

Bache runs the U.K.’s first outdoors-in-allweather nursery school, and it might surprise parents how well the kids love it. The curriculum consists of daily hikes (the children lead the way), rearing chickens and feeding lambs at a nearby family farm, and learning the basics of vegetable gardening. Kids do learn the usual preschool stuff: they practise shapes by comparing leaves from local trees such as oak and birch, and by picking up and scrutinizing fungi. They learn colours by studying fall leaves or the feathers of birds. The government sees the merits of this approach; it’s pushing for more programs like Bache’s. In fact, Bache received a $22,000 grant to expand her Secret Garden child care service, which she began in 2005, into a registered nursery school for 24 children, which is set to open next fall.

Bache got the idea for the Secret Garden while in Norway. Scandinavia has a rich tradition of outdoor preschools and kindergartens, going back to the ’50s. One study in Denmark, where most communities have at least one such preschool, shows that kids of outdoor schools suffer 80 per cent fewer contagious sicknesses, such as colds, sore throats and ear infections. Studies in Germany have found that kids are less aggressive and suffer fewer injuries. More than 300 of these socalled forest kindergartens now exist in that country. The idea is spreading elsewhere in Europe, including Switzerland; Lakeside School in Zurich has an outdoor preschool for threeand four-year-olds.

Primary through high schools in Australia and the U.S., too, are seeing the value of outdoor schooling. In 2002, the State Education and Environmental Roundtable, a U.S. organization examining what it terms “environment-based education”—where the local outdoors is used to teach state curricula—put out a study of 150 schools in 16 states. It found that students exposed to outdoor learning had improved marks in social studies, science, language and math. In a public middle school in Portland, Ore., where teachers used local rivers, mountains and forests to teach lessons, 96 per cent of students met or exceeded state standards for math problemsolving, compared with 65 per cent of grade eights at other schools. Student behaviour also improved. A school in Minnesota reported that students in the outdoor program had 54 per cent fewer suspensions than other ninth-graders. Disciplinary referrals at another school dropped from 560 to 50 the year its outdoor program was launched.

Budding research in place-based education shows that learning in the community and collaborating with local governments and farms can also help small and mid-size cities retain their young people. “It helps train kids to engage in civil society,” says David Sobel, a professor at Antioch University in Keene, N.H., and an expert in place-based education. “It makes them better citizens.”

For those lucky enough to get it, that is. In Canada, there’s little support for the idea, despite our bountiful natural resources. The Toronto District School Board mandates just two one-day visits to an outdoor education facility in the years between junior kindergarten and Grade 8—and it’s one of the better programs in the country. Mark Whitcombe, the program’s coordinator, notes that private schools do see outdoor ed as a priority; Upper Canada College students in Toronto can expect 56 such outdoor days before Grade 9. But even if local school boards wanted to do more, Whitcombe says that’s getting difficult because, increasingly, the allocation of funds is standardized and controlled at the provincial level.

Such lingering resistance to education reform is one reason Bache hopes to turn her nursery into a research facility. Every day she sees the positive effects of starting kids on a robust outdoors program. “There’s so much freedom for children outdoors,” she says. “It’s up to us as adults to create the change.” M