School will soon be back. Maybe you’re a parent, wondering how your child will cope. Maybe you’re a teacher wondering how you’ll cope. Maybe you’re a policy-maker wondering how the entire education system will cope.
Or maybe you’re none of the above – just a concerned, interested citizen. Whichever of these, please spare a few minutes to consider the following three What Ifs?
What if there were a way to enhance children’s physical and mental health, while also developing their social skills, emotional resilience and capacity to learn? What if – for the many children for whom lockdown has been a seriously traumatic experience – this approach has considerable therapeutic benefits? And what if it could also reduce the chances of cross-infection, while making it easier to ensure adequate social distancing?
Well – mirabile dictu! – there is such an approach. Outdoor education, particularly in natural environments, has been shown to offer all the advantages listed above. In the Nordic countries, where children have been back at school for a month or so, it’s working a treat. And, according to this statement from the Scottish Advisory Panel on Outdoor Education, there’s no shortage of expertise and support if Scotland decides to go ahead.
At this point, of course, it’s traditional to heave a great sigh and say: ‘Yes but.’
First, the bad news
There are quite a few ‘Yes buts’ to consider. Outdoor education may be universally acknowledged as a Good Thing but it’s still very much an add-on in Scottish education, and usually dealt with by specialists. Most non-specialist teachers would feel distinctly uncomfortable about exchanging the classroom for the great outdoors.
What’s more, as schools prepare to reopen their doors, staff are busy tackling the physical logistics of indoor social distancing and infection control, not to mention the demands of a ‘blended learning’ model of education, which the Educational Institute of Scotland has described as ‘the biggest curriculum challenge of the century’.
For teachers who’ve been working throughout lockdown on creating home-learning packages and supporting students remotely (many also fielding their own children), this extra challenge will almost certainly consume any remaining time and energy.
So, however great the advantages of outdoor learning, it seems unlikely that schools will prioritise them just yet.
And now the good news
There is, however, one sector of Scotland’s educational system where the great leap into outdoor education could become a reality very soon. It’s the ‘early level’ of Curriculum for Excellence (for children aged three to six/seven). Indeed, in early May, the Guardian claimed that Scotland is ‘eyeing’ outdoor learning for this age group and Maree Todd, Minister for Children and Young People, gave this quote:
There are a growing number of fully and partially outdoor childcare settings in Scotland. This model could have many benefits for maintaining physical distancing and minimising risk of transmission as part of the transition from lockdown back into early learning and childcare and school. While specialist outdoor nurseries are well attuned to the needs of children spending all day outdoors, other establishments are considering how to adapt their practice to enable more time to be spent in gardens and playgrounds.
Academics in the e-magazine The Conversation were just as enthusiastic, albeit rather less sanguine about the prospects of large-scale uptake. However, its authors are clearly unaware of an event – just before lockdown began – which has been making waves in Scotland’s early years sector ever since.
Realising the Ambition
In mid-February, Education Scotland published Realising the Ambition: Being Me, new practice guidance for all teachers and practitioners working in ‘early level’ (three- to six/seven-year-olds). It promotes relationship-centred, play-based pedagogy across this age group, and places great emphasis on outdoor learning. And it’s been widely welcomed not only by the early years workforce but also professionals from public health, children’s rights, social justice, the arts and education for sustainability.
As Chair of Upstart Scotland, a grassroots organisation that’s been promoting a ‘Nordic-style kindergarten stage’ for the last five years, I couldn’t be more impressed with Realising the Ambition. The pedagogical approach it describes is exactly in line with the research on which we based our campaign.
Scotland has needed this change for ages but, in the current crisis, it’s even more urgent. What could be more important for our young children at the moment than an emphasis on health and well-being, positive supportive relationships, genuine engagement with their families and plenty of active outdoor play?
So Upstart urges all parents, teachers, policy-makers and concerned, interested citizens to get behind Scotland’s early years sector. Please help them find ways to realise this ambition for our youngest children. I mean, for goodness sake – if not now, when?
Images by Alan McCredie; copyright Upstart Scotland