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Life in the great outdoors

Ann O'Grady, headteacher at Cloan Nursery School in Drumchapel, Glasgow, has little time for parents who are concerned about their children learning outdoors.

"Some people seem to think children will melt if it rains. Parents think that too, but these parents walked up the road in the rain to get here," she says.

She has limited patience with those who warn of risks to health or safety either. She wants a new water feature when the nursery is rebuilt, she explains, and possibly a fire pit.

"People who say they'll drown – no, they won't!" Ms O'Grady says. "We want to see them climbing the fence. You might be expelled for that in another school, but children are very good at risk assessment."

The rebuilding has been necessitated by the closure and subsequent damage by arson of Stonedykes Primary. The pupils have been involved in shaping the design for a new nursery which will have a direct connection to the outdoors, with indoor playrooms connecting directly to an outdoor green area for learning, including a Hobbit house which will provide a sheltered area.

When I ask what resemblance it will have to the Hobbit holes people know from Tolkien's books or their film adaptations, Ms O'Grady is adamant: "They will look like the ones in the film," she says, suggesting anything less would be cheating the children. "I have been that disappointed child," she adds.

The same principle applies to all the environments in the new nursery, she insists. They should be what the children want and feel comfortable in. "Nurture happens in the home. It should look like a home environment.

"It is fabulous to say you are outdoors all day, but sometimes children still need to be sheltered. It will be a place to be sheltered outdoors, but still cosy."

Parents will also be encouraged to make use of the outdoor space. Those same parents have been won over to the concept over a period of time, after initial wariness.

What is it that makes people wary of allowing children to play outside? Ms O'Grady thinks it is a number of things, including the twin fears of illness and dirty clothes.

The nursery has been at the forefront of the outdoor learning movement in Glasgow. Three years ago a volunteer staff member, Kathleen Friel, agreed to spend a whole year out of doors, to help demonstrate how readily the concept could work.

It sees the children regularly taken for learning walks to a nearby patch of woodland – a surprising number of pupils have never explored the area even though it is right on their doorstep.

Meanwhile, as building work has progressed, the children have been allowed to play with discarded drums previously used to hold plastic piping, and to make use of other discarded materials from the building site.

It is part of a philosophy which now sees all the children at the nursery outside for at least a part of every day. They are given the responsibility of selecting their own clothes to suit the conditions and the way the outdoors is used is the curriculum for excellence in action.

"Boys in particular need active time outdoors and their behaviour improves," says Ms O'Grady.

All the pupils benefit from introducing themes such as science in a new way, Ms O'Grady adds. "The work we've done with puddles is fabulous. We've done work with colour, pouring paint into them, and puddles are great for learning about how you make a bridge."

Glasgow City Council's executive director of education Maureen McKenna recently launched Outside Now!, the city's new strategy for taking learning outdoors. Ms McKenna praises the way family learning and getting the children to do their own risk assessments are built into the approach at Cloan nursery. There aren't many limits, she says.

"You can do literacy and numeracy work outside. This is the whole society approach to outdoor learning. Primaries and secondaries should be outside too."

Meanwhile for Ms O'Grady the outdoor work is clearly connected with the whole way her nursery is run. When The Herald visits, she has spent part of the day running around to help a family in need of food and clothes, because of a family break-up and a crisis in a benefits claim.

"Hunger and clothes and things like that are all a barrier to someone's learning," she explains, adding that looking after families in crisis is all part of a day's work.

She adds that some parents are like sparrows, unable to speak up for themselves. Most would be too proud to accept donations of food or clothes, but will take them if it can be arranged to appear as if they are left over at the end of the school day.

"We build up trust. We see those parents who are sparrows when they come. We aim to get eagles soaring by the time they move on.

"For these children to have a chance, you need to forget your job title and get down there with them. I don't know where that is in my remit, but I know it is part of it."

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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