There was a time when nursery would most likely have meant spending time in a stuffy church hall, closed off from the outside world with its unpredictability and risks.

But children in South Queensferry, to the west of Edinburgh, are swapping old-school toys for something more natural as they take their first steps in learning.

Every week, youngsters from Queensferry nursery – some aged only one – walk for an hour to get to the local beach at Longcraig Pier where they are let loose to clamber and explore against a backdrop of open skies, coastline and the iconic Forth bridges.

And while it might be expected that supervising toddlers and pre-school children in our fickle weather would be a recipe for disaster, the sessions have proved a big success, as clear signs emerge that they are reducing difficult or challenging behaviour and encouraging shy participants to become more talkative.

Moves are also underway to extend them to Queensferry’s entire 128-strong roll, although there is fresh uncertainty after a decision to close nurseries and other childcare providers to all except vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers.

The measure, which will be in place until at least January 18, comes as political and health leaders seek to contain new strains of coronavirus.

For Anna MacPherson, senior early years officer at Queensferry nursery, the beach offers a unique set of opportunities.

“Ever since I was a child, I’d loved going to the beach,” she said. “We thought, ‘the beaches are on our doorstep, why don’t we use them?’.

“It began as a half-day trip late last summer and just evolved from there. Lockdown threw us off course a bit but we now run weekly, whole-day sessions – these aren’t just one-off days out.

“The children walk to the beach at Longcraig Pier, which is just over an hour’s walk each way. Some of the children, particularly the younger ones, are not confident walkers so might need to be taken in a buggy.

“And the weather is part of the learning – just being in that natural, ever-changing environment and really exploring it.

“Sometimes the Scottish weather can be a bit dreich, however the children love it no matter what.”

Currently, two groups – one made up of around 18 pre-school youngsters aged three to five and a smaller group of one to five-year-olds – are taken out.

“We allow the child to do what comes naturally to him or her,” explained Ms MacPherson.

“They don’t need toys or other items with them. They investigate and explore. And if they have questions about what they come across and pick up... we can chat them through that. We don’t set the activities in advance.

“In terms of risk, it’s about letting the children explore that by themselves rather than giving them instructions. There was a child going out into the water a bit too far the other week and it was just a case of explaining the risk to them and asking them to come back a few steps.”

Ms MacPherson said making her beach nursery a reality had created challenges – not least the effort and time involved in ensuring youngsters are appropriately clothed and prepared. But there have also been benefits.

“What we’ve noticed is that children who typically exhibit challenging behaviours in the nursery building – unable to manage their emotions, for example – relax when they’re out at the beach and those behaviours almost disappear,” she explained.

“And reserved children who you wouldn’t get a lot of chat from in the nursery building become more confident and want to talk more to us.”

There is a growing emphasis on the importance of outdoor learning, which is described in the latest report from Nicola Sturgeon’s international council of education advisers as something “that can and should be expanded in all cases, not just during a pandemic”.

Councillor Ian Perry, Education, Children and Families Convener at City of Edinburgh Council, said: “We’ve been at the forefront of developing and promoting the benefits of Forest Kindergartens since 2017 and have four sites up and running across the city with another three due to open up in January. Well done to Anna and her team in Queensferry for taking it a step further.” 

Cllr Alison Dickie, Education, Children and Families Vice Convener, added: “There are huge benefits associated with outdoor play and learning for our young children. It’s been proven to show an increase in positive mental health and wellbeing, promotes their holistic development, and encourages a greater understanding of self-awareness and connection to the natural world. Parents have also reported an increase in their children’s appetite for a greater range of foods and sleep at bedtimes.”