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Scotland eyes outdoor learning as model for reopening of schools

This is great news for Forest Kindergarten's like Hickory Hill!

Outdoor learning could offer a template for socially distanced schooling across Scotland, according to practitioners who believe the coronavirus pandemic could push parents and teachers to embrace the benefits of education in the outdoors.

While Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has warned that schools may not reopen until August, the Guardian understands that local authorities are exploring how using outdoor space could optimize physical distancing.

Scotland’s children’s minister, Maree Todd, said: “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 minimizing 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.”

The outdoor experience is already a part of Scotland’s “curriculum for excellence”, while many councils have ambitious plans to expand outdoor learning as they meet the Scottish government’s commitment to a near-doubling of funded childcare this year.

Scotland’s educators and policymakers have been acting on a growing weight of evidence about the exponentially positive impact of learning outdoors on everything from eyesight to risk assessment to resilience, but now practitioners are convinced their experience could offer a model for returning to school.

Since lockdown began, a number of outdoor nurseries across the country have become childcare hubs for children of key workers. Zoe Sills, who manages the Earthtime forest school nursery in Elgin, said: “When you’ve got the natural world at your fingertips, you don’t need so many toys, which means fewer surfaces where the virus can be passed on.” Each child is given a bag containing their own paintbrush, crayons and glue stick, then encouraged to spread out and find their own space to do crafting activities.

Cameron Sprague, a senior team leader at Stramash nursery, Fort William, which is likewise now acting as a childcare hub, said: “It’s always been the case that infection control is easier outdoors: we never have the situation where one kid gets chicken pox then a third of the school is off.”

Outside space allows for social distancing to happen more naturally, added Sprague. “The weather has been on our side, so the children can play freely outside. We have rolling snacks and lunches to avoid them clustering together, and handwashing every hour.”

“This might be the way that outdoor learning gets pushed forward, but it’s about so much more than infection control. Teachers do need support to do this: there are not many things you can’t teach outdoors, you just have to think creatively.” Kenny Forsyth, the chief executive of Stramash social enterprise, which runs outdoor nurseries across the Highlands, suggests that the answers to the challenges posed by coronavirus are already embedded in outdoor settings. “If you have an indoor nursery with four walls and a square metrage per child defined by the local council, then the number of children who can come back will be limited by social distancing. You can manage and control infection risk better outdoors, and we are a better option, especially at the time of year. The biggest single issue is that there are not enough of us to go round.” Forsyth estimates that less than 1% of nursery age children in Scotland all-day all-day outdoor nurseries.

Hickory Hill Nature School is in the News!

A big thank you to Joan Holliday for showcaing HHNS in the Southern Chester County News!


Do you recall as a child going outside in the snow, making a snow igloo, having a snowball fight, or running in the rain and feeling the joy of getting soaking wet with no concern about staying dry---playing in the mud, and even better, taking a hike by a stream and observing the diversity of flora and creatures along the way? This takes us back to a time when adult creature comforts, that we seek today, were nonexistent and playing outside was exhilarating.

In moving to Phase II of our Kindergarten Readiness Collaboration with partner agencies and Mary D Lang, we are promoting families getting out in nature as a way to stimulate the child’s whole person development. We hold nature as one of our greatest teachers and with children’s inquisitive minds, they are learning how to experience life as a living system. As a way to encourage all of Kennett area residents to get outside, we have developed the motto: “Nature is Our Family’s School/” “NaturalezaEs la Escuela de Nuestra Familia”

At a recent meeting, we met Stacey Gummey founder of the Hickory Hill Nature School. The program is held on a 7-acre private preserve off of Chandler Mill Rd, Kennett Square. Children ages 3-6 years old attend from 9:30am to 1:30pm in all weather. The only time they go inside to the basement of the house on the premises is when they use the bathroom facilities or need a change of clothes.

Hickory Hill Nature School introduces children to the natural world at an early age and in turn creates a positive impact on their mental, physical, emotional and social well-being. They encourage children to interact, explore, play and understand their natural environment

If the day starts out cold, the children know that they need to dress for the weather and that they need to move their bodies to produce heat. So, like the animals, they move and take a hike. There are no traditional toys at HHNS. Instead, they have an assortment of tools, buckets for collections and books that focus on the natural world. A big component of the day is journaling. This process can be creating pictures of what they are learning from nature, writing their names, or just doodling.

Hickory Hill Nature School is the first Forest Kindergarten to be both State Licensed and “The Cedarsong Way” Accredited in the Country.

Stacey describes a day instructed by The Cedarsong Way. They start with a song that the children choose followed by greeting each person, thanking him/her for being there. The intent is to assure each child is recognized and affirmed for his/her unique presence. The children are then asked what they would like to explore today and each child shares an idea. They choose ideas of their own interest to pursue and learn and respect the ideas of others.

Through the child-inspired emergent curriculum, the group may be learning about a salamander that a child discovered and what sustains and protects its life, or about the tree leaves that are falling and what is behind this phenomenon. Books are used appropriately and stories read. Stacey told about one day, spending over one-half hour on their stomachs, herself included, drawing a tree and learning about how it grows, why this particular tree is still green and has kept it’s needles. They also are learning how nature can teach them how to problem solve and deal with conflict resolution by being able to relax in nature and really hear one another’s words.

Nature Immersion is defined by Erin Kenny, founder of The Cedarsong Way as “unstructured free time in nature resulting in an intimate, deep and personal connection to the natural world”.

At Hickory Hill Nature School, there is a limit of 12 children in the program with two certified teachers; Stacey as one. The staff of 4 teachers and families work closely together and help share the word about this unique program. All students hear about HHNS through word of mouth and trusted relationships. Stacey’s intention for enrollment was to be a grass roots feeling. The school runs from September through May and they offer a two-week camp the first two weeks of June.

Stacey has had the first student move on to a traditional kindergarten this past year. She has been told by his teacher that he is a kind, creative and articulate child in the classroom. It has been an adjustment for him to be back in a 4-wall classroom, along with having more colds and sicknesses from the close exposure to other children. Through the Nature School however, he has a recognizable self-confidence that helps him continue to pursue learning in his particular style and he is a model of how to respect the ideas of others, believing everyone has something to share.

I asked Stacey what suggestions she had for traditional Preschools from her experience of teaching in nature? She believes that it may be the teachers who aren’t as keen on getting children outside. This can be due to the extra work proper clothing may take per child, not wanting to be cold themselves, maybe all children don’t have the proper clothing and they don’t want them to feel left out? Stacey truly believes that by children getting outside more frequently during the school day that children will be able to focus more easily, they will be happier in general and will get the nature therapy we all so desperately need. In her experience there is never a time that children don’t want to go outside!

Stacey has approached one of the elementary schools in the area about creating an outdoor classroom. She says, “Every school could have an outdoor classroom if they wished, and I would be willing to walk the grounds and help scope out how it could work.” Another idea is that Eagle Scouts could help develop the project of clearing the space and providing stumps for desk chairs with a team.

As we think of the future of our children, who are steeped in technology, we can’t help but hope that they will have the experience of nature and its impactful lessons of how it supports all of life. Hickory Hill Nature School is an outstanding model and resource for our community; they are a living example of how children are better prepared for kindergarten when they spend time learning from nature as teacher.

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