Immersing children in nature from an early age has long been popular in the Scandinavian countries. Now, the concept of so-called forest schools is starting to catch on here. Amanda Cassidy looks at the pre-schools where young children spend most of their days in the great outdoors.
At the Free Range Kids pre-school in Croom, Co Limerick, there are no behaviour charts or worksheets. Instead, on the curriculum at this 3o0-year-old barnyard school, is apple-picking, growing vegetables and milking cows. This unique pre-school is set in walled gardens with more than 21 acres of green space to explore. Teacher Liz Murphy says more parents are choosing to educate their children with old-fashioned outdoor fun.
“When I was growing up, it was all outdoors and learning from our environment — we have lost sight of that over the last few years. It seems that kids just don’t experience good old-fashioned fun outdoors anymore because technology has taken over to a point. From a child’s development point of view, I think parents are now starting to realise that being outdoors exploring, and doing all the things they did as a child, is the way forward. We find that children learn better, and are more socially advanced by learning in this way.”
‘Free-range kids’ is based on the increasingly popular ethos that exposure to the natural environment, the outdoors, natural materials (sand, water, wood, clay, vegetables, grass, etc.), and exploratory play are hugely beneficial for the early development of kids of that age.
Activities include building and construction, exploring the woods, cooking apple pies straight from the orchard and preparing vegetable soup from the vegetable patch.
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Liz says that teachers in the primary schools nearby tell her they can recognise children who have attended Free-range pre-school because of their resilience and problem-solving skills. “We like to think we teach the children how to solve problems in a very natural way. Being outdoors and so close to nature throws up all sorts of challenges and obstacles to overcome, helping to boost self-confidence and allowing children to figures things out on their own.
“With our focus on academic achievement, it is easy to overlook the importance of outdoor play where children naturally learn how to weigh up risks, overcome problems and find independence — something that we are discovering is increasingly important, especially in the modern world of gaming and social media.”
In forest schools, the teachers view themselves as “co-discoverers” and guides who explore and experience nature alongside the children. Studies now show that children who spend a lot of time in the great outdoors show increased coordination, agility, balance and better motor skills. So it is no surprise that pre-schools and kindergartens are now beginning to design themselves more and more around nature. The philosophy, inspired by our Scandinavian neighbours, is based around connecting your little explorer to the wonder of the natural world.
That’s the philosophy of the Park Academy’s Nature Kindergarten, located on the grounds of Kilruddery House in Co Wicklow. Their education coordinator says, although they do have a log cabin where children can go inside if they are tired or to eat meals, most of the day is spent outside playing with whatever nature has to offer. “If a tree has fallen, it is left where it is, and it becomes a natural balance beam for the children to run up and down on. The children are constantly turning over logs and finding insects. It’s a very child-led environment.” One of the first forest schools, the Nature Kindergarten was set up to emphasise the importance of a child’s development through sensory exploration.
Here, the trees, leaves, and muck are the toys.
Lessons at this unique classroom include insect hunting, making nettle ice pops and plant identification. Music class consists of banging sticks, mimicking birdsong and tuning into the natural sounds of the forest.
Set within the fabulous gardens of Ballymaloe House, ECO Preschool can be found 15 minutes from Midleton in Co Cork. Here, children take part in building dens, making leaf pictures, cooking in mud kitchens and learning how to care for the environment. The teaching staff also have a passion for outdoor learning and understand how to cover all areas of the Early Years curriculum in an exciting, hands-on way that children love. This preschool caters for children from 2 years and 5 months up to 6 years and runs two sessions daily, from 9-12 and 1-4pm.
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Sisters and best friends Sally and Aimee Breslin set up Ivy Lane Montessori together. They were determined to offer top class education for children, while also making the lives of busy parents that much easier. While not a dedicated forest school, the sisters say the ethos of the school is built on the natural development and natural organic growth of the Ivy plant.
Aimee said being connected to nature was something they felt very passionate about: “While we also have an outdoor area, we felt it would be beneficial to have this indoor ‘weatherproof’ garden, allowing the children to strengthen their connection to nature. The children can do all kinds of activities in any weather and they love the open feel of this outdoor-indoor space.” What makes it all the more special is that the school is right in the heart of Dublin city centre.
These unique pre-schools offer an exciting first step into the world of education for children. They are using nature’s playground to discover and a place where imagination (and fun) has no boundaries.