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Learning outside the box

Outdoor Kindergarten

by Deborah Meechan, Early Years lecturer.

The year 2020 has forced us to change many aspects of life – the way we socialise, the way we shop and the way we learn. Since March, we have all pivoted online, allowing us to carry out our day-to-day lives from the comfort of home. 

The wide-spread changes in education have been remarkable and the way in which institutions shifted into ‘digital-first’ operations in a matter of weeks was nothing short of astounding. 

However, for many the novelty of doing everything through a computer screen quickly wore off. After enduring nine months of the ‘new normal’, there is a limit to what can be achieved through home-based learning, not to mention the impact on both mental and physical health. 

Recent reports have suggested that twice as many British adults are reporting symptoms of depression compared with this time last year and one in ten UK homeowners have experienced increased stress levels as a result of working from home. 

Mental health charity, MIND, recommends that we spend time in green space each day in order to benefit physical and psychological wellbeing, noting that being outdoors can improve mood, reduce feelings of stress and increase confidence. 

Staff in the Early Years and Childcare department at the college could see from an early stage the detrimental impact blended learning could have on student development if we didn’t supplement additional practical and social elements. 

Despite classes meeting daily via Teams, and some limited on-campus learning, there was a disconnect from the familiar learning and teaching approaches that benefit our students each year. Teaching and childcare are vocations that require well-developed soft skills, so it was clear that we needed students to engage in the social side of their learning development. 

To address this, we partnered with Woodland Outdoor Kindergarten and The Jeely Piece Nursery to allow our HNC Childhood Practice students to gain vital course knowledge and work experience with staff, peers and children in a real-life, outdoors setting. 

Students were enrolled in the Forest Kindergarten award - a three-day course that allowed small groups to learn in the classroom and outdoors at nearby Pollok Park and Queens Park. As part of the course, groups were given the opportunity to learn how to plan, prepare, set up and lead play in a woodland environment. The training enabled students to connect with classmates, staff and children in-person, as well as providing opportunities to practice leadership skills whilst practical placements are delayed. 

The experience gave students the vital training needed for their future employment and, given the ongoing requirement for social distancing, the skills and dispositions used to lead outdoor play and learning have never been more valuable. 

As a result of the partnership, approximately 120 students will achieve this added value award. Additionally, our Early Years lecturers have been able to train alongside the students, giving them invaluable continuous professional development opportunities.

While helping our students develop in a practical environment, we have also allowed them to take their learning outside the box. Getting them to close their laptops, get outside and engage with peers should have a positive impact on both their educational experience and mental well-being.