Outdoor preschools and crèches are small in number in Ireland but the Covid-19 pandemic may change that as more early childcare services place greater emphasis on the outdoors, says Maresa Fagan.
THERE are few silver linings from Covid-19, but spending more time outdoors was one of them. During the lockdown, many families made the most of the good weather to enjoy daily walks or playtime outdoors.
Creches and preschools that are exclusively outdoor or have well developed outdoor amenities will find the transition to a post-Covid-19 environment a bit easier.
At facilities and services that are exclusively outdoors, sometimes called ‘wild’ creches or preschools, children spend all or most of their time outside exploring, playing, and letting their imaginations run wild.
Children also benefit developmentally as they hone their sensory and motor skills and build more awareness and confidence around nature and their surroundings.
The concept of outdoor- only creches and playschools is well developed in Nordic countries, like Norway, and also in Scotland, where outdoor education is a growing sector.
Their appeal for parents and children alike, however, is beginning to catch on in Ireland.
Sally O’Donnell, who set up the first outdoor preschool in the country 12 years ago, believes Covid-19 will see more outdoor services and facilities being developed.
She runs Glen Outdoors School outside Letterkenny, Co Donegal, which accommodates around 50 children each term.
“We’re seeing more and more outdoor facilities being developed across the country in recent years — they’re definitely growing in number,” O’Donnell says.
“It’s better if children are outdoors all of the time. They are more resilient, they build up their immune system, they are more confident, their balance and co-ordination is much better, they sleep and eat better, and they have less cold and flus and less accidents.”
The Glen Outdoors School, she says, is just like an indoor classroom except its outdoors and has a construction area, swings, play frames and huts, a tepee, cars and bicycles, a football pitch, a music centre, a reading area, and a quiet or sensory area.
O’Donnell doesn’t expect childcare services to return to normal until September but believes the Covid-19 pandemic will influence how services develop into the future. “It makes it easier for outdoor services. The coronavirus is 19 times less likely to be transmitted outdoors so that’s a major advantage,” she says, adding that children under the age of six were also less likely to be impacted by the virus.
Children also enjoy greater freedom to explore. “By allowing children to be outdoors they can express themselves more freely and use a louder voice than they would indoors,” she says.
There is no such thing as bad weather, only “inappropriate clothing” she says, pointing out that outdoor preschools have stood the test of time in cooler climates like Norway.
Trisha MacLaughlin from Sligo Woodland Schools is a founding member of the Irish Forest Schools Association, and runs an ‘outings-based’ preschool group and forest school summer camps in Sligo town.
“It’s not an endurance test. Children love the sensory exploration in the different elements so if you’re appropriately dressed it’s not a barrier. You can zip up, boot up, and out you go,” she says, adding children come indoors if they get wet.
Learning outdoors has developmental benefits for children, she says: “The cognitive and imaginative learning is amazing and their physical coordination is better and they tend to fall a lot less.”
MacLaughlin says there is a “sprinkling” of outdoor services at present but that the Government could do more to support the development of outdoor childcare and education services.
“It’s surprising there is so little outdoor education here. The Scottish outdoor education model is so progressive and pioneering and it’s where we should be heading but we need to get the regulations and insurance behind us.”
Early Childhood Ireland (ECI) says the pandemic is likely to “fast-track” the development of more outdoor facilities at preschools and creches but that not all services will become exclusively outdoors.
ECI early years specialist Carol Duffy says childcare policy and service providers are “moving in the right direction” to place greater emphasis on providing more outdoors spaces for children.
While learning outdoors will not be for every child, Duffy says the development benefits have been backed up by research and shown to work in countries like Norway and Scotland.
“There’s greater recognition in the last few years of the importance and value of allowing children to spend more time outdoors and there’s growing research around this,” she says. The pandemic will “most definitely” drive the development of more outdoor facilities and provide a wider range of facilities for parents and children, she says.
More preschools and creches are looking at ways to “naturalise” their environment and add ‘transitional’ or sheltered spaces to provide a “seamless” flow between indoor and outdoor facilities.
“There has been much improvement but the Covid-19 pandemic has fast-tracked that to some extent also, as outdoor spaces become more important,” Duffy says.
“We’re on a trajectory of greater and better quality outdoor provision, which is offering better choices.” There is a perception, she says, there are greater risks outdoors but research and experience says otherwise.
“It’s the most natural thing in the world for children to play out in a garden,” she says. “What we’re looking at is natural garden-like spaces that have all the things that children love to do. We know that when they are playing in a space like that there are huge benefits for all aspects of their development and learning.”