Scotland explore outdoor learning as model for reopening schools

Local authorities in Scotland are exploring how using outdoor space could optimise physical distancing

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian

Outdoor learning could offer a template for socially distanced schooling across Scotland, according to practitioners who believe the COVID-19 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 optimise physical distancing.

“There are a growing number of fully and partially outdoor childcare settings in Scotland,” Scotland’s children’s minister, Maree Todd, said. “This model could have many benefits for maintaining physical distancing and minimising 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, and is then encouraged to spread out and find their own space to do crafting activities.

“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,” Says Cameron Sprague, a senior team leader at Stramash nursery, Fort William, which is likewise now acting as a childcare hub. 

Outside space allows for social distancing to happen more naturally, Cameron added. “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.”

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