Rhiannon Scott tells TEY how a Danish nursery in the forest inspired a whole new way of life for Kids Planet…
After running a busy preschool room with Kids Allowed, I wanted a different challenge. I spoke with my former CEO, Jenny Johnson, about my interests and how I love training and coaching.
Jenny came up with the idea of forest school and gave me free rein. She said, “You’ve got six months, try and make a success of it – I’m going to completely leave this up to you.”
I would go to a National Trust Park called Dunham Massey every day and the different nurseries would come to me for a two-hour forest school session. That’s how I got my role as Outdoor Learning Lead – a role which has continued to develop since we were acquired by Kids Planet.
At the time we worked in partnership with Doncaster College. I went on a trip with the college to Denmark, where we visited loads of nurseries and outdoor settings.
One particular nursery, the Bonsai Institute, was absolutely amazing – they had an old converted building that backed onto a forest.
There were 2-year-olds whittling with knives and sitting around a fire, children climbing trees.
When the parents arrived, they didn’t just pick up their kids and leave; they would sit around the campfire and get involved; the children would take them into the forest, they’d play – it’s a very different way of doing things and Denmark is ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, so it makes you think.
The owner of that nursery told me that it’s a way of life. Every staff member is a pedagogue; an expert in what they do.
They didn’t seem to have that hierarchy that we have in UK settings and it wasn’t that children went to forest school then came back to nursery; they spent all day out in the forest – from babies up to preschool.
The indoor space was there, but it was basic and homely with salt lamps everywhere and the children took their shoes off when they came in.
The Danish word ‘Udeskole’ translates as ‘outdoor school’ and we wanted to make this concept an integral part of our day-to-day practice – an authentic culture shift within the company, so that when you walk into a Kids Planet nursery, you know this is a part of everyday life for the children.
That’s why we decided to set up an Udeskole qualification, which I’d love every Kids Planet nursery to complete. I hope that when the first cohort have completed the training, there will be some trailblazers who can deliver Udeskole training alongside me.
It’s a practical course and the team are required to show their collaboration – how they’ve worked with parents, families and the local community.
The biggest boundary can be parents’ expectations of what an outdoor space or outdoor learning should look like, so we need to bring them on that journey with us.
We can also use the skills of families in the community to support projects. There might be a keen gardener or a tree surgeon who has spare logs that you could use. It’s bringing back that tribe that humans need, but that’s been lost in our society.
This generation of children spends more time indoors than any before it, but we’re meant to be out in nature – that’s where children learn best.
Children have a lot going on in their lives and there’s so much screen time and information. Being outside in nature gives them that chance to breathe, take time and just go at their own pace.
A few years ago, as part of Persil’s Dirt Is Good campaign, they made a Free the Kids video, which looked at how much time children spend outside compared with US prison inmates. It’s really shocking.
For me, Udeskole is about taking children back outdoors and doing those things that we loved doing when we were younger.
I always start my training by asking, ‘What did you enjoy doing when you were young?’ People say the same things every time: making perfume from petals, mud pies, building dens. We need to give this gift back to today’s children so they can have these lovely memories.
The health and wellbeing benefits of being outside are just huge. Cortisol levels drop by 40 per cent; you produce more serotonin; then there’s all the good stuff you get for your immune system from mud.
Children love risk, challenge, and doing things that are a bit scary. They get more opportunities for this outdoors. We’ve become so risk averse in the UK, but we may be making our children less safe by not giving them any exposure to risk at all.
They need to learn how to assess their own risk, and children are so much more capable than we give them credit for.
There’s less expectation outdoors, too – fewer boundaries and rules. Children love freedom and sometimes it’s about giving them a perception of freedom: places where they feel in ownership of that space; stepping back as a practitioner so that children are absorbed in their own play.
Staff can often feel under pressure to ask lots of questions when children are playing but, especially outdoors, the most effective thing you can do is step back and observe. The children will take the play and learning where it needs to go.
We need to know when to gently get involved but not overstep the mark and burst their play bubble or take away the adventure and excitement. They know you’re there, that they’re safe.
Udeskole looks at children’s individual interests and development rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. The role of the Udeskole pedagogue is to observe and to know where each child’s at on their individual journey.
If a child enjoys crafting, you might introduce tools with them; if another child’s into fire lighting, talk about wood collection and which type of wood is good for the fire.
Don’t get hung up on budgets or fancy resources. Nature is free and resources can be very low-cost.
If your setting’s outdoor space is quite artificial, see what you can bring in. Plant some herbs, bring in some fallen branches and twigs from local areas so that children can build their own dens – there are ways to work around it.
If a child starts to create something, allow it to stay until the next time they come out again – this helps to give them ownership of their space.
A big part of the Udeskole qualification is about how you can evidence the children’s voice in what you’re doing. What input have they had? What do they say about their space? What do they love about it? Where don’t they like playing so much? Is this space everything that the children want it to be?
We need to remember that this is their space, and children need to have a say in where resources live and what they want in their environment.
If the Udeskole training goes as well as I hope it will, we’ll be looking to offer the training externally to support other nurseries. We want to help as many children – and families – as we can to get back that connection with nature.
Rhiannon Scott is the Outdoor Learning Lead at Kids Planet Nurseries.