There was a time when, with its vagaries and dangers, kindergarten most likely meant spending time in a stuffy church hall, shut off from the outside world.
But children in South Queensferry, west of Edinburgh, are trading for something more normal in their old toys as they take their first learning steps.
Kids from Queensferry Nursery School, some as young as a year old, walk for an hour every week to the nearby beach at Longcraig Pier, where they can climb and explore the open sky, the coastline and the popular Forth Bridges in the background.
And while one might conclude that it would be a recipe for disaster to supervise toddlers and preschoolers in our fickle weather, the sessions have proven to be a great success, with ample evidence that they minimize challenging or difficult behavior and enable shy participants to become more talkative.
Scottish free childcare extension postponed until August 2021
There are also steps to expand free childcare to all 128 children in Queensferry, but after a decision to close nurseries and other childcare to all children except disadvantaged children and key workers’ children, there is new confusion.
As political and health authorities strive to control new strains of coronavirus, the measure, which will be in effect until at least Jan. 18, arrives.
The beach presents a rare opportunity for Anna MacPherson, director of the Queensferry nursery school.
“Ever since I was a kid, I loved going to the beach,” she says. We were wondering, ‘The beaches are right on our doorstep, why are we not using them?’
“It began late last summer with a half-day trip and developed from there. The lockdown threw us off track a little bit, but now we’re hosting weekly full-day trips — not just one-off days.
“The children walk to Longcraig Pier, which is a little over an hour’s walk each way, to the beach. Some of the children can’t walk well and have to be transported in a buggy, particularly the younger ones.
And the weather is part of the learning – just being in and really exploring this normal, ever-changing world,”And the weather is part of the learning – just being in this natural, ever-changing environment and really exploring it,”
“Sometimes the Scottish weather can be a little dreary, but the kids love it no matter what.”
Actually, there are two classes – one of about 18 preschoolers between the ages of three and five and a smaller group of one to five-year-olds.
“We allow the children to do what they enjoy most,” explains Ms. MacPherson.
“With them, they don’t need toys or other things. They are exploring and researching. If they have questions about what they’re seeing and picking up, then? We should talk about it with them. We don’t decide the tasks beforehand.
In terms of risk, instead of giving them directions, it’s about encouraging the children to discover it themselves. A child went a bit too far into the water the other day, and it was just a case of us describing the risk and telling them to take a few steps back.
Ms. MacPherson said it has been difficult to make her beach kindergarten a reality – not least of which is the commitment and time needed to ensure that the children are properly dressed and trained. But there have also been advantages.
“We’ve found that children who typically exhibit difficult behaviors in the nursery – for example, not being in control of their emotions – relax when they’re at the beach, and those behaviors almost disappear,” she says.
“And reticent children, who you wouldn’t talk to much in the daycare building, become more confident and want to talk to us more.”
The ‘threatening viability’ of private nurseries by Councils
The value of outdoor learning, identified in the latest report from the International Council of Education Advisers of Nicola Sturgeon, is increasingly emphasized as something that “can and should be extended in all cases, not just during a pandemic.”
We have been at the forefront of establishing and supporting the benefits of forest nurseries since 2017 and have four sites in service across the region, with three more expected to open in January, said Councilman Ian Perry, Convener for Education, Children and Families at the City of Edinburgh Council. Congratulations to Anna and her Queensferry team for taking a further step forward with this.
Health, Children and Families Vice Convener, Cllr Alison Dickie, added: “For our outdoor play and learning, there are enormous benefits to be gained from outdoor play and learning.”