Out in All Weathers: Britain's Secret Garden Nursery
LONDON In the past year and a half, childminder Cathy Bache hasn't spent a single day indoors with any of the 17 toddlers in her care.
Instead, in rain or shine, hail or snow, they spend all day every day playing in the garden, running in the woods, picnicking in the tree-house or building mud dams on the stream.
With 22 years' experience of teaching young children, Bache is convinced outdoor education is the way forward, and now she plans to open Britain's first totally open-air nursery in Scotland, one of the coldest areas of the country.
"As a nursery teacher, I found that being indoors with small children with very little space was stressful for me as an adult, so I imagine for a child it's even worse," Bache says.
"You can't really get more egocentric than a three-year-old -- and indoors they're all so close together, they bump into each other and get upset, and there are all those toys to fight over."
"Outdoors there's a lot of space, a lot of freedom and a lot of independence."
COMPOST TOILETS AND NO TOYS
Bache's new nursery, The Secret Garden, will be in an old walled orchard in the grounds of a restored medieval tower which once formed part of the summer palace for the bishops of the nearby ancient town of St Andrews.
With 10,000 pounds ($19,000) of funding from Britain's national lottery and support from education authorities and local parents, she hopes it will handle up to 24 children when it opens next autumn.
Bache says her plan gives a nod to earlier times like the 1950s and 1960s when children played outside more than they do now and babies routinely slept outside in their prams: "These children are only really doing what we did when we were kids."
At the Secret Garden, the only shelter will be a wattle and daub structure with no walls. Next door, the Monimail Tower community of environmentalists seeks a sustainable lifestyle.
There will be no toys. The children will be encouraged instead to play with the toys nature provides -- sticks and leaves, mud and rainwater, fir cones and acorns.
They will eat outside, use outdoor compost toilets, and learn about vegetable gardening and rearing chickens.
"We'll do a lot of walking, a lot of climbing trees, a lot of physical things -- as well as putting them in risky situations they have to suss out themselves," Bache told Reuters. "They are given the freedom to make choices about what do to and the risks that they should take."
Bache firmly believes there is no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing, and she says children love being out in all weathers.
Asked if a child ever whimpers about the cold, she says brightly: "Ah, well that's when we light the bonfire and make toast or bake potatoes."
Katie Connolly, a mother and graphic designer, says her sons Magnus, 4, and Frederick, 2, love Bache's outdoor approach.
"They come home satisfied and happy rather than bored and frustrated," she told Reuters.
"If it's been raining a lot they might talk about a stream that has formed and how they built a dam, or how they went splashing in puddles, but they don't talk about the weather in a negative way at all," Connolly said.
Bache got the outdoor idea from Norway, where she lived for four years with her own three children and saw early education rooted in the outside world.
She was struck by the vitality of children cared for in outdoor kindergartens there.
"These children are so strong -- even at the age of three -- they can climb trees, they jump, they can leap and swing -- it's amazing what they can do that children here can't because they haven't been given the opportunities."
Grete Haug, an advisor at Norway's Directorate for Education and Training, says outdoor education is widespread in Scandinavia, and growing all the time.
Many primary schools aim to spend at least one day a week outside, she says, and there are some completely outdoor kindergartens.
"There are great health benefits from being outside all the time, engaging in physical activity, getting stronger, breathing all that fresh air."
Haug also says the outdoors helps teach life's lessons.
"They can learn about counting, about the environment, about social interaction, and they can even learn about geography, democracy and religion -- imagination is the only limit on what they can do."
Both Haug and Bache believe outdoor education could provide an answer to concerns voiced by educational psychologists that modern children lack the ability to assess risk, and the confidence to make the right decisions.
"One child fell in the stream about 3 weeks ago," Bache says. "And we went back to that same stream again today. I could see his caution. The stream was cold. He is only three, but he was learning."