By Lucy Ashton
Hobbit houses, campfires and water walls are just some of the fun outdoor learning activities that children will get to experience as a result of Argyll and Bute’s new Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) settings and the ongoing expansion of an existing unit on Mull.
Willowview in Oban and Silverbirch in Dunoon, both run by Argyll and Bute Council, welcomed their first children this week, while MAKI Pups in Lochgilphead, run by the Argyll and The isles Coast and Countryside Trust, has been fully operational for nine months now.
Drumfork in Helensburgh, a private partnership nursery commissioned by the council, has also established an outdoor/forest school setting, and work to create two new settings and extend the outdoor area at Salen Primary’s ELC unit is due to be completed this autumn.
Silverbirch and MAKI Pups
Silverbirch and MAKI Pups, are dedicated outdoor nurseries. This means the children spend almost all their time learning outdoors, giving them lots of opportunities to explore and progress at their own pace in a natural environment.
Both settings are in a woodland environment and each has a single timber cabin that will primarily provide shelter and respite from the elements. The vast majority of learning and play, however, will be experienced outdoors, giving children the chance to explore, gain confidence and learn at their own pace. The outdoor nurseries also have innovative waterless toilets to minimise environmental impact by avoiding the installation of underground waste water pipes that would have a detrimental impact to the existing natural woodland environment.
Willowview in Oban is a former day centre and care home and, latterly, offices. Landscape architects were appointed by the council to create spaces for high activity; quiet time; socialising; investigation; creativity; and nature.
To meet this brief, the designers developed a ‘traditional’ play space with hard surfacing for ride-ons, marking and ball games, water play, sensory planting and a ‘stage’. This is a standalone area, but a path also leads up through a quiet space and green tunnel to a high level ‘hidden garden’ with playhouse, sandpit, slide and scramble net to the lower level and a sheltered look-out with a view across the roof-tops.
The outdoor setting also has a natural area which offers future use for Forest School activities for other settings in order to support equity across the Early Years service. In addition to the extensive external areas there is a partially covered internal courtyard which forms the parent entrance and a sensory breakout space.
Drumfork is a private run nursery in Helensburgh which offers free flow access to outside areas which are full of exciting spaces for children to explore. The setting now also has a dedicated Forest School site, situated just a short walk from the indoor setting.
Many of the staff have Fire and Tools Skills training, which gives them the skills, expertise and confidence to offer children a broad range of diverse outdoor learning opportunities, such as helping to cook on an open fire, and working with real tools.
Council-appointed architects designed an outdoor area at Salen Primary’s existing ELC unit which maximises the limited external space available. Breakout areas have been developed as social spaces for science/experimental play, gardening, an outdoor classroom and sensory areas.
The new area also has a ride-on ‘circuit’ and a speaking tube which connects the two Early Years gardens, as well as outdoor chalk boards, music, mirrors and a water wall. The two new English and Gaelic medium spaces will be completed this autumn. The new facilities at Salen will offer a wealth of opportunity for learners to take part in a number of high-quality sensory learning experiences.
The Council’s Policy Lead for Education, Councillor Yvonne McNeilly, said: “The benefits of outdoor learning go way back. It is a vital part of our children’s development. Not only is it fun, it improves their physical health and wellbeing, and enables them to have meaningful interactions with the natural world.
“Our new spaces have been produced in partnership across the council, local communities and landscape architects. We have brought life to spaces that had been forgotten or neglected and placed them at the heart of learning for our youngest learners. In doing so we are connecting children with their local areas, helping develop a sense of place and feeling of belonging and inclusion.
“These sustainable spaces provide a wealth of opportunities for intergenerational activities, enhancing community cohesion and helping us build inclusive, resilient communities whilst delivering high quality ELC. I would like to thank everyone involved for the tremendous effort they have put in over the years to get us where we are today. I truly believe we are leading the way with outdoor education in Argyll and Bute, paving the way for our children and young people to have the best start in life.”