It's what is on the outside that counts
It may be a dirty job but this outdoor preschool on a sprawling site in Co Donegal is more than happy to do it, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
It’s a grey November morning and persistent drizzle is falling from a cloud-locked sky above the road out of Letterkenny towards Glenties, in Co Donegal. There’s enough rain to convince any primary school that pupils shouldn’t be going outside at break time. But it’s business as usual at the pioneering Glen Outdoor Early Learning Centre, in Barrack, where preschool children spend nearly 90 per cent of their time outdoors in all seasons.
A gang of children, ranging in age from two to five and dressed in brightly coloured, padded waterproof suits and wellies, hoods pulled over woollen hats, swarm around a variety of natural and manmade features laid out on a site of about 3,000sq m.
There’s a sand-pit as big as a room; a line of yellow and green painted tractor tyres set into the ground in order of ascending height, all ready to be climbed up and crawled through; swings and a slide; and a polytunnel housing fruit and vegetable plants. The biggest draw is a rock-encircled splash pool, through which a diverted stream flows.
This morning a team of chefs work at a bench on one bank, preparing “soup”, earnestly ladling water in and out of pots, saucepans and kettles.
Nearby, a few children have clambered on to a wooden ship, where one takes charge of the wheel and others commandeer the “guns” – until the teacher, Karen O’Donnell, reminds them they are, in fact, “binoculars”.
Meanwhile three boys have put on helmets and whizz pedal-free bikes down a muddy track, dragging them back up time and time again for a repeat of the thrill. Piles of gravel provide another challenge for them to navigate, while there are tricycles for the less co-ordinated.
When they tire of that, there’s a work bench behind with real hammers, nails, saws and bench vice to play with. None of your fake, plastic stuff here. There’s even a big rock and a large tree the small children are – shock! horror! – allowed to climb.
It’s all part of the ethos: grounding children in the natural environment and helping them to learn to make their own judgments on risk-taking, rather than wrapping them up in cotton wool and never asking them the question – never mind giving them a chance to answer it.
The Glen centre’s founder, Sally O’Donnell, was already running a conventional preschool in Letterkenny when she first heard of the “forest schools” in Scandinavia. Their philosophy is that being outdoors is key to children’s development; it is an ideal place to learn to crawl, jump, balance and climb and their natural curiosity is stimulated by what they touch, see, hear and smell around them.
“I just thought, wow – for me that is what childhood is all about,” says O’Donnell, who grew up in nearby Churchill and has five children of her own, ranging in age from 10 to 31. She visited a forest school in Norway and an outdoor nature kindergarten in Scotland before opening the Glen school in a converted house and surrounding land, in 2008.
Initially the children’s time was split equally between indoors and outdoors. With nothing else like it in Ireland, parents took a bit of convincing. But a woman at the Scottish nature kindergarten advised O’Donnell not to compromise her ideals but instead declare it an outdoor school and let parents sign up to it, or not, as the case might be.
Now in its third year, there are 18 children attending – two-thirds come from 9am until noon on the free preschool year scheme. O’Donnell says she would happily cater for 30. The parents who bring their children here have nothing but praise for the school’s innovative approach.
The Health Service Executive has been supportive, too, says O’Donnell. A risk-benefit analysis was done for every area of the centre.
And while health and safety regulations normally demand, for instance, that all ponds be covered, the Glen’s splash pool, “a manmade structure for a learning outcome”, is exempt.