It's what is on the outside that counts
At first sight some of the school’s features and equipment might look dangerous, but O’Donnell explains that “children know their own limits and we never push them”. They’re taught how to use things safely and progress at their own pace.
Parents need to be educated to see their children as competent in the outdoors and able to make choices, she says.
“If we were to lift them up on to the tree we would be responsible for them. But if they can get up themselves, we must support and encourage them to get down – but not lift them down or they will be learning nothing.”
O’Donnell, along with her two staff, Karen O’Donnell (no relation) and Ursula McKenna, keep a careful eye on the children as they roam where the fancy takes them. They are encouraged to talk about what they’re doing, learning from the different activities.
The calmness and the children’s co-operative interaction is striking. Loud voices and pent-up energy float away over the undulating landscape, a palette of autumnal colours.
In four hours I see no tears or rows – bar a silent tug-of-war between one girl and boy over a soup ladle, which ends as the girl recognises the futility of the tussle when there are plenty of other utensils lying around.
There are much more likely to be fights and small accidents at indoor childcare centres where children are in confined spaces, says O’Donnell.
Hail, rain or shine
Although the children are free to go indoors, they opt to stay out much of the time. Even their table-top work, like drawing, is done outside when it’s dry.
Generally rain, snow and frost don’t stop play, but high wind is the one element that is likely to force them inside because of the risk of things being blown around.
There’s a wooden chalet where parents sign their children in and out; each child has at least one change of clothes in a cubby-hole and lunch-boxes are stored in cool bags. Children start the day here by drawing something they plan to play with and they finish the morning session by swapping their waterproofs for dry clothes for going home and reviewing their plan.
Leticia had planned to play in the pile of stones – and she did, she tells her teacher, “digging them”. Ava had drawn a big red boat and she acts out how she was driving it. “Need to find treasure,” she says, but, asked if she did, she shakes her head.
With most of the children collected soon after midday, the remainder go into the house for a hot lunch. Later, one boy who is there for the day, will tuck himself under a blanket on a mattress for an hour’s sleep, to recharge the batteries for another afternoon’s adventure in the outdoors, when older children arrive for the afterschool service four days a week.
Sceptics might wonder why would you want to have preschoolers outdoors in all weathers, but spend a few hours in the inspiring setting of the Glen Outdoor Early Learning Centre and the question is: why wouldn’t you?
Great outdoors Play-based education foryoung children in Ireland
Early Childhood Ireland (ECI) organises study trips to the Glen Outdoor Early Learning Centre twice a year to help other preschool providers see the value of outdoor education.
While few are likely to go as far as Sally O’Donnell, it gives them ideas for how they might at least extend their outdoor programmes.
HSE inspectors are usually there, too, says Rita Melia of ECI, “to show the providers that you can comply with regulations and provide a wonderful, rich, environment in the outdoors for children”.
Jo Flinn, who runs Free Range Kids in Croom, Co Limerick, needs no convincing of the benefit of the outdoors for children, and tries to have her preschoolers out for at least an hour a day.
“But it is hard work with that age group to be totally outdoors,” she says. “And it is also a matter of getting parents onboard.”
Lots of parents don’t like their children getting dirty, she says. “It is very sad.”