Hugo started his career as a languages teacher in secondary schools but was drawn to working within early years following the arrival of his first child. Hugo has been teaching at Redcliffe Nursery School and Children’s Centre for many years, becoming Lead Teacher in 2016. The nursery school is close to the centre of Bristol, located amidst a group of high-rise flats. One of the specialisms that the setting offers children is a commitment to outdoor learning and forest experiences, their ethos being ‘a teaching philosophy rooted in the importance of play led learning and spending time in the natural environment’. Hugo has been involved with developing this over the past twelve years.
Hugo’s formative childhood experiences embedded his love of being outdoors ‘to be able to spend time outside, just discovering things for yourself, is how you should learn about the outdoors and then feel a sense of commitment to preserving it’. Hugo has incorporated his passion for the outdoors in his studies for an MA, explaining how the research that he has done has ‘enriched my understanding of outdoor practice’.
In order to feel ‘attuned’ with the environment it is important to have had these early learning experiences outside. Prior to attending the setting many children might not have had these sorts of opportunities: ‘It has been really rewarding. Those children who haven’t had that experience before are getting it through going out with the nursery. It’s fantastic to see them grow in confidence’. The children attending Redcliffe Nursery School are blessed with practitioners who share Hugo’s enthusiasm for and commitment to outdoor learning. Each child gets to have a forest experience at least once a fortnight. Children and practitioners benefit from the boost to their health and well-being that being outside brings. Hugo explains how children benefit by ‘feeling the elements, not having it too manufactured, having the possibility to be with trees and earth and experiencing the changes in the seasons. The imperfect outdoor spaces always offered opportunities for surprising things to happen, experiencing the unpredictability of the outdoors is really important.’
With the arrival of covid and the ramifications it has bought, getting outside seems even more important than ever. The impact of this is that many of the city’s outside spaces are now much busier ‘it will be interesting to see what people’s perception of the outdoors will be post covid. I think the positive will be that the population in general will be wanting to get into the outdoors more in the future. I think, Covid has done more than anyone could have done to get people outdoors’. Hugo acknowledges that some parents will have been anxious about taking their children outside and for these children the covid experience will have been potentially far more difficult. However, for other families they will be discovering new local spaces and having positive experiences together outside ‘letting children be free outdoors’.
Because of Covid, the nursery has had to adjust how access to outside space is used and managed. Each bubble of children can spend time twice a day outside but there is no longer the opportunity for free flow from inside to out. The other impact is that the number of trips that might have happened have had to be curtailed, however, throughout lockdown forest trips have continued. Hugo explains that, whenever possible, parents are encouraged to be involved. He describes a recent trip when a parent accompanied them and the parent’s reaction to the experience was so positive ‘she was bowled over by it, to me it was the bread and butter of what we do and to continue to do these things is really important’. This example reinforces how beneficial it can be to encourage parents to make use of all that outdoors has to offer and Hugo has worked with colleagues on a section of the Bristol Early Years website which is devoted to home learning and includes ideas for parents to do with their children Stay at Home Learning | Bristol Early Years . Hugo explains that an obvious way to engage parents is to ‘involve them in the outdoor things that you are doing, trying to enthuse them by offering them opportunities to take part it and tailoring the needs of an individual family and facilitating that for them. That may mean targeting a particular child so that they can go more often. For those families who don’t go outside anyway, it’s been one of our priorities to bring them on board’ ensuring that reassurance is given to those families who don’t have much experience because ‘people didn’t necessarily have predictable ideas about what is was like to be outside’.
Hugo has a particular interest in how children behave outdoors in a less managed, natural environment, such as a woodland, commenting ‘how they respond to all aspects of wildlife, sensing the interconnectedness of themselves with the living and non-living elements to be found there. It’s about the holistic experience of being outside and how children explore in their different ways’. Hugo explains that he gets a huge amount of enjoyment from ‘observing children close hand. I try and be really open to what they’re looking for, what they’re seeing, hearing and smelling and responding to that. Sometimes you have a trip and you feel you’re on top of a wave and flying along with something, this tends to happen when you have more time, the longer the trip, the more you can see those really deep experiences happening’.
Hugo has taken children on many trips over the years. He has fond memories of early trips to Leigh Woods ‘when it really felt like an adventure. I think the more memories that you have the more they can feed into what you do now. Leaving the city, mixing it up a bit, we’ve been to Clevedon, it’s just a completely different environment. I think it’s important for us to not let things become routine, to keep our enthusiasm because it feeds off on to the children’. To ensure that he stays inspired, Hugo enjoys ‘reading about outdoors, reading about people who are outdoors or reading about ecology’. Hugo’s current favourite book is ‘The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot’ by Robert MacFarlane.
During his time working within early years Hugo has amassed a wealth of experience and his top tips for getting children to embrace all that the great outdoors has to offer is to ‘listen to the children, to take them to different environments, giving them as wide a range of experiences as possible. You need to enjoy it yourself and for it to be a communal experience’.
Hugo is a great advocate for making the most of being outdoors and sums it up by saying ‘outdoors is good and necessary for everyone.’