Sydenham Road Under Fives Pre-School is situated in an inner suburb of South Bristol. It’s a packaway setting based in a church hall which has no outdoor space. The setting runs for three full days and two half days each week, term time only and caters for a maximum of twenty-four children each day, aged between three and five years, with six staff.
Jo, the pre-school team leader has worked at the setting for over fifteen years and is passionate about outdoor learning. With no outside space at the setting Jo and her team have risen to the challenge of providing wonderful outdoor learning experiences for the children in their care ‘we’ve made really strong links with the local school and with the local cemetery, Arnos Vale’. Due to Covid the pre-school hasn’t been able to use the school’s facilities but have really made use of the opportunities that Arnos Vale Cemetery can offer. The Victorian cemetery is a haven for a diverse range of wildlife and a hidden gem covering forty-five acres of inner-city South Bristol.
Jo’s commitment to providing meaningful and positive outdoor learning experiences from children is rooted in her belief that ‘children really do thrive outside. It’s a whole different world of play to explore and have that freedom to learn’. With this in mind Jo and her team were determined to find ways of offering quality outdoor play and learning opportunities to their children ‘ I didn’t think we should just draw the line at, because we haven’t got an outside area, that we should bring the outside in. I think we should just be able to explore and that’s when we started making links with the school and cemetery’. Jo and her team have managed to turn around what could be considered as a negative and have seen it as a positive ‘It’s a positive that we haven’t got an outside because we have to plan and go out into the world and explore. We thought, let’s not see it as a negative, that we don’t have an outside area, let’s see it as a positive and go with it’.
Arnos Vale have been really accommodating of the pre-school, providing them with their own space within the grounds to use ‘They are amazing! They have been so supportive of us, they’ve given us our own little plots when we were doing Forest School, we’ve got an allotment there, it’s just a lovely place to be and everyone is really friendly and the children are getting such a lovely experience’. Jo appreciates that a cemetery does sound like an unusual place to choose to take children to play ‘It does sound strange when you say the cemetery, but it really is an amazing place for them to be’.
Within the cemetery Jo and the preschool have three ‘base camps’ that they use, where children can explore and play ‘We don’t tend to rotate them because as soon as the children spend time at one they want to go back there and revisit, so we keep going back until something takes their interest another way. We do have votes, which means they can decide which way they go around the cemetery’.
Having daily outdoor sessions off site does take some forethought and organisation. Everything that might be needed for that session has to be transported to the cemetery on foot. Jo explains how they manage this ‘We have a big shopping bag with things like paintbrushes, trowels, bowls and a roll of paper. Then in one of the backpacks we have drawing equipment, the children love writing stories, so there’s been a lot of story writing this term and we take stuff for that. We also have stuff for doing bug hunts and leaf hunts and story books as well if they just want to have a story. We also have our emergency bag and our trolley with our water and watering cans because we don’t have any water at the cemetery to water our plants with’. The setting also provides puddle suits and wellies for children who need them, along with keeping a stash of hats and gloves for cold winter days. Jo explains that when the weather is colder children can choose to stay at the setting or go to Arnos Vale.
Jo and her team do plan for the session but always with a focus on the children’s interests ‘We might set up an activity and see how it would go, scaffolding their learning, encouraging them and helping them if they need us. Really we’re enjoying it as much as they are’. There is the opportunity to extend the learning that is happening inside and build on that outside. The children recently were interested in dinosaurs so Jo and the team used the cemetery to build on the interest and provide an activity to support it ‘We’ve been doing dinosaurs, so we hid dog bones so that they could look for dinosaur bones. That’s been really popular!’.
Jo appreciates that taking 24 children to a forty-five acre cemetery has to be carefully risk assessed. They have a ratio of one adult to five children and set rules to ensure that everyone is kept safe which the children are reminded of at each session ‘We do constant head counts and one of the rules is that you need to see an adult’. Jo and her team are keen to promote the characteristics of effective teaching and learning and that includes exploring and finding out, ‘We do try not to say “you can’t go there”, we want to encourage their curiosity’.
These sessions are a wonderful opportunity to discover and explore. Mud! Mud will always be a favourite thing ‘Our children just love mud! Mud and minibeasts. Went it’s cold and rainy they just love lying in the mud. They do footprints in mud, they do painting and painting trees. Mud is one of our biggest things, squelching through it, losing their wellies in it, it’s all great stuff.’ As well as mud, Arnos Vale is home to a diverse variety of minibeasts and the children love to find these and study them ‘They love minibeasts, looking for them, looking at them through magnifying glasses, just that involvement, taking them back to pre-school so they can spend the afternoon watching them’. Jo adds that the resources they have are great but ‘the environment is the best thing we’ve got’.
Within Arnos Vale the pre-school has their own little allotment where the children are growing their own vegetables ‘We pulled up potatoes today and the children’s faces were so excited. They were busy making plans for what they were going to do with them. I love growing potatoes with children so that they can see the whole process’. The children have also planted flowers which will attract bees and have planted a pumpkin ready for the autumn. Jo explains ‘This has been a really lovely project to take on. It’s different learning for children; to be planting things to be watering things, to be weeding things, picking slugs off things, and just watching it all grow. That’s been really nice for us’.
During Covid having use of the cemetery has been invaluable, not only for the outdoor learning sessions but, more recently, the team have invited teachers from local schools to come and meet the children before they start in Reception in September, this wouldn’t have been possible inside. They have also invited the new starters to come to the cemetery with their parents instead of the usual home visits that the staff would have done prior to a child starting ‘That’s worked really well because it’s just such a lovely place and they get to see our children playing in their natural environment’.
The children are really reaping the benefits of spending time outside in a stimulating environment with supportive adults ‘Just watching children grow, going from children who won’t get dirty or touch anything to children who are the first ready and first wanting to be out in all weathers’. Another benefit of the daily sessions at the cemetery is a sense of belonging and being part of a wider community ‘We see the same faces as we walk to the cemetery, the postmen, the dust truck. The children are part of the community, they’re waving to these same familiar faces. I think that’s another real strength, that sense of belonging, being able to talk about where they live. It’s all about just taking in the world around you’.
Jo and her team love watching the interactions that happen between the children when they are outside and the difference in the way children communicate and play together outside ‘The friendship groups that are inside don’t stay when we are outside, everybody plays more together. I love watching them blossom into real confident outside learners’.
Jo is passionate about outdoor learning and the benefits it provides and was committed to finding ways to facilitate this despite her setting not having their own dedicated outside space, not seeing it as a negative ‘I saw it as a positive. I thought, what can we do? How can we be outside and how can we do it? I do think that if we’d had our own outside space, we wouldn’t be doing the amazing things that we are doing. We wouldn’t be coming home with really grubby children having had a really lovely day’. Jo’s advice to settings in a similar situation to hers is to ‘Get out and explore. Explore the area around you. It’s just looking at different ways to do things. It’s not easy but there are ways you can do it’. In summing up Jo says ‘Just enjoy it! We just enjoy being out’.