Pandemic Possibilities Outdoors

One hundred years ago, amidst prevalent airborne respiratory diseases including TB and Spanish Flu, the very popular Open Air Movement gave great attention to providing children of all ages with a combination of health-improving conditions that included large amounts of time in cool, fresh air.  Indeed, the British Nursery School tradition was born from this context and belief in the outdoors as the best place for health, wellbeing and play-based learning.

As we work on how to open up settings and schools to all children in a way that fully meets the needs of children whilst staying as safe as possible during the coronovirus pandemic, our post this week continues to highlight the central role that taking learning outdoors can and should play.  Outdoor consultant Kathryn Solly asks what can we learn from a history of learning in the open air that spanned over 40 years of schooling in the UK?

Kathryn is a specialist Early Years Speaker, Consultant and Trainer, an Early Education Associate, Froebel Trust Travelling Tutor and Vice Chair of the Early Childhood Forum.  Her book ‘Risk, Challenge and Adventure in the Early Years1 draws upon her 17 years as ‘Head Learner’ at Chelsea Open Air Nursery School in the centre of London.

Pandemic Possibilities Outdoors? by Kathryn Solly

Chelsea Open Air Nursery School 1940’s

Various articles about open air schools showing children sitting formally at desks have recently been published as a result of the pandemic. In Britain we have the privilege of still providing the real ‘open air’ ethos in many maintained nursery schools and settings plus some primary schools. I had the honour of being the Headteacher of one with a very strong link to this pioneer status for 17 years. The school was very diverse and inclusive. The children played and learnt outside and in via free flow following their interests and needs throughout the year.

The use of outdoor environments goes back to the ancient Greeks. However, it was Froebel (1782-1852) who realised the potential of learning outside. He understood children learn best when active, in nature, provided with open-ended, first-hand experiences, involving problem-solving, interaction and freedom with guidance from adults. In Germany the concept of learning outdoors prospered and encouraged all children to be outdoors as much as possible. This led to the creation of the Waldeschule (literally, “forest school”), built in Charlottenburg in 1904 and designed to provide children with the most exposure to the sun.

It was becoming evident for many that life in industrial cities was not good and overcrowded housing was encouraging infectious diseases like tuberculosis, anaemia or asthma, whilst others were malnourished. It was evident that these children would benefit from rest, physical exercise, good food, fresh air, sunlight plus a good education. Thus over 40 camp schools were set up in London where children could also stay overnight. The pioneers Margaret (1860-1931) and her sister Rachel McMillan (1859-1917) played a leading role in establishing the camp schools and nurseries. Their lengthy campaigning established a nursery school in Deptford, London in 1911 and later one in Bradford.

The benefits of these schools were to:

  • nip disease in the bud
  • prevent sequential diseas
  • provide opportunities for the body to mend and repair following illness or accident;
  • nurture debilitated children;
  • promote learning by doing.

The Deptford school consisted of several ‘shelters’ alongside a large garden for play and growing food. They were simply furnished buildings that could easily be adapted. They contained basic furniture and each had a bathroom. They were open from 7:30 am until 5:30 p.m. and meals were provided.  Their fundamental principles were:

Chelsea Open Air Nursery School 1940’s
  • access to fresh air and sunlight;
  • proper diet;
  • rest or quiet play;
  • hygienic ways of living;
  • individual attention;
  • medical treatment;
  • special educational methods.

From 1912, the Board of Education showed its approval of these schools by paying a special grant of £3 per head under part 11 of the Medical Treatment Grant Regulations. When Chelsea Open Air Nursery School (COANS) opened in 1928 to 13 children, they had regular access to a doctor who examined them and gave advice on diet and hygiene. COANS was started by an American benefactress Natalie Davis who wanted a nursery for her children to attend, as she was concerned about them becoming the equivalent to today’s couch potatoes.

She found an old building with a large walled garden and enlisted the guidance of Dr Susan Isaacs in leading its pedagogical development. Modern plumbing and power were installed, but no heating. The interior was not warmed beyond what was believed to be the best temperature for active children of 56F/13C. The school became well known because of Susan Isaacs’ (1885-1948) involvement with the Institute for Child Development in the University of London (now the Institute of Education). The ethos encouraged children to follow their interests through learning and drawing freely rather than following stencils.

Isaacs emphasised the value of spontaneous play in developing:

  •  the joy of movement whilst perfecting bodily skills;
  •  curiosity in real things and events in the world around them;
  •  real love of make-believe and acting out the world that children see.

The school was founded privately with the intention to provide for all children regardless of income, and gradually a wide cross-section of society began to attend. Frequent concerns for parents were of a practical nature such as table manners, swearing and other children’s germs! A strict regime of sunlight, fresh air and medication led to a reduction in illnesses and an increase in attendance from 71% in 1935 to 89% in 1937.

Chelsea Open air Nursery School in 2005

Isaacs realised how crucial access to outdoor space was in learning:

Little children need space, both for their physical efforts and so that they shall not be much in each other’s way and annoy each other by contact or noise. To be boxed up in a small nursery is a very trying experience for vigorous, healthy children of three to five years of age and a great source of irritation and nervous strain. Space in itself has a calming and beneficial effect.” (1954: 29)2

The Scottish town planner and ecologist Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was instrumental in establishing gardens in schools in Edinburgh. He understood, like Isaacs, the need for children to authentically experience the world and nature in order to understand and value it. Recently the open-air model has been adopted by the Scottish government as a way to address obesity, reduce screen time, improve mental health and build families’ connection with nature.

For older children’s schooling, the open air schools were based around desks. However, desks and chairs were portable so they could be moved to various locations, even in public parks. The achievement of such education was described in 1914: “Only those who have seen the puny, undersized, anaemic boys and girls at their entrance into the school, and revisited it after a few months, can realise what open-air schools have done…” (Independent 23rd January, 2005). It seems likely that the improvements were due to the plentiful supply of food, the exercise, the medical care and the attention of staff. The arrival of antibiotics, slum clearances, the creation of the National Health Service and the Clean Air Act of 1955 did much to improve the lives of children removing the need for open air schools. The exceptions were Deptford, Coram Fields and Chelsea which continue today, although on slightly different principles, as outstanding maintained nursery schools.

As we start to plan a return to learning outside the home, please can we reinvestigate the real potential of open air schools/settings and the possibilities they offer as a model to allow safer and healthier play and learning environments with less hard surfaces and more space to move around in? In childhood this is a very strong and resilient model of learning and for children, being outdoors represents an undeniable opportunity for growth and enrichment.

Chelsea Open Air Nursery School in 2005
  1. Solly, K. (2015) Risk, Challenge and Adventure in the Early Years. Abingdon: Routledge.
  2. Isaacs, S. (1954) The Educational Value of the Nursery School. London: The Nursery School Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (Reprinted by BAECE, London.)

All images are © COANS & Kathryn Solly or © Professor Jan White.  Images must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.

1 thought on “Pandemic Possibilities Outdoors”

  1. Jacquelyn Woolley

    I feel this is a great way forward for nurseries, the if we can find outdoor spaces which are easy accessible. This would help get the children back into our nurseries sooner with it being less likely for the virus to spread again as the children are not in close proximity to each other

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