'Nervous’ nurseries encouraged to embrace outdoor learning


One of the UK’s leading experts on outdoor learning believes that “nervous” nursery schools could be harming the development of young children in the UK.

Sara Knight, a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, believes early years practitioners can incorporate the wilder and riskier elements of outdoor play into their planning - something that she believes is currently being neglected in many UK settings.

She said: “We owe it to the futures of individual children and to a healthy society to foster habits of adventurous outdoor activities as early as possible. Modern play areas, particularly in some schools, are often not helpful, operating as ‘holding areas’ rather than spaces in which to play.

“A concrete square has few visible risks, and yet children fall or push each other over and accidents happen. It may even be that some of the ‘accidents’ are the result of the limitations of the space, a direct correlation with the sterile safety being offered to the children.

“Perhaps if they had the challenge of a pile of logs to scramble over, the risks would be focused, could be discussed and managed, and learning could take place. There is a thought that if children have exciting reasonable risks to undertake they will be less likely to find unreasonable ones for themselves.”

The issue of risk-taking in playgrounds was highlighted recently when Malvern Primary School, near Liverpool, banned footballs, and parents were told that pupils would only be allowed to bring sponge balls to school.

She said: “The issue at the school in Liverpool would seem to be an unfortunate combination of cramped school playgrounds, where accidents will happen, and nervous teaching staff.

“I have become aware whilst training early years practitioners that not all of them are ready to embrace this message. There are some who are very nervous of outdoor play, and this may be because they are anticipating opposition from managers and colleagues, or because they feel that they lack the necessary expertise.

“I do not believe that Health and Safety legislation has gone too far, what has gone too far is the interpretation of such legislation by professionals who themselves lack experience of risk-taking and who are therefore risk averse. To avoid the grazes, stings and bumps of childhood would be to avoid learning how to manage ourselves and our environment.

“Until teachers are given the tools with which to assess playground risks competently they will continue to over-react in self-defence. I do not blame them, it is a dereliction to accept responsibility for risks that you are not competent to assess. I blame the spiral of education that omits opportunities for risk-taking at school and in training so that each subsequent generation of teachers is more risk averse than the last.”

As well as affecting their emotional and psychological development, Sara believes that the restrictions that limit the energetic play of young children are also having a serious impact on their health.

“It is our outdoor activities, in other words our outings, the climbing and the digging that the children engage in, that will provide our children with the good habits of healthy exercise,” she said. “We owe our children the right to develop their defences against obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

“We lost our mass cultural connection to nature and wild spaces in the industrial revolution, and have never fully got it back. We need to turn around the patterns of access and exercise of all of our children in order to turn around this perspective.

“There is a groundswell of opinion supporting this, linking it to the rise in obesity and the need for education for sustainable development. And risk is an essential element of creativity. Without creativity we have no innovation, and without innovation our industrial, technological and research industries are dead in the water.”

Sara describes the importance of creating exciting outdoor experiences for children in a new book called Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play: Learning from Forest Schools.

Every Child Journal