“We play with mud and sticks,” says Sally O’Donnell, a mother of five from Donegal.
“They say the best thing you can give a child is a stick, because it can be a broom, it can be a horse, it can be a sword, it can be lots of things. Just like jumping in the puddles, you can play lots of things like chasing shadows.”
Sally opened the first private forest preschool in Ireland when she started Glen Outdoor Early Learning Centre ten years ago.
Now, hers is one of many preschools in Ireland that a Scandinavian model of outdoor childcare.
“I did a course with the open college network in Northern Ireland and they talked about forest schools, and it was a lightbulb moment.”
“I went to Norway and Scotland, and I thought anything that can be done in Norway can be done here. The weather in Norway would be -16 celsius.”
“We see that there’s less sickness in the outdoors, and we fill out less accident forms. Over the 10 years, I can honestly say the accident forms can fit into one ring binder. Children are padded and dressed for the outside; they’re prepared for it – they’re warm and cosy.”
She added: “It’s really about getting children out into nature and being aware of nature and making them resilient. Learning to judge and measure everything - they’ll know to try the branch of the tree before they put their weight on it.”
Sophie Nichol, manager of Nature Kindergarten at Park Academy Childcare on the Kilruddery Estate, Co Wicklow, agrees that children in outdoor creches have a honed ability to problem solve on their own. In the five-acre space the children have to roam in Kilruddery, there are trees, logs, a tepee, and wildlife like robins and pheasants to keep them company.
“For their physical development, it’s a big space and the children are running over undulated terrain; there are roots popping up; their core strength is better, their hand-eye coordination is better; there are ropes to climb on; there’s tree climbing; a tyre swing which is very popular with the children. They’re working all of their different muscle groups during the day.”
“I would have had teachers from other settings coming here on a training trip and they’d comment on the children’s independence and confidence and their life skills. They see them taking off their own wellies and wet gear, and they know if they’re a bit cold to put another coat on. We teach them a lot about resilience and team work.”
There is no life, Roald Dahl wrote, to compare with pure imagination. Because, Dahl explained: “Living there, you’ll be free."
And there’s nothing like nature to inspire the imagination.
“It’s open-ended play,” Sally explains. “They could be farming or flying to America. It’s just endless what the imagination can do. It could be maybe a plane passing by… the outdoors inspires that instant moment that sparks their imagination.”
A recent rainy day, Sophie remembers, might have hushed the nation indoors. Met Eireann’s measurement station at Dublin Airport recorded 15.7mm of rain. But the children at Park Academy Nature Kindergarten were outside playing in the rain.
“We were outdoors all day. The children adore the rain. They have the right layers, the right outdoor gear. We made rafts for conkers. We made a river, the children used plastic spades to make a river in the woods, and we made boats out of wax paper and put the conkers on it and floated them down the river.”
She offers: “International mud day is a huge favourite. We get as much mud as we can and soak each other with mud.”
“We don’t have toys on site, so we don’t have barbies or plastic cars. We just have open-ended materials like logs and tyres, and from that we make what we want to do.”
“It’s very natural for them. It’s a sensory and tactile environment. We have robins that sit on the log with the children, and there’s a pheasant who comes and roams around.”
“You just need the appropriate gear and knowledge of weather patterns, I check the weather every single morning.”
Sophie hastily qualifies though that wind is a different matter. During Storm Ali in September for example, the children were playing safely indoors.
“We’re very fortunate in that we go to our Bray crèche on high wind days. Any time there’s a wind warning we go to our nearby crèche. For rain, we don’t have any issues. Children adore the rain. And we have a sheltered area here and a tepee where they can stay. With wind we don’t take any chances.”