Into the wild - Ireland's first nature kindergarten
A new kindergarten in Wicklow believes nature is the best educator and prompts children to develop and learn by using all of their senses outdoors.
If you go down to the woods today, and those woods happen to be in the grounds of the beautiful Killruddery House in Bray, Co Wicklow, you'll probably trip right over a gang of pre-schoolers haring around their tree-filled wonderland.
The first Nature Kindergarten in Ireland has opened its doors in a five-acre site at the foot of the Little Sugarloaf, and is already proving a hit with parents and children alike, despite our challenging climate.
The morning I visit is bitterly cold. The temperature is hovering just a few degrees above zero and fat, icy drops of rain escape through the canopy of trees overhead and trickle down my neck.
And yet 18 little people, the youngest of whom is just two and a half, are scampering around the woodland paths with big smiles on their faces, oblivious to the cold.
They're so well wrapped up in thermal and waterproof layers and so engaged with their outdoor playground, they seem to hardly notice the weather.
If anything, it's not wet enough. "The bigger the puddles, the better," says kindergarten manager Sarah Quinn, whose son Mark is among the gang of little people playing in the forest. "You should have seen them the other day when it was lashing. They had a ball."
Covered head-to-toe in muck, their small faces beam out of fleecy balaclavas as they take me on a guided tour of their unique kindergarten.
There's the friendship swing, the climbing ropes, the outdoor theatre, the rabbit-hole which the children watch carefully for signs of wildlife, the fairy tree, the vegetable patch where the kids will plant carrots and strawberries in the spring, and the fallen log which doubles as a balance beam.
Then there's the campfire, piled high with logs the children have helped chop and firesticks they've whittled down themselves.
The air is thick with the heady scent of eucalyptus; the oil-filled leaves are added to the fire to help it burn on damp days. Swirls of smoke escape upwards into the trees, adding to the otherworldy, Tolkien-esque atmosphere.
At the heart of the kindergarten sits the log cabin, a cosy haven with a log-burning stove, where the children eat their lunch, listen to stories and, when all the running around gets the better of them, have an occasional nap.
The first educator to recognise the importance of outdoor play in children's development was Friedrich Froebel, who founded the kindergarten movement in the 1830s.
Since then a number of educational methods have incorporated the notion of learning through nature, notably the Steiner and forest schools, of which there are already a handful in Ireland.
The 'nature kindergarten' model used in Bray began in Scotland in 2006 and soon spread across Europe, proving particularly popular in Scandinavia.
Having visited the Scottish facility, Park Academy, already an established crèche chain, set about opening an Irish version.
They leased the five acre woodland copse from the Brabazon family, who own the Killruddery stately home. Once the site had been properly fenced in, the cabin built, the swings and spiders web in place, they were ready to open their doors last summer.
The idea is that children immerse themselves in nature and learn through it. Learning is child-led, with the adults supporting their development.
A typical day begins with the children being dropped at the facility's indoor facility, a half a mile down the road.
Just after 9am, they are brought by minibus down to Killruddery, where, with the exception of lunchtime, they'll spend the whole day outdoors before returning to the crèche a little after 4pm.
The only conditions which keep them indoors are extremely high winds due to the danger of falling branches.
While the kindergarten looks much like an outdoor adventure park, each structure has an educational purpose, prompting children to learn and develop through the use of all their senses.
"We all know about our five senses, but we also have a vestibular sense, which is to do with our inner ear balance, and something called proprioception, which is our spatial awareness," explains Sarah.
"Children don't naturally know where their fingers are. They have to develop links between fingers and brains through their spatial awareness.
"So by having swings which help with their balance, and climbing trees, or running on an uneven surface, the children are developing the links between their muscles, joints and their brains.
"They think they are just playing, but they are laying the foundations to learn to read and write."
They're also learning about team-work and problem solving. The spider's web for instance - a large trampoline-like net, five feet off the ground and secured by trees in each corner - can only be used by four children at any given time.
So the children need to organise themselves in such a way that everyone gets a fair go, which hones their conflict resolution skills and helps them develop problem-solving abilities.
"We talk about trying to prepare children for the smart economy, to create problem solvers," says Dr Geraldine French, an early childhood education specialist.
"But the thing is we don't know what the world will be like next year or in the next decade. All we know is it will change.
"But outdoors, the children can see that change happens all the time. They see the weather change constantly, and the seasons change, and the animals around them.
"The sheer unpredictability of the outdoors is hugely challenging cognitively for children.
"I would love to see more of this kind of thing in Ireland. Children should be outdoors all the time. They respond very well to that sense of freedom.
"Studies show children deemed 'challenging' by adults in Ireland are much happier and better behaved in the outdoors because there are fewer restrictions.
"And reticent children are more likely to come out of themselves because they have the freedom to be themselves.
"Just think about the opportunity for learning the outdoors presents - you pick up a rock and God knows what's underneath."
Dr French is right: there are no iPads and no plastic toys here in the woods, and in their absence, everything becomes a potential toy.
Watching the children at play, you can see how the natural environment becomes alive in their imagination.
A fallen tree is not just a fallen tree, it is a balance beam.
A parting in the ferns could be a fox's den or a badger's sett. The fairies live in the tree and they use a little door to come in and out.
Probably the most striking feature of watching the group at work and at play is how easily they pitch in with one another to work together as a team for the task in hand, whether it be lighting the campfire, building a ropeswing or chopping firewood.
They are brimming with confidence too - our photographer doesn't have to ask twice for the little people to pose for his camera. No hiding behind adult legs here. There are falls, sure, and occasional cuts and bruises, which is why the kindergarten is not for everyone.
But in an era where Nature Deficit Disorder is an officially recognised condition, there can be few parents who wouldn't love the idea of their kids spending all day outdoors in such a fresh, healthy environment.
And in the midst of an obesity crisis, the sheer volume of exercise the kids get each day will also be a major draw for parents keen to get their kids off the couch and moving.
The health benefits don't just stop there. Spending so much time in the open air means fewer coughs and colds.
The staff, too, feel the benefits - staff member Andy Noble tells me he's lost five stone since beginning work at the kindergarten.
Some parents, says Sarah, are concerned their toddlers will be unable to cope with the discipline required when finally they arrive in 'big school' and have to adapt to an indoor environment.
But this is not the case. While it looks like the kids are running around and playing, they are learning to concentrate and focus, whether it be through tasks like whittling down wood to make sticks for the fire, working in a team to make a new rope swing, or simply listening to a story during a break in the cabin.
The children are also following Aistear, the National Curriculum Framework, which sets out learning goals and guidelines for pre-schoolers, and all of their learning and development is documented.
There are 18 places in the kindergarten at present, both part-time and full-time, and all are full. There is a waiting list and Park Academy expects the facility to expand to meet growing demand in the years ahead. Once children are toilet-trained, they are ready for the kindergarten.
Currently there are 15 boys and three girls, an imbalance staff say is simply down to parents believing the outdoor activities better suit little boys.
But staff insist girls enjoy the adventurous environment just as much as boys.
And watching the three little girls on the day I visit, that's patently true - they are attacking each task with every bit as much enthusiasm as the boys, getting stuck in, dirty and not caring about it at all.
Also very much in evidence is the genuine enthusiasm the crèche managers have for the children in their care.
"We want them to be resilient and if they leave here with confidence, self esteem and a can-do approach, we'd be happy with that," says Sarah. "That's our goal here."
As we reluctantly leave the kindergarten to return to the office, both myself and the photographer agree that we wish we were kids again, swinging high above the damp earth, learning and playing, deep in the woods.
Ciara Watkins' son Alex (4) attends the kindergarten until lunchtime, five days a week
"I signed him up as soon as I could," she says. "He turned four in June and he started in September. Since he started, I've noticed that he's become much more physically confident. It used to be that you'd go to a playground and he'd ask you to hold his hand, but now it's no bother to him.
"He's much more stable and he doesn't fall. He's faster, too - he used not to be able to keep up with his cousin, who is a real livewire, but he can now.
"He can work things out better for himself and his concentration has improved. When I bring him to his swimming lesson, he'll sit at the side of the pool and listen to the teacher - he never did that before.
"I've noticed that his numbers and his letters are so much better, probably from doing things like counting sticks that he gets for the fire or counting twigs and leaves.
"He taught my parents to make charcoal the other day - what four-year-old could do that?
"He's much healthier too, the only cold he's had since he started was when he was at home with us over Christmas.
"When I go up to collect him, he doesn't want to come home. The other kids surround him and hide him from me!
"I have a little girl now, Saibh - she's only six months old and I'm going to sign her up immediately. Any time I've been up there, the girls are just as involved as the boys."
Health & Living