Outdoor play in Scotland: way back to the future

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Child adds a rock to a cairn

Henry Mathias is Head of Professional Standards and Practice at The Care Inspectorate. All views expressed in this blog post are his own.


I imagine some of you reading this share my feelings of upset and perhaps even some secondary trauma from recent events. There I was getting my head, heart and hands round the implications of the climate emergency, when along came Covid bringing home and exacerbating Scotland’s world leading levels of inequity and ACEs. With over a quarter of Scottish children of primary school age diagnosed with additional support needs before the pandemic, what on earth would it be like now? Given the rising tides of children’s obesity, stress and suicide, plus the rising tide itself, what to do? And then Ukraine happened.

Digging deep into my previous personal and professional learning, I guess I first needed to understand that what I am feeling is a natural response, shared by others. And that there are so many positives, particularly for early learning and childcare (ELC), to help overcome despair, regain some sense of control and improve our collective lived experience.

Reasons to be cheerful: Part 1
We know what works for children, we have the antidote! Outdoor play, adventurous play and exploring natural environments are good for everyone’s mind, body and soul, with a wealth of recent research confirming how much children benefit. For example, Helen Dodd of Exeter University highlights Piccininni et al’s (2018) finding that the more time children spend outdoors, the better their mental health. Similarly, Jo, Song and Miyazaki (2019) that “natural environments reduce physiological markers of stress” and Soga et al’s (2021) that “greenspace use and green views are both associated with increased self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness”. Commissioned by the Scottish Government, Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities set out the evidence in comprehensive literature reviews of the benefits of outdoor learning on children’s educational outcomes for sustainability and health and wellbeing respectively.

We also know that if children are afforded the precious opportunity to self-direct their own play, they will play out what’s concerning them and gain control and resilience to cope with trauma. Suzanne Egan’s preliminary findings from the University of Limerick’s PLEY Survey reports more than a third of children actively incorporating Covid into their play.

We know that Scotland is in a different place regarding outdoor play and risk compared to the rest of the UK. The British Children’s Play Survey carried out in 2020 by Professor Dodd and others indicates that children in Scotland are allowed out of the house on their own to play on average more than a year before those in Wales and all regions of England. For the East of England, the average was almost two years older than the average age for children in Scotland.


Reasons to be cheerful: Part 2
We can celebrate just how much progress we’ve made regarding outdoor play in Scotland. The struggle to agree that the benefits of outdoor nurseries outweighed the infection control risks now seems many moons ago. And who would have thought that in our new Covid world, outdoor nurseries would end up as our safest ELC setting?
Outdoor play has become fully embedded and mainstreamed as part of the expansion of funded ELC, with the active backing of the Scottish Government and both inspectorates. The Health and Social Care Standards express children’s rights to play outdoors, explore a natural environment and direct their own play as practical expectations rather than vague aspirations:

“As a child, I play outdoors every day and regularly explore a natural environment.”
“As a child, I can direct my own play and activities in the way that I choose, and freely access a wide range of experiences and resources suitable for my age and stage, which stimulate my natural curiosity, learning and creativity.”

The Scottish Government’s National Standard for ELC providers reflects this expectation, with sub-criteria 3.2 stating: “Children have daily access to outdoor play and they regularly experience outdoor play in a natural environment as part of their funded ELC offer.” The Care Inspectorate’s quality framework for ELC includes the following indicator of a very good service: “Opportunities are provided for children to learn about sustainability and caring for their natural environment”. And it is also heartening that Scotland’s Human Rights Bill is likely to include a right to a healthy environment.



No need to mind the implementation gap here, as the statutory bodies are putting money where their mouth is through funding, training and a whole suite of practice resources. Since the Care Inspectorate’s My World Outdoors, the Scottish Government has produced Space to Grow and Out to Play. Education Scotland has produced Realising the Ambition and Successful approaches to learning outdoors. These resources provide detailed hands- on guides for practitioners working in different settings and are widely admired and used both within and outwith Scotland. We have established a comprehensive and integrated approach to nature pedagogy and child-led inquiry, which genuinely reflects play-based learning and Froebelian principles. Within this framework, children can experience Tina Bruce’s “freedom with guidance” and wallow in their outdoor play with utmost impact. At this point, a nod towards our world-renowned resident outdoor guru, Juliet Robertson and Creative Star Learning, is due. Her next instalment ‘Caring for our wee green spaces’ is much anticipated!

Alongside statutory policy and funding, a strong independent sector network has now taken root in developing outdoor play. Inspiring Scotland and Thrive Outdoors are providing national leadership, harnessing support for Scotland’s National Outdoor Play and Learning Position Statement. The National Network for Outdoor Learning (NNOL) has been established, with members including Learning through Landscapes Scotland, Play Scotland and the Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education (SAPOE). All these organisations provide a range of hands-on advice, support and training. There is also an expanding offer of specialist courses and qualifications, with Outdoor and Woodland Learning Scotland (WL Scotland) and Claire Warden’s Mindstretchers Academy and Virtual Nature School complementing the further and higher education provision for outdoor education and childhood practice.

Now all these standards, policies and guidance are one thing, but it’s the services and practitioners of course who are making the change. That children’s everyday experience of the outdoors while in ELC has been transformed is evident for all to see. Not just from the Care Inspectorate’s inspection reports and the registration of indoor-outdoor services, but also from how green and interesting nursery outdoor spaces are becoming and from how many groups of nursery children are seen out and about in our communities and green spaces.

A further cause for celebration is the fantastic flourishing of nature nurseries and fully outdoor services. Since The Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife was licensed as the UK’s first forest kindergarten in 2008, their growth continues apace, with over 40 fully outdoor services now registered in Scotland – more pro rata than the rest of the UK. They have branched out to include wilded brownfield sites in urban areas, as well as a wider range of rural locations, nature nurseries run by local authorities and an increasing number of outdoor out of school care. I wonder how long before we start seeing specialist outdoor- based services for adults? And what a buzz there is about outdoor-based provision, with a dynamic and diverse workforce who believe in what they’re doing. There’s a real strength to this diversity and outdoor nurseries are no longer a part-time upper middle class preserve. And speaking personally as a man working in the ELC sector since the late 1980s, male role models were thin on the ground until the emergence of specialist outdoor practitioners. Puddle Patter, podcast interviews from Stramash’s Cameron Sprague, certainly kept me going through the lockdowns and continues to inspire.

At the Thrive Outdoors conference in May, the Minister for Children and Young People described outdoor play in Scotland as “a movement, a revolution”. This has been built over a considerable period by committed practitioners, academics and policy makers, themselves standing on the shoulders of early pioneers, all working to a common aim. In Scotland we often excel within our individual silos of practice, research or policy, but they do not always join up to make change happen nationally. For outdoor play, we are seeing authentic entanglement in action. The outdoor play movement is also connected to a wider environmental, artistic, community and cultural renaissance happening across Scotland, with many spheres of public life aligning around a common place-based narrative. It’s difficult keeping track of it all, which is usually a reliable indicator of something big happening, but for ELC I’ve been following the work of The Shieling Project in Beauly, Feis Rois, and Dandelion with great interest.


Reasons to be cheerful: Part 3
Such a rich legacy we have inherited! To know where we’re going, to fully explore the possibilities gifted by our time and place, it helps to know where we’ve come from. rom the world’s first nursery school at New Lanark in the 18th century, to the Child Gardens of the early 20th, outdoor play was central to the origins of ELC in Scotland. This tradition has been recognised and celebrated by Aline-Wendy Dunlop and Suzanne Zeedyk and featured in my previous paper Seeing the Wood for the Trees. But to really get what nature play meant to our pioneers, there’s no better place than Lileen Hardy’s 1910 The Diary of a Free Kindergarten.

PICTURE Child Gardens in Edinburgh early 20th Century ©BAECE

Scotland’s strong environmental, outdoor education and Outward Bound heritage brings another influence that has got us here. And I guess our location is absolutely no coincidence in all this. Looking back further into the mists of time, I wonder if our Gaelic, Scots and Norse heritage could lead the way to a wealth of opportunities for ELC and outdoor play going forward? We know about the Te Whariki and Koori ELC indigenous curriculums from New Zealand and Australia, and Canada’s First Nations ELC Framework, with the Common Worlds Research Collective weaving powerful connections between place-based pedagogy, indigenous cultures and care for the environment. But what about closer to home? Just looking at Gaelic culture, this could offer us a portal to a deeper and more respectful understanding and appreciation of nature and a new less exploitative way of being in our environment. Roddy Maclean first opened this door for me writing about the richness of Gaelic place names for NatureScot and I am indebted to Alastair Davidson, Lecturer in Childhood Practice at the University of the Highlands and Islands, for his work developing the Ar Tir educational programme. Alistair signposted me to James Hunter’s On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands and to John Murray’s Reading the Gaelic Landscape, which have been revelatory.

Just understanding Gaelic place names opens up a whole new world. Roddy Maclean reveals the traces of what lies beneath OS maps to let us see what Scotland used to be like and what was here before: animals, trees, plants and, of course, people. Places such as Creag a Chait, crag of the wildcat in Morar, Coire nan Madadh, corrie of the wolf on Ben Bhuirich, or Leitir Fura, hillside of oaks in Skye.

I knew about the Inuits having 50 words for snow and about the Amazon rainforest, but not about the Gaels having over 100 words for peat and about Scotland’s rainforest. Robert Macfarlane writes about ‘Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary’ citing over 120 terms from just three townships. Evocative words like eit, which translates as the practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn. Or rionnach maoim, shadows cast on the moorland by mackerel cumulous clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day. Here’s words telling a thousand pictures.

Gaelic has similarly imaginative lexicons for all natural features and the vocabulary of trees and waterways for example engagingly represent the human body, with the main trunk branching out to the fingertips. Gaelic names on their own tell so many stories and connect us intimately with the environment. Gaelic for the St John’s Wort plant is Achlasan Challum Chille, St Columba’s armpit package, describing the 1st century mystic’s herbal self-healing practice.

Silverweed is Seachdamh aran a Ghaidheil, the seventh bread of the Gael, from its roots being ground up for meal when harvests failed.

And that’s just the terminology alone, before encountering the music, dance, song, legends and poetry. For someone who grew up on the likes of Wordsworth and Keats, exploring Gaelic poetry has been both a mind and heart-opener. There’s no misty-eyed romantic enrapture here, but the most keenly observed, grounded yet sublime portrayal of nature I’ve ever come across. Even in translation and the oral tradition in written form, poets like Alexander MacDonald and Duncan Ban MacIntyre enchantingly capture the wonder of the natural world and our place within it. As James Hunter explains, the Gaels got this environmental movement thing 1000 years before the rest of Europe and somehow managed to keep the flame lit, albeit through the glass darkly. If you’re in the business of finding golden threads for your work, look no further.


‘A big cairn is made of small stones’
So, what could all this mean for ELC? Bord na Gaidhlig and the Storlann Naiseanta na Gaidhlig website have developed a comprehensive curriculum for Gaelic Medium Education. Developing Gaelic influenced play for mainstream ELC needs accessible and engaging ways in, and thankfully there’s no shortage. The work of Feis Rois and WL Scotland’s Aibidil na Ghaidhlig le Craobhan, The Gaelic alphabet through trees, are good starters, but the potential entry points – those thin places – are thick on the ground. Roddy Macleanxi tantalisingly hints at finding children’s rhymes and games collected in the 1960s from the Gaelic oral tradition, which are all based on the mimicry of birds such as the robin, skylark, oystercatcher, crow and corncrake.

With our ELC world dominated by Disney and Frozen, who better to lead us there than the faeries themselves, hiding in plain sight? We’re not talking wispy, highly gendered fairies with wings here, more your genuine Scottish version, real faeries as feared as much as loved. The Gaidhealtachd is teeming with magical faerie places to be rediscovered. I thought I knew about Schiehallion, how much it weighs and its pull on gravity, but I was ignorant of pre-enlightenment Schiehallion, the fairy hill of the Caledonians, and its pull on the heart strings. But it’s your local sithean, fairy hill or well drained mound covered in grass, that will really bring it alive. As Emily Reid of Eco Drama helpfully advises, we shouldn’t be afraid to give a slight twist on reality that leaves space for the imagination. Gaelic inspired play should be about children entering and owning the spirit rather than adults imparting prescriptive, fixed knowledge or narratives.

Gaelic’s oral culture reminds us of the power of storytelling without books. ELC practitioners can draw from the wealth of Gaelic folklore, such as the legends associated with the awesome Cailleach, wise woman and goddess of winter. How she waits till the whirlpool of Corrievreckan reaches its height during the autumn storms, washes her clothes white in it, then throws them over the mountain tops covering them in white for the winter.

Or how the Cailleach and her family were once given shelter in Glen Lyon and she showed her gratitude by leaving carved stones guaranteeing peace and prosperity as long as they were cared for. And so the stones have been looked after to this day at the shrine of the Cailleach, at what is supposed to be the site of the longest continuous religious worship in Europe.

We could also share the story of the young Fionn MacCool, living secretly in a specially made treehouse in the middle of the forest and gaining his superpower by touching the salmon of knowledge while it was being cooked. After putting his burning finger in his mouth, he then just needs to touch his tooth of knowledge to access infinite wisdom.

There is such affinity between Gaelic culture and our ELC pioneers like Friedrich Froebel, Rudolph Steiner and Margaret McMillan, as indeed there is with modern play theory. David Sobel talks about the importance of children grounding their play in “special places” and why they are innately obsessed with maps, trails and dens. Bob Hughes also highlights symbolic play and a spiritual dimension to play, showing how children use these to make sense of their world and resolve trauma. The stone circles, standing stones, burial chambers, faery mounds and holy wells… it’s all there in the Gaidhealtachd in such abundance. And that’s just the Gaelic heritage, without drawing on Norse, Doric, Scots and Traveller cultures. Like seeing the local patch that we share from the more than human perspective of the animals, trees and plants, taking the old ways of our ancients offers us a lot to play with and much enlightenment.



Further reading
– Christie, B. and Higgins, P. University of Edinburgh (2020) The Educational Outcomes of Learning for Sustainability: A Brief Review of Literature. Scottish Government.
– Egan, S. (2020 – preliminary findings) Play and Learning in the Early Years Survey. Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.
– Dodd, H. et al (2021) Results from the British Children’s Play Survey. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
– Johnstone, A. McCrorie, P. Thomson, H. Wells, V. and Martin, A. University of Glasgow (2021) Systematic literature review of nature-based Early Learning and Childcare on children’s health, wellbeing and development. Scottish Government.
– Hardy, L. (1910) The Diary of a Free Kindergarten. Forgotten Books.
– Hunter, J. (1995) On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands. viii Murray, J. (2019) Reading the Gaelic Landscape. Whittle’s Publishing.
– Maclean, R. (2021) Place-Names of Inverness and Surrounding Area. NatureScot.
– Macfarlane, R. (2012) The Old Ways. Penguin Books.
– Macfarlane, R. (2015) Landmarks. Penguin Books.
– Maclean, R. (2021) Ecosystem Services and Gaelic: a Scoping Exercise. NatureScot Research Report No. 1230.
– Mathias, H (2018) Seeing the Wood for the Trees. Care Inspectorate.

Henry Mathias is Head of Professional Standards and Practice at The Care Inspectorate. All views expressed in this blog post are his own.