At the end of January we were delighted to host a visit from the board of Childcare International, a Dutch organisation that aims to facilitate and support the international exchange of knowledge and experience in early years provision. As a result of their visit, when we took them to see three of our nurseries and a forest school session, they have now arranged two study trips to bring more delegates to the UK to visit our sites. They also invited myself and my colleague Laura to visit them in Utrecht, where I gave a talk on Acorn’s outdoor ethos, and we visited an eco-kindergarten and an inspiring outdoor after-school club. It was a fantastic trip that gave us further inspiration for developing our own provision, and we received some great feedback on what we told them about our approach. 

At the seminar, we had to rely on an abbreviated translation of the other speakers’ presentations, which were all in Dutch, but we understood enough of the keynote speaker, Janneke Hagenaar, to learn about her research into language development of children, comparing the amount and complexity of language being used when children were indoors and outdoors – no prizes for guessing which generated the best results! Janneke is passionate about the importance of children growing up connected to nature, and it was lovely to realise how many of my own slides overlapped in content with hers, with messages that were very complementary.

It sometimes feels that the UK lags behind Scandinavia and parts of Europe in the field of outdoor play and learning, but Margaret McMillan, whose words are often quoted – “the best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky” – created an open air nursery in Deptford in East London, nearly 100 years ago. A few generations of increasingly risk-averse early years provision led to a situation where some nurseries do not regularly take their children outdoors, and when they do, all too often they are only provided with safety surfacing and artificial grass. At Acorn, we have always embraced the outdoors and we are passionate about taking children out all year round and wherever possible into natural environments. As we come into the summer months (though at the time of writing it’s looking anything other than summery outside) several of our nurseries will be encouraging their babies and younger children to sleep outside at nap time. This was one of the fascinating comparisons with Holland, as they also put their babies down to sleep outside, but in spaces that are much more confined than the areas we use.

There were many similarities between the eco-kindergarten that we visited and our Acorn nurseries; a similar emphasis on outdoor play and learning, for example, and natural resources, but the Pikler approach in their baby room seemed a little rigid to us (no mirrors on the baby room wall, for example, so as not to confuse them) and we had a fascinating discussion with the pedagogues there about the ways in which provision differed. We were then blown away by the outdoor out-of-school club that we visited, and we came away wondering whether and how we might be able to replicate some of the ideas. At ‘BSO Vrijland Amersfoot’ the children spend 99% of their time outdoors, and they arrive from a variety of schools using covered cargo bikes ridden by one of the playworkers, accompanied by some of the older children on their own bikes. They are not based in one place, but use a variety of different outdoor locations, and at the end of their session the children are taken home! The only constant is the “safety of a permanent basic group of friends” and children are encouraged to develop in freedom, away from safety surfaced playgrounds and indoor activities with screens. The reliance on bikes for all of the transport is a very Dutch feature, and would be one of the barriers to setting up a similar provision here, but the club seems to attract a very energetic and enthusiastic team of playworkers, more than half of which are male. The children were clearly having a fantastic time in the beautiful outdoor setting that we visited.

We are very much looking forward to working with Childcare International again, and to their next visits to us, which are planned for the end of May and November this year. Sharing ideas with international sector colleagues is hugely valuable, engaging in professional discourse and discussions about how best to provide the very best in early years care and education. My colleague Santa and I are also looking forward to more international sharing of ideas when we go to Brighton in September to present at the European Early Childhood Education Research Association (EECERA) conference. Santa will be presenting her work on sustainability in the early years, and I’ll be talking about the importance of embedding an ethic of care in early years provision. Our chair of trustees, Professor Eva Lloyd OBE, is also presenting a paper at the conference, so we’re looking forward to placing Acorn firmly within the realms of thought leadership in the early years sector. We’re always keen to learn from others, and to bring fresh ideas and inspiration back into our Acorn settings. 

Zoe Raven