Analysis of outdoor education in Slovenian kindergartens and elementary schools
Slovenia has perfect natural conditions for outdoor learning and play as most of the schools and kindergartens are surrounded by nature environments such as forests, meadows, marshland or lakes. Even if a school is located in the middle of the capital forest is just a short walk away.
But unfortunately learning or playing in nature is not a part of daily school routine for most Slovenian children in public schools and kindergartens. There are also no laws that would state the mandatory percentage of school day, spent outdoors on the playgrounds or in nature and basically no laws that would deal with other aspects of outdoor learning and play. Outdoor pedagogy is field that is only recently started to get more attention is Slovenia. There are some mostly private and non-profit initiatives that are exploring the possibilities for outdoor education in Slovenia. They are organizing educational courses for teachers and school staff, offer their support and try to influence the public school system.
- Laws and school curriculums
a) Safety standards in school/kindergarten playgrounds
One of the biggest obstacles for creating more unstructured, open-ended and natural playgrounds in the school grounds are national safety standards in school/kindergarten playgrounds. Recreational equipment must be installed in accordance with the strict safety requirements outlined in the Safe Playground Manual, such as type of material, fall protection, distance between them, hight, age requirement etc. These rules are most rigours when it comes to playgrounds in kindergartens as they are inspected by national Health inspection yearly. Elementary school playgrounds also need to follow the safety standards but are supervised not by Health inspection but by various accredited companies.
b) Additional teachers
- Elementary school:
When classes are held outside school grounds (for example, visiting a museum, school field day, visiting forest …) ratio 1 teacher per 15 students must be met. There are usually more than 25 children in a elementary school class, except in 1st grade where there are 2 teachers present most of the day.
It is easier to organize activities outside school grounds, for example in the forest, as there are 2 teachers present in all kindergarten groups. When kindergarten trip involves bus ride, there must be 1 teacher per 8 children present. One of the teachers can be replaced by adult person such as parent.
c) Elementary school curriculum:
There is no mention of outdoor learning in school curricula except for school camps (‘Šola v naravi’, which is literary translated as School in nature). There must be at least two organised by schools in 9 years of elementary schools. They are usually more, but they are optional for children. Themes of this activities are very different, but are usually multidisciplinary and are related to the natural area, where they are held. They often include learning sports such as swimming and skiing.
d) Slovenian preschool/kindergarten curriculum:
There is also no mention of outdoor play, but you can find principals of environmental education, sustainability and health education in many curriculum goals and set activities. All of the set goals and activities could be easily performed and met by learning in nature, so curriculum does not exclude outdoor learning.
2. Playgrounds and outside classrooms
a) Elementary school
All of the Slovenian elementary schools have some sort of outside playgrounds and sport facilities. Playgrounds (usually fenced) are used mostly by younger elementary school children (up to age 9), especially after school and sometimes during recess. Older elementary children spend their time outdoors mostly during gym classes at outside stadiums, football or basketball fields. They have some science days when they explore natural surroundings in their local community or wider area.
Some of the elementary schools developed outside classrooms for learning in nature. Here some of the classes are performed traditionally with for example working sheets, but some focus more on active exploring of nature.
Quite a few elementary (and also secondary) schools developed school ecological gardens (http://www.solskiekovrt.si/), which are also used as outside classrooms. Students learn how to grow their own food, but also do lots of different activities from all school subjects.
Many elementary schools and also kindergartens that regularly or occasionally include forest pedagogy in their work, are part of The Network of Forest Kindergartens and Schools of Slovenia (http://www.gozdnivrtec.si/en/). Project was created and is being developed with the help of kindergartens and schools, the Forest Pedagogy Institute, the National Education Institute of the Republic of Slovenia under its innovation projects. Project promotes use of forest pedagogy and sharing of ideals between schools and kindergartens in Slovenia.
All of the kindergartens must have outside playgrounds. There must be at least 15 m² of outside play area per child (or less if there are other suitable green areas around kindergarten). Playgrounds are usually very structured as legislative standards are quite rigorous. They should have some grass areas and different natural elements (hills, tunnels..). Shade must be provided.
Like elementary schools some of the kindergartens are starting to build outside classrooms, school gardens and forest classrooms or playgrounds. They are usually not built on school grounds as there is no legislative that would deal with this elements. There have been some problems with health inspection in the past. For this areas usually some sort of deal with local municipality is made (they can give kindergartens additional spaces in nature in use). Support of kindergarten government is very important.
Many kindergartens also have school gardens and are a part of The Network of Forest Kindergartens and Schools of Slovenia.
c) Private schools/kindergartens that does not follow public curriculum
In recent years there has been some private initiatives that offer outside learning programmes. They are not financed by state. Slovenian laws does not support Forest schools or kindergartens as they are known in northern European countries.
3. Vrtec Vrhnika, Slovenia
In Vrtec Vrhnika environmental education, sustainable development and learning in nature are part of its strategic goals. They are written in annual work plan.
In everyday school live that means that children spend time outdoors everyday in all safe weather conditions. That excludes storms, extreme heat and cold and high pollution levels that can sometimes occur during foggy winter months. There is no national regulation what are the lowest temperatures for being outdoors. There are also no regulations what is appropriate outside clothing. Responsibility of parents and also teachers is that they provide appropriate clothes for spending time outdoors in every weather. How much time children spent outdoors depends on weather, school work, motivation of teachers and children wishes. It is not rare that children spend the whole day outside. In the summer months, children in some groups have their meals on the outside terrace or under the trees. Some of the classes also held nap time outside. On most days children in Vrtec Vrhnika spend 2-4 hours outside. We do not use any sunscreen or bug repellents. In summer months, children are exposed to sun until 10 am and after 4 pm. In the meantime they spend time in the shady areas of playground, in the forest or inside of kindergarten. In summer months we encourage use of hats and short sleeve T-shirts. After visiting forest parents are reminded to check their children for ticks.
It is insisted by kindergarten government that children spend one day a week (few hours) in the nature, especially forest. Most groups have their forest classrooms which they visit regularly. They can not be altered in any permanent way as they are private or municipally owned.
One unit of Kindergarten Vrhnika has small school gardens. Another unit has large natural area with garden, raised beds, pond, sensory path, fruit trees, chicken coop, mud kitchen and other natural elements. This area is popular for play and learning and is used a lot.
When we look on Vrtec Vrhnika as a whole most of the time children spend outdoors in on playgrounds and on walks in the kindergarten surroundings.
It is mandatory for every public kindergarten to set one priority goal for each school year. In the school year 2019/20 priority goal of Vrtec Vrhnika is play in nature. Through play in nature, children will learn how to be responsible for themselves, for nature and others, respectful and accept diversity. We set different activities, structured and unstructured ones in nature. From September to May we will track the progress of children, especially the their play development.