Vrtec Vrhnika, Slovenia

  • Participants: Anja Petelin, Neža Petrovčič, Lara Zajc


    1. Benefits of outdoor educations and its importance for sustainable development

    This project meeting was attended by three participants from Slovenia. We are female preschool teachers, all at the beginning of our careers. We teach children aged 3- 6 year old and do include outdoor education and other sustainable practices in our school work. We believe that outdoor education is crucial for sustainable development and it also has many benefits for young children and students, but also teachers. From a point of view of sustainable development, outdoor learning is beneficial practice as it uses a less energy than teaching in inside classrooms. You do not need to turn on lights, interactive whiteboards, computers, projectors. As you try to incorporate natural materials which are available in nature, there is less artificial materials and teaching resources used. For example, sticks can be used as pencils, mud as notebooks, stones as counting tool etc. There is less water consumption, heating, paper etc. Outdoor education also has benefits for children and teachers. As nowadays people tend to spend more time indoors, being outside helps them to connect with nature. If you have a relationship with nature, understand its importance and benefits, you will probably do more to keep it clean. Nature has a calming effect on most people. In age of technology and fast way of living it can be beneficial for mental health of people, including children. Children learn a lot by movement and outdoor education offers a lot more possibilities for movement than standard classroom. It develops children and teachers creativity as they need to work with materials and conditions as provided in nature. With outdoor education there is a lot more hands on activities than with standard teaching which is also important for children who learn successfully by doing. Learning and playing in nature incorporates all senses which deepen learned skills and knowledge. Nature can be inspiration or motivation for different activities. It can be tricky for teachers to manage their class in the same way as indoors, and sometimes additional teachers should be provided for safety reasons. Children should first have the opportunity to discover natural habitats freely, play, use resources, climb, run etc. and only then do guided lessons. Rules and expectations should be discussed and followed.

    Nature is our most precious playground and we should treat it as such. Letting the children freely interact with it gives them a chance to get to really know it, feel it and grow fond of it. They possess qualities we do not have anymore – a never ending curiosity, a blank mental slate and fearlessness. The material we offer them often comes with a set of rules and guidelines, but nature offers just the opposite.

    2. What changed in our kindergarten since starting the project

    In Vrtec Vrhnika we have a strong tradition of spending time outdoors – in the playgrounds and also in the nearby forests and other ecosystems. So time spent outdoors did not really increased, but we started doing more guided play and activities that would normally be done inside outside in the nature. What also increased it documentation of these activities – as we do publish some of them on Facebook page and on eTwinning, teachers are taking more photos and writing down descriptions. What happened on the     organisational level of our kindergarten is that partly because of the project, playing and learning in nature became a priority topic of school year 2019/2020 which is discussed in different meetings, reports and must be practised in all age groups. Because of the project all of the five unites improved their playgrounds and outside areas with natural and unstructured materials. There is also a ongoing discussion of building more permanent structures such as mud kitchens, sensory paths etc. We will be publishing an internal  handbook of examples of activities in the nature which we will also share with project partners.

    3. Reflection of the meeting

    The thing that struck us most about Preili free school was what can be achieved when a group of determined, likeminded people work together towards a common goal. They built something out of need, because the public school system is only accommodating to a certain type – a certain type of children, parents, methods. Usually we just go along with what is offered to us, but they found a way, although we are sure not easy, to create something to fit their needs. For this you need a great deal of courage, determination, knowledge and cooperation, to name a few. Based on what we have seen and heard it was not/is not an easy ride, but what fuels them is the goal, which is and should be the children. We think we often forget about them in our line of work, because of all the other factors involved – having to follow certain regulations and law restrictions, having to take into account all sorts of different views and wishes from parents, having different opinions amongst ourselves. But this reminded us that we have to set all that aside and try and focus on what is good for the next generation, even if we need to work around the rules and laws a little.

    Observing children playing in the woods, not having to mind their speed or loudness was freeing to us as well. Not only that, it reminded us of why taking care of our land is most important. It evoked a kind of primal side in us where all we needed was some nature, air, the sun and good people to be happy. All the rest felt like junk. Unnecessary. Almost worthless. And yet, that is what we tend to focus on in our regular lives. So this experience sort of woke us up, shook us a little bit, and reminded us of what truly is important in our lives.

    Being in unfamiliar environment forced us into observing ourselves and how we operate. We found that if we do not avoid things that are a bit scary, as going abroad, staying in a small house with more than 10 unknown people, communicating in English etc. we too, just like children, are allowed to change and evolve into something different, hopefully better. That is what we would like to offer to younger ones as well. A chance for them to explore who they are or better yet, who they want to be. And what better space  than soft grounds of grass beneath and open skies above for them to do that. Certainly, working with a large group of people in a restricted environment has its limitations. Having to take care of 24 children, keeping them all safe and making time for all them is next to impossible. Not a day goes by that we only get to say hello and goodbye to one or a few children, usually the quiet, seemingly self-sufficient ones. But we try and remind ourselves that even this awareness is enough sometimes. Same goes for knowing that along with giving the children freedom, we also have to prepare them for school and the reality of the world, which requires them sitting at a table for a period of time, following instructions, being frustrated and disappointed at themselves, failing, being angry and sad, giving them limits and rules they have to follow and them being angry with me for it. And yet, we are always surprised at how they show gratitude for all that as well and it tells us that they need it too. This again brings us back to the people we work with, not only colleagues at our kindergarten but people we meet on our professional way such as partners in this project.  Being able to express doubts, fears and victories, having debates, bouncing off ideas, learning from them ... it makes it all worth it. Here we were, a group of people coming from different parts of Europe, finding common language, becoming friends and in some way colleagues. It was all possible because of the thoughts we share and ideas we are trying to make real.

    Organisation of the meeting was great as there was time for discussion and also some job shadowing. Aija and her team made sure that we felt part of the school in that three days. Staying in the same house was also brilliant idea as we got closer as a group and did part of the team-building activities in our free time. It is amazing that even though we shared a small space, there were no conflict and spirits were high all the time. We did talk about how we can save some time and even improve future meetings in organisation term.

    4. New ideas that we can incorporate in our school work

    The thing we are trying to incorporate in our teaching since we came back is giving the children more time to develop their play without us interfering, to make mistakes and learn from them on their own terms, to fall and get a couple of bruises but improve their balance, to letting them do their own thing and be surprised at the result. It thought us  to be patient and follow their rhythm, because that is how they will learn best.

    Activity with local forester was not really new for us. We have similar projects going on in Slovenia. But we did get some idea how to ask children meaningful questions and get new some knowledge about Latvian forests. By participating in forest activity with the school children we saw differences between Vrtec Vrhnika and Preili free school. We do lack forest outdoor spaces like the one in Preili in Slovenia.  We usually have spaces in the forest which we visit frequently but do not have owners' permits for its use, so we cannot establish permanent buildings there. This has some impact on children’s play. By looking at the land register, we could find potential owners with whom we could arrange for the sharing of forest or other natural land, but size of of kindergarten could be an issue. Due to the number of children enrolled in Vrtec Vrhnika, it would be difficult for us to ensure a fair and even distribution of such space. But it is an idea on which we could work on. Even if we are unlikely to be able to accomplish this within a few years, it seems to us that it is a sensible idea to record and incorporate it into the vision of kindergarten development. After talking with some colleagues, we have found that several of them have a similar opinion. We also are not able to transport children to forest by our own, but we are lucky to have forest nearby all units. Another divergence of legislation or again only practice at Preili free school is related to nutrition. The kitchen there is accessible by children and kitchen stuff is open to prepare food for using in the forest. In Slovenia, however, being overburdened with the HACCP system makes it difficult to carry out food-related activities (baking cookies, baking on open fire etc.). We manage to do it once in a while, but not on daily basis, as there is a lot of organizational difficulties.  

    We did get some ideas for making different structures such as climbing structures and branch ‘balls’ to spin in. We learned to not over complicate things. We talked a lot about relationships we observed and built. We discovered that sustainable relationships are a main thing in any project – in a small project such as building wooden structure in nature and also in big project such as this 2 year long international projects. When you have honest and meaningful relationships between parents, children, school staff and local community anything is possible.