Thinking Outside: An interview with Juliet Robertson

Playing & Learning Outdoors

Thinking Outside: An interview with Juliet Robertson

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Juliet Robertson is an author and education consultant who specialises in learning and play in outdoor contexts. After leading and managing three schools in Scotland, Juliet went on to launch her own company, Creative STAR, which supports and promotes outdoor education for children. Having experienced a rich variety of international practice – and becoming the first Scottish person appointed as an International Skogsmulle Leader – Juliet has also made significant educational contributions at national level in Scotland. She passionately believes children need outdoor experiences, and was very happy to talk to First Discoverers about key aspects of playing and learning outdoors.

‘If we open our minds and hearts, we can always learn from other countries and cultures …’

Sharing her extensive knowledge of overseas education, Juliet speaks with warmth and authority about the numerous global traditions offering high-quality practice, even with modest resources:

‘Think about the majority of world countries who have little or no funding, and who use their immediate environment as a teaching resource. Scandinavian countries have a long track record of great practice. Australia and New Zealand have a lot to stand up and shout about: the growth of naturalised play environments, the embedding and acceptance of Aboriginal and Maori cultures. And the rapid rise and growth of outdoor nurseries in Central and Eastern Europe is astonishing.’

‘I am impressed by the overwhelming dedication and professionalism of early years educators …’

Moving on to discuss UK provision, Juliet believes our own outdoor educators are constantly trying to raise the bar and should feel proud of what they have achieved:

playworker

‘I am always impressed by the overwhelming dedication and levels of professionalism demonstrate by early years educators. I think outdoor nurseries are raising standards of outdoor play and demonstrating the possibilities – which will make standard [mainstream] provision re-assess the quality of their own outdoor provision. … and schools and nurseries are constantly fine-tuning and improving all aspects of their practice to meet the needs of the children in their care. For instance, the Care Inspectorate document ‘My World Outdoors’ celebrates the current good practice going on in Scotland.’

And Juliet is equally keen to counter any misplaced speculation about the validity of assessments in outdoor settings:


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Special Educational Needs in the Early Years


‘… perhaps it is a statement from those who lack confidence in working outside. In Scotland the Care Inspectorate seem to be managing to find the evidence they are seeking in their inspections … You can listen to a child talk and describe their learning just as easily outside as inside. You can take a photo and write down observations of significant learning moments. The Leuven Scale [reporting active engagement] and other more formal approaches work just as well outside. Furthermore, in Scotland there are at least 18 registered outdoor nurseries. Not only do they all manage to assess the progress of their children, but their inspection results, collectively, outperform the mainstream provision.’

‘The multi-sensory nature of green space is beneficial’

Discussing the nature of children’s experience of outdoor environments, Juliet notes how often children seem to find understanding much easier outside, especially where learning is made relevant and personalised. The topic of individual learning leads naturally on to a conversation about the potential opportunities for inclusion in open-air settings:

‘It’s fantastic. The first outdoor nursery, Salamontes, in Spain was established by a parent who had twins with SEN, one of whom has multiple and profound needs. The multi-sensory nature of green space is beneficial. There are studies, particularly the work of Frances Kuo, which demonstrate that children with ADD [attention deficit disorder] are better able to concentrate after spending time in nature. And Grahn et al (1997) suggested that the uneven surfaces upon which children play in natural environments are a key factor in the development of children’s motor skills.’

‘One of the most positive measures a nursery can take is to consider its approach to enabling outdoor play’

Touching on the concerns of some outdoor practitioners about the balance between safeguarding and risk (and the way UK insurers and courts construe the legislation), Juliet has some reassuring advice:

‘I think every insurance company is different and establishments should seek an insurance company and package that best suits the needs of the children in their care. Some insurance companies, for example, have established a good reputation for supporting outdoor play such as Forest Schools. I see a wide range of early years practice in my work, so I am interested that some settings feel they are being constricted by UK legislation when clearly there are many outdoor nurseries and other provision where practice is not being restricted. So perhaps it is the interpretation of the legislation that needs to be considered here.’

natural learning

And highlighting the importance of a proactive approach and shared understandings, Juliet adds:

‘One of the most positive measures a nursery can take is to consider its approach to enabling outdoor play. Risk benefit assessments which function as working documents are essential to enable outdoor play to happen as safely as necessary and not as safe as possible, in line with RoSPA’s advice. Having clear procedures in place which everyone follows makes a positive difference. Empowering children and staff to be risk aware rather than risk averse is one of many ways of addressing this issue. Also informing, involving and educating parents about the benefits of outdoor play means that a shared understanding of what constitutes great outdoor play can be developed over time.’

‘… the best possible education for children is in a natural setting which has a feeling of wildness…’

And lastly, thinking about the unique atmosphere of outdoor landscapes which support and optimise play and learning, Juliet offers this reflection:

‘If you want the best possible education for the children in your care, you’ll need the best outdoor environments too. They need to be supported by adults who understand their role and are nurturing and responsive to the children’s needs, and the research is indicating that the greatest benefits occur when children can spend significant amounts of time every day playing in a natural setting – woodlands, beaches and other places which have a feeling of wildness. So for me, it is these outdoor learning environments which are really special.’

 


juliet-robertson

Juliet Robertson is the founder of Creative STAR Learning Ltd which was established in 2007 by to provide Support, Training, Advice and Resources on almost all aspects of outdoor learning and play, hence the STAR in the company name. Juliet works behind the scenes supporting and developing outdoor learning and play at a national, local and school level mainly in Scotland. These can be small or large scale ventures, such as a half-day school visit to writing national outdoor learning documents over several months. Juliet also works throughout the UK and internationally providing inspirational training days.

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