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Young children, the outdoors and nature
Young children, the outdoors and nature

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2.2 Baby camps

The zoning of early years areas into indoor and outdoor with distinct activities has not always been common practice. For example, the work of Margaret and Rachel McMillan (introduced in Session 1) demonstrates that even in the early twentieth century, they were advocating for outdoor nursery provision for holistic learning through ‘baby camps’. In The Camp School (1917), written by Margaret, she discusses her ‘Baby Camps’ and describes how the youngest child was just 3 months old; she details how the children slept outside ‘like birds in a wet tree and began to crow as the storm past by’ (p. 53), how impoverished children put on weight and became healthier, how they ‘do use outdoor buildings in winter which are heated with a stove’. She details the way that all children are able to learn and develop outside, how they benefit from the wide open spaces and that it is as if the ‘love of their parents has filled the whole world’ when they are outside. Some of the practices introduced by the McMillan sisters can still be seen today, for example in the Chelsea Open Air Nursery School or the Rachel McMillan Nursery School. You can see information from their websites in Figures 2 and 3; however, neither of these schools have provision for children under the age of two.

There is a photograph of a grassy area with a tree and sticks made into a den. The text underneath reads: Headteacher’s Welcome. Welcome to Rachel McMillan Nursery School and Children’s Centre. We are a Local Authority Maintained School. Opened in 1914 we are thought to be the fist ‘Open Air’ Nursery School in England. Our founders, Margaret and Rachel McMillan believed children learn best if they are healthy and active. They encouraged the children to be out in the fresh air for most of the day. The children at Rachel McMillan still do most of their learning outside, no matter the weather! The McMillan sister’s ideas about early childhood education continued to be followed and talk about across the world. Our atmospheric classrooms (know as ‘Shelters’) were built to create a village feeling and are located in a large, lovely, semi-wild garden, known to many of our families and visitors as the secret garden of Deptford! It is a wonderful space to be a child, encouraging curiosity, exploration and wonder.
Figure 2 Information from the Rachel McMillan Nursery School website in 2022
There is a black-and-white photograph of Dr Susan Isaacs. The text next to and underneath it reads: Our history. The School was set up in 1928 by Dr Susan Isaacs and Natalie Davies. The name ‘Open Air’ dates from that period and was part of a countrywide educational movement. The ‘Open Air’ philosophy is still important today when our children seem to lack safe but challenging space to play in. In the 1920s it was first recognised educationally that outdoors is as valuable a learning environment as indoors. The Open Air philosophy also recognised that many city children did not have enough access to fresh air, sunlight and exercise for healthy development. In the twenty-first century the garden is still central to our philosophy and combines with our indoor areas to provide a complete and balanced learning environment. In 1978 the school became part of the Inner London Education Authority and is now state funded. In 2006 it became one of the first children’s centres in the Borough proving a ‘one stop shop’ for local families, babies and young children. The School became a ‘linked’ site to the Children’s Centre Services in the South Locality and in 2016 we established our own thriving Community Programme. The School is housed in a timber framed building dating from 1587 and a seventeenth workman’s cottage which along with other houses in the street became artists’ studios, in our case for the painter Benjamin Haydon. The school garden dates from the beginning of this.
Figure 3 Information from the Chelsea Open Air Nursery School website in 2022