Sunday, August 29, 2010

Outdoor nursery's future threatened by hand washing rules

Lucy White enjoys climbing a tree at the Secret Garden (reproduced with permission of Alex White)
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I've written angrily before about common sense being flung out the window when it comes to "child safety". Despite my own over-anxiety as a mum, I realise that swaddling children in red tape is neither sensible nor effective.

I've recently been made aware of another example of over zealousness on this issue and this time it's personal because it affects some of my favourite people in the World.

My friend Alex sends her four year old daughter Evie to an outdoor nursery in Fife called the Secret Garden. Every Thursday, Evie and her classmates walk a mile and a half into the nearby woods and spend the whole day there. Her older sister, Lucy, who's six, went for 6 months before she started school last year. Alex says that she can see the benefits in both girls:
 I've found that they get a whole heap of confidence in themselves from challenging themselves and pushing their boundaries physically in the forest. There's a certain glow and a glint in their eyes that they've both had after a day in the woods, and it's not just a healthy glow from being outdoors - they shine from the inside! Secret Garden is a completly different experience to regular nursery - not only is it permanently outdoors, but it's truly child led, with the staff really just overseeing their activities - it's nomadic too with the children's input into which part of the woods they visit being highly respected.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the Secret Garden's existence is under threat because  Health Protection Scotland  has produced a report which states that children in an outdoor play environment should wash their hands under running water with soap several times a day.  These times include:
 after toiletting and nappy changing; before and after eating anything; before drinking; after sneezing, coughing, or blowing their noses; whenever the hands are visibly dirty; before going home. These seem to me to be guidelines which would be completely impractical in a classroom setting. Can you imagine a teacher with a class of 20 kids having to make sure that they all went off to the toilet to wash their hands with soap every time they coughed or sneezed or blew their nose? How disruptive would that be? The kids would never learn anything.

The thing about the forest is that there aren't many sinks around the place so the staff currently use things like hand gel and wipes to clean the children's hands. Given that they reach their woodland destination on foot, it just would not be either reasonable or practicable to expect them to carry water as well as all the things they need for the day.

For some years now, scientists have been concerned that our obsession with cleanliness, and shielding ourselves from every possible sort of bacteria, can do more harm than good. In order for children's immune systems to develop, they need to be exposed to germs.  

I came across this excellent article from the Guardian from a few weeks ago which makes the case for projects like the Secret Garden,, arguing that our obsession with cleanliness and our anxiety that there's a paedophile behind every tree harms our children because they're not getting the chance to learn about nature or about their ow boundaries. The article quotes naturalist Stephen Moss:
"Nature is a tool,to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves." So climbing a tree, he says, is about "learning how to take responsibility for yourself, and how – crucially – to measure risk for yourself. Falling out of a tree is a very good lesson in risk and reward."
When my husband was a little boy, he spent loads of time playing unsupervised in the forest. He'd disappear after breakfast and return home when he was hungry. He actually went, shock horror, collecting mushrooms because he'd been taught by his mum which were edible and which were poisonous. She was always delighted when he came back with a bag of edible fungi for their breakfast. I strongly suspect that he went from morning till night without washing his hands on more than one occasion.

One of my best friends and her brother were brought up on a farm and they used to disappear off with a picnic in the morning and re-appear at tea-time. They played unsupervised in streams, climbed trees and did all sorts of "dangerous" things that would make many modern parents' hair curl in fright. In contrast, my knowledge of the natural world is shockingly bad partly because I never had those opportunities as a child.

It's in response to concerns such as those expressed by Stephen Moss that the Scottish Government has been supporting the initiatives which encourage outdoor education.  I was amazed to find that there are learning resources which support outdoor learning even at secondary level. Have a look at the depth of information in  this Scottish workshop on biodiversity, suitable for teaching at all ages.

It would be grim if projects such as the Secret Garden, recognised as valuable by one arm of Government, was shut down by another. I think they need to look at the risks in the context of the benefits to the whole child. Otherwise they risk throwing the child out with the hand washing water.

And then there's the issue of parental choice. Alex feels her views, and her ability to assess for herself the risks and benefits involved are not being considered. She's made the decision to send her daughters to this nursery for a reason:
For me, this issue is highly frustrating as I am Evie's parent, I am aware fully of the risks and benefits of the Secret Garden, and I am making the informed choice to send her there. But that appears to count for absolutely nothing!!
I hope that common sense prevails and Health Protection Scotland and the Care Commission do not consign the Secret Garden, and other pioneering facilities like it, to history. I understand that they have a number of experts on their side willing to argue their case, which is encouraging.

If, like me, you want to support the Secret Garden, follow them on Twitter to keep up to date with what's happening and contact them to express support or offer help.


KelvinKid said...

I suspect that this is a reaction to the Goldstone Farm e Coli enquiry findings. See

Caron said...

Two things in response to that. Firstly, the same point was made on Facebook and Alex responded thus:

"I think it's a general overreaction to ecoli. It's amusing that the HPS report equates the children spending the day in the woods to the children spending a day at a petting zoo, when there is very little similarity! Would be great if the people at the top could use a little common sense."

Secondly, the school's Twitter feed says they have an expert on e-coli who is prepared to publicly state that it's not an issue for them:

KelvinKid said...

And as I replied on Facebook "Well, we don't know the basis for the expert's views so we cannot comment. That E Coli is not just a matter for petting zoos, see "

Juliet Robertson said...

I think this is an interesting situation. First of all, with relation to hand hygiene there is potted evidence about which method is most effective. You can pick and chose your research to support the argument that sustains your belief.The big issue is the removal of visible contamination. Of course water is best, but it's not the only option. The argument against handwipes is lack of research over continued long term use....except we have babies who have their bottoms wiped continuously for 2 years to remove "visible contamination" - so what is good for children's bottoms, isn't OK hands...hmm!

The current infection rates of EColi are 4.6 people per 100 000 in Scotland. Clearly it is pretty low, but HPS have a zero tolerance approach. The trick is to read up carefully about each outbreak and what led up to the situation. Then sensible steps can be taken to avoid a repetition. But to make the suggestion that being outside in rural areas is high risk for EColi is questionable.

The experts used by The Secret Garden are wide ranging. Ian Stewart from Toyguard is one person - his company cleaned up after an EColi outbreak in a nursery a couple of years ago and does this task from time to time.

I think Sir Hugh Pennington has been involved. There is also a researcher from Ottowa University - a microbiologist who specialises in hand hygiene research.

Hope this helps.

smcc said...

As a child, long before the days of hand-wipes and gels,I used to spend summer days with a group of friends in the woods, fields and hills, on which sheep and cattle grazed, around the village in which we lived. We also helped on a local farm. We regularly relieved ourselves in the woods, wiping out backsides with dock leaves. We washed our hands in local burns, from which we also occasionally drank.We also used dry cowpats as frisbees.
During these excursions it was not unusual to eat wild strawberies and blueberries.
Despite all of these unhygienic activities over many years, none of use suffered any illness as a result of this, although we often suffered cuts from barbed wire fences and scrapes from sliding on rocks.
It is my belief that Health and Safety has gone well round the bend.


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