Donegal outdoor school in a class of its own

Jenny Lee visits Irelands first outdoor school in Co Donegal, and sees for herself how quite literally mucking about encourages active and creative learningn Pictures by Margaret McLaughlin

Children at the Glen Outdoor School in Donegal Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Children at the Glen Outdoor School in Donegal Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Imagine a school where you are free to climb trees and make mud pies, jump in puddles and your uniform is Wellington boots and a waterproof suits. For some lucky Donegal pre-schoolers this dream is a reality.

As my own just-turned-five-year-old has already learned to detest school as he struggles with phonics homeworks, I did have feelings of jealousy as I witnessed the laughter and excitement of the children at Glen Outdoor School for Early Learning, in Glenswilly, just outside Letterkenny.

But in a world where health and safety has gone mad and kids are wrapped in cotton wool and addicted to screens, it was a joy to see boys and girls with healthy rosy cheeks, splashing in puddles, climbing trees, making mud pies and doing what's natural for three and four-year-olds.

Ireland's first outdoor school, established in 2007, it is the brainchild of Sally O'Donnell, who also runs Park School, a more traditional day nursery in Letterkenny town. The majority of pupils, aged three and four, attend for three hours on weekday mornings and follow the Republic of Ireland's Early Childhood Curriculum Framework, Aistear.

When I visited there were 17 happy pre-schoolers exploring the sprawling site. It was like travelling back in time, witnessing children hanging from ropes, climbing trees, and splashing in water.

I visited the home corner where the girls were 'cooking' spaghetti and broccoli for lunch on an old rayburn stove and being taught how to properly set the wooden table, while four-year-old Cassie was feeding a doll muddy soup.

One of the most popular sections of the school was the man-made pond, waterfall, bridge and boat. The children jumped off rocks into it, brushed the water and chanted "water, water, water" as the waterfall trickled. They also received an impromptu science lesson as they blew bubbles into a hose in the pond.

It was so refreshing not to see a mass of colourful plastic toys. The only desk in sight was one made from old drink crates with an old keyboard sat on it and the child happily imagining they were typing away.

Imagination, like physical ability, is sadly being lost in our modern classrooms. Experts worldwide recommend that children have a minimum of three hours active outdoor play every day. Few do and it’s no coincidence that childhood obesity is rising.

At Glen Outdoor School, every day is spent outdoors – come rain, hail or shine. They do have a wooden hut which is used as an art studio or shop and a small indoor classroom for when it's not safe to go outside. There is also a polytunnel, where the children help grow their own vegetables, and eat their lunch on rainy days. One of the benefits of outdoor play is that it helps children develop stronger immune systems and as I remarked upon the lack of runny noses, Sally assured me that coughs and colds were a rarity.

"We want to encourage more outdoor play in childhood because we believe it creates a lifelong habit of exercise that leads to healthier and happier young people," says Sally, who researched the concept of an outdoor school with visits to Norway, where forest schools are hugely popular, and to Mindstretchers School in Auchlone, in Scotland.

Although not set in a forest, Glen Outdoor School employs the forest-school ethos using the natural environment as a means to build independence and self-esteem in children and develop their innate curiosity and motivate them to learn.

"Our classroom is roofed by the sky and every day is different. They experience raindrops, wind, sun, birds and different smells. Our children learn to count using nature's abundance, from the leaves on the trees to the pebbles on the ground and what better way to learn the colours of the rainbow than through nature's beautiful flowers."

In the north the Northern Ireland Forest School Association (NIFSA) is an independent charity set up in 2008 that promotes the forest school ethos and trains on average 10 schools and community groups a year. Although there are no outdoor schools, a growing number of pre and primary schools engage their pupils in regular forest school sessions in a nearby location.

"No climbing", "no running" and "no picking up sticks", are just some of the things you won't hear the teachers at Glen Outdoor School yell at children, where their motto is 'yes you can'. While we often think we are protecting our children from risk, sometimes too much protection can cause more harm than good. "Children need to get wet, to fall. The younger you experience them the more able you are to assess danger for yourself. Feedback we get from national schools is that the kids coming from our school are so confident and have above-average skills in balance and co-ordination."

The school's other motto is 'things take time'. "We are always rushing our children and in the process their thought processes are broken and they don't get finishing anything, which has repercussions later on in life."

At Glen Outdoor School it was clear to be seen that children are enjoying the moment. There are huge tractor tyres, cemented into the grass, and painted in Donegal's GAA colours, where the children are free to crawl or jump between. A sunken trampoline, giant sand pit and swings, where the children confidently swing high independently without the help of an adult pushing, add to the fun.

They have a range of fruit trees and the day before my visit made jam on the open stove, which they collected wood for. There is a giant storytelling chair and various other storytelling areas. Drama and music is a crucial part of play at Glen Outdoor School and they recently received two Learning Stories awards from Early Childhood Ireland for their Halloween story and Christmas play. "The Christmas show was about a princess in a castle who was saved by Santa. It written by the children, who also made their own costumes. It was performed on a December day on the football pitch," says a proud Sally.

Almost as rare as an outdoor school is a male pre-school teacher. Eoghan McConigley started working at the school last November – just in time for the winter snow. "It's a lot more hands on – and in all weathers. There is so much more freedom here, you can push the boundaries and as a result the kids are so confident. The kids very rarely ask to go indoors. The snow was brilliant; it was snowmen, snow fights and sleighing," Eoghan laughs, before running off to chase a group of children.

:: For further information on Glen Outdoor School and their summer scheme visit or email