School’s Out(side)! Willow students learn in the great outdoors

Pulling up outside Willow Outdoor Preschool, just off Antogher Road in Roscommon town, first-time visitors will be completely unaware of the magical learning environment just beyond the quaint entrance.

Inside, 22 children run, climb, play and even plant vegetables under the watchful eyes of Katie Glynn and her friendly staff members Helen Feeney, Emma Kearney, and Margaret Finnerty.

What’s unique about Willow is that following the preschool’s opening in 2018, all of the learning has taken place outdoors for the children, all aged from two and a half to five and a half.

Katie says it’s a relaxed learning environment and the children love being out in the open all day.

  “It’s a very calm environment and you can really feel that when you come in. It’s a lower stress workplace too…you could say that if you take away the walls then there are no walls to bounce off!

“All kids are different, but for those kids who have all that energy and (who) love being outside then it’s an amazing gift to give them – two years of this and they’re fully prepared for school,” she said.

The school is not like anything this writer has ever seen before. Picture a natural playground with features such as sandpits, climbing tyres and trees, raised planting beds, and a classroom set up in a polytunnel, and you’re almost there.

Katie says she has noticed how confident and outgoing the kids at Willow become during their time at the preschool.

  “Children are naturally connected to nature and love spending time outdoors. By being in the fresh air and experiencing the changing seasons first-hand and up close, they develop a real understanding of the natural environment, and the importance of caring for it. They also build great immunity and resilience, and every type of weather offers them a different learning experience,” she said.

“We have a big garden with raised beds, which allows the children to see the whole lifecycle of different vegetables, and there’s also a treehouse, areas for climbing, a willow hut and a floored polytunnel for shelter. But rain or shine, the children absolutely love being in nature and thrive in the outdoor setting. It engages all their senses, promotes independence and problem-solving skills, and offers endless opportunities for exploration and adventure”.

The minute we arrived at Willow the children offered to give us a guided tour of their preschool. We were led through the polytunnel and shown their ‘planting plan’ before quick visits to the slide, the sandpit, and other favoured features.

Katie says her career in Early Education began in the Midwest Canadian province of Saskatchewan and the inspiration for outdoor education came in part from her father, Gerry Browne.

  “My dad sent me an article and it was about Sally O’Donnell in Donegal who had opened the first outdoor preschool in Ireland. It’s kind of based on the Scandinavian model of ‘forest schools’,” she said.

Katie and husband Declan decided to come home to open a similar preschool on family land in Roscommon town, and not even the notoriously wet Irish weather could put them off.

“Having worked in Canada, you’d have toddlers out in temperatures of up to minus 20 and it was all about having the proper clothing and the right gear,” Katie said.

“On reflection, Irish people aren’t really great for dressing for the weather. We have a funny attitude when it comes to the rain, and it actually doesn’t rain all day all of the time either! Once you’re prepared and in the right gear for it, you really can be outside all year round”.

The preschool may have started as a family affair but it has since grown in popularity with families across Roscommon.

“My husband Declan built (most of) the school and it’s really developed in the five years. We had to have an indoor space and then we added to that as we went on. It was really designed around the children and developed organically,” Katie said.

“We started with just five kids, one of them was my own and also my nephew…so essentially we had three families. We started in January 2018 and it was -4 degrees outside. That was a big deal for even the families who really trusted in it and believed in it! But by that September we were full to capacity”

Since then the waiting list has continued to grow and Katie says there’s a real desire among parents for an outdoor learning environment.

While current regulations dictate further expansion at the preschool, she is hopeful future developments will give Willow an opportunity to grow, allowing more children to enjoy the benefits of learning outdoors.

“It would be great if we could take more…but that would mean going for planning permission for another building we don’t really use,” she said.

“Now the regulations are changing and we’re hoping that it will develop a bit and that they will recognise the polytunnel as a classroom space”.

For now though, Katie and her staff are working hard to provide an inclusive, hands-on learning environment. And, judging by the happy, active and inquisitive children at Willow last Friday, it’s little wonder they are now receiving national attention for their efforts.