Outdoor Play at Cowgate Under 5’s Centre

21 May 2010 · 14 comments

in Early Years Outdoors, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Outdoor Play, Urban, Whole School

“There is always a certain risk to being alive and if you are more alive there is more risk.”

Edinburgh is a mysterious city. Within its centre is a myriad of steps, alleyways and hidden streets. Just off the Royal Mile, invisible to non-nursery muggles, is the equivalent of Diagon Alley. Finding the right place is a challenge. Instead of tapping a brick to get in, there’s a non-descript black door one could easily miss.  This is the entrance to the magical, yet very real, world of Cowgate Under 5’s Centre.

This is the view of the outdoor area from the outside staffroom
This establishment opened in 2002 and the manager, Lynn McNair, has been in post since the beginning. She and her staff, from the outset, embraced the principles of early education advocated by Frederick Froebel who recognized outdoor play provision as essential for children’s learning and development. The rest of this article is over to Lynn, our guest blogger this week. I hope her words help demonstrate some of the ethos of this city centre nursery…

Underpinning Values

“At Cowgate first thing in the morning our doors are wide open and children are free to move between indoors and outdoors. Our practice is underpinned by values of choice, autonomy, challenge and risk.  Within certain boundaries, children have the freedom to select an experience, with or without the support of an adult.

This is the transition zone between the indoors and outdoors. It is a place to play with soil, pot plants marks the start of more exploration and discovery both inside and out.

This is the view from the transition zone. Only the children would normally see lots of other children rather than visiting adults!
Of central importance is the value of first hand direct experience and a model of play as freedom to pursue ideas, explore, innovate, imagine and create in all areas of children’s development and learning both indoors and outdoors.”

Imagine being a toddler and learning to walk up and down the slope. There are lots of things to look at and explore on the way. This constantly changes in line with seasonal events and children’s interests.

This is bamboo guttering which is great for investigating how materials move with gravity…or not!


“We are aware of the rise in the level of anxiety in children’s safety, we live and work with a culture of fear. We believe, however that if we are anxious and prevent children from taking risks we are not encouraging children to persist at challenging tasks, by removing the challenges we are not developing resilience in our children. A great deal of children’s self-esteem comes from their belief in their own skills and abilities, belief that we support.”

This is the woodworking area in the transition zone. There are indoor opportunities too. Real tools are used by children.
“Liam and Callum are playing together in the garden. Each child has a soft play cube which they carry up to the top of the slide. Craig sits on his cube to slide down, but the surface of the slide is not slippy enough, the cube sticks and Callum continues down alone. Liam’s cube has a strap and a buckle, which he has secured around his waist. I ask him whether he thinks his cube will slide. (I envision the cube sticking and Liam tumbling over). However I ask  how he feels about it, to which he replies positively ‘My cube won’t stick’. He takes off, and makes the descent  down the slide with cube attached. ‘I told you’, he proudly declares. ‘And you were right!’ I smile.”

These drums sound beautiful when played with hands…or with feet! Some children may feel confident enough to stand on these drums.

Risk and Challenge

“We support the concept of children taking risks and challenges. Risk taking in play allows the children the opportunity to demonstrate their competence; it requires instant judgments about danger and about safety, and some planning and foresight. Ultimately the child is in control and their safety depends on what they do.

We would argue that in a ‘risk-free’ environment adults’ expectations can remain low as children do not have the chance to demonstrate their competence – we should aim for ‘as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible’ children should be offered the opportunity to explore, experiment, try things out and take risks.

This fire barbecue is raised above the ground. The outer ring stays cool so it is safe for young children to be near it. Children need experience of all four elements: earth, air, water and fire.
Children are not necessarily competent in all areas and may benefit from out ‘adult’ experience, we can support them if we are concerned about a risk they are about to take.

In the centre there are opportunities for children to play unsupervised. We have discovered that unsupervised play enables children to take risks, think through decisions, gain confidence and increased resilience.”

Health Promoting School

“As a Health Promoting School we believe children deserve to be given the freedom to play and exercise in safety enjoyed by previous generations. The media informs us of rising obesity levels; it is therefore essential that we expand the opportunities for self-motivated and challenging play outdoors. Outdoor play impacts on mental health as well as physical health. Play outdoors develops friendships, reduces social isolations and gives children a sense of autonomy and control, all important features of mental and physical well being.

Fleece blankets are found on all seats, providing a little extra warmth on cooler days.
A group of children are throwing a bean bag in the garden when it becomes stuck on the window ledge of my office. ‘Oh no!’ exclaims a voice, “Lynn, help us.’ I wander over and survey the situation. ‘I wonder what we can do?’ I muse. The children all talk at once, swapping ideas and suggestions. They begin to collect the bread crates, forming a pile and attempting to climb them. With each crate, a different child climbs atop it, trying to reach the window ledge. I watch quietly, ready to assist if needed, but not interfering with their scheme. They determine that the crates are just not high enough.

Bread crates are incredibly versatile resources. Well worth getting some for your outdoor area.
‘We need something big!’ exclaims Joe, ‘really big!’. Together he and I find a bamboo pole in the cupboard. He attempts to climb atop the crates, pole in hand, quickly determines the difficulty, so asks a friend to hold it. Once the summit is reached, he asks for the pole, and with a little waving about, dislodges the bean bag and sends it falling to the ground. His friends cheer as he climbs down, flushed with his success. I could have helped them by getting the bean bag down, but where’s the learning in that?”

As well as a rabbit, the Centre also has guinea pigs.
“At Cowgate we are continually in discussions about how we trust children, honing our skills. We know our children and know their capabilities, we trust them to express how confident they feel about taking a particular risk, but most importantly we need to relinquish our control over situations. If we want ‘confident individuals’ willing to embrace risk and challenge then we need confident adults who have a deep understanding of the issues surrounding risk and play which goes way beyond a narrow ‘health and safety’ agenda.

What I’m sure none of us want…

“And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
Anais Nin

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Debi May 21, 2010 at 17:43

This sounds like an amazing and wonderful place for kids to grow and learn.


jenny May 22, 2010 at 01:07

I love this post Juliet – you have taken us on a wonderful walk through an inspirational centre and it has my mind buzzing with ideas. There is so much to love and aspire to here that I will have to read it again and jot down ideas for our own preschool.

I’m a huge fan of free choice indoor / outdoor environments as you know and it is a treat to see how other centres put this into practice.


CreativeSTAR May 22, 2010 at 07:35

Strangely I feel quite frustrated in that there is SO much more to this centre. Firstly, the place opened with a patch of tarmac. There was nothing else there.

Second all the improvements have happened through the children’s own ideas and inspiration. The outdoor space belongs to them. So often adults go “Hey, that looks like a good idea, I want a xxx like that in my nursery”. Time is needed to observe children, listen to them and help them become involved and empowered.

Thirdly the children aren’t confined to this outdoor space. They have frequent and regular opportunities to go off-site and explore the wide world. For example, the children always help take material to the recycling facilities. There is a forest school site 10 mins walk away where the children have a more authentic nature based experience. This is happening in the heart of our capital city.

Thanks for your comments and a big thumbs up to Cowgate staff and children!


Stuart Cumming May 22, 2010 at 08:35

This sounds fantastic. The fire ring reinforces for me much of the activites that are really ok and very useful for children’s learning but seen as too dangerous in my school. My eyes are really being opened up to possibilities back home in Australia. Thanks for all the information.


SquiggleMum May 22, 2010 at 09:16

Oh wow… what an awesome centre. This is the way early childhood education really needs to be going, not just in the UK but around the world.


Christie - Childhood 101 May 22, 2010 at 11:27

There is just so much goodness here. Inspirational!


Teacher Tom May 23, 2010 at 03:15

I love seeing another urban outdoor classroom. Inspiring. Maybe we’ll get there one day!


Amy L Jenkins May 23, 2010 at 17:41

More more more. Kids and adults need more time in the open air. Thanks for sharing your respect for the needs of natural beings.


Liz May 23, 2010 at 21:52

Oh wow … amazing! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children everywhere, were given similar learning through play opportunities! I love the philosophy behind “Cowgate under 5’s centre”
Donna 🙂


seema ibrahim May 27, 2010 at 05:19

I love outdoor classroom. I practice same in my pre-school/day care. but these children are learning way better being so much interacted with nature indoors and outdoors. simply love it.


The Sunshine Crew July 22, 2010 at 10:49

Very cool outdoor classroom! Thank you for sharing all of the cool photos of the space!
hope that you will pop by to see my blog, too.
Have a happy weekend,


of treats and trysts January 6, 2011 at 04:19

Cowgate is just so amazing.I can imagine how much fun the children have while learning… the way learning should be…if only it were not very expensive here in the Philippines to put up something close to it…


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