Men in Early Childhood Education: My Interview With Outdoor Nursery Teacher Cameron Sprague From Scotland by Mike Prochaska
Cameron Sprague is a team leader at Stramash Outdoor Nursery in Fort William, Scotland, which is an outdoor nursery where the children play and learn outside all day. Fort William is located in the area of Scotland known as the Highlands. Cameron’s setting is “at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the U.K. and on the opposite side on the banks of the River Lochy,” he says. “Highlands are famous for being rainy, but I think that just makes the children and staff appreciate the sunny days just that little bit more.” Read on to learn more about Cameron…
Q. What is it like teaching in Scotland?
“I'm originally from the States and worked at a preschool in Vermont while doing my undergrad and feel there are many correlations in terms of how people view preschool vs. formal schooling. Over the past 10 years my experience in Scotland has shown that early years is actually really dynamic and there is growing support from within the government and other sectors to improve the quality of early learning and child care nationally. I believe in the long term that will improve how the sector is viewed and hopefully encourage more men to join the ranks as well. Qualification requirements have been increased since I moved here, and I won't be surprised if they get raised again in my working career.”
Q. What is an outside nursery?
“Outdoor nurseries come in many shapes, sizes, formats, etc. In Scotland there are more and more appearing all the time which is amazing, as I think every nursery should be an outdoor nursery.
“I think the commonalities between outdoor nurseries in Scotland are they are either inspired by Scandinavian forest kindergartens or aspire to be like them. However, they can be forest-school based, Montessori or totally independent.
"In a fully outdoor nursery, children and staff spend 90 percent of their time playing and learning outside and in most instances the staff view the environment as another teacher within the team. My setting is located on 15 acres with a variety of terrain including a large meadow, which is our main space and a small young woodland.
“We have a building that we can access but over time have been developing a wooden castle as another shelter directly accessible by the children at all times. We are pretty much out in all weathers apart from lightning and have made it outside for most of every day bar one since we opened in August 2014.
“Our wooden castle will be a luxury when completed as it will have a turf roof and also a sustainable heating system. On the coldest days we operate what I call a burst system of inside to warm up and then back out again.
“My setting is really like another child to me. My colleagues and board affectionately call it my 'field of dreams.' I tell families we aim to be more than a nursery but rather a community. We do events throughout the year like bonfire night (November 5 in the U.K. traditionally has fireworks [and] last year we had 300 people all connected to the nursery in some way).
“The best part for me is the only people who love the site more than me is the wee people who come through my gate each day. As they are involved with the decision making and building of the site, they have complete ownership of our shared place. I don't know if that same magical experience can truly happen indoors.”
Q. What do men bring to classroom?
“Currently around 2 percent of early years workers in the U.K. are male and that's a number we have to change. I think every setting should be aiming to be dynamic and create the best outcomes for their children ... One way to accomplish this is by having a diverse workforce. You can see when I'm outside and on the field, immediately the children who are in single-parent homes become drawn to me like moths to a flame.
“I also think that rough-and-tumble play, which is so important for development, comes sometimes more naturally to men. Since I have been able to role model it within my setting I feel you can see it in action with other practitioners as well now. Children from both sides need to see male role models in caring professions. I get great joy in challenging gender stereotypes with the children … I want all my children to move onto school with a, ‘Why not me?’ mentality. Our girls use tools, our boys push prams and are celebrated for both. I also think on some levels it's easier for a dad to speak to another male, and hopefully through those initial conversations, I can help role model different thinking to them as well.”
Q. Why is play important for children?
"We as a species are meant to play – learning should be a journey and not something that is just thrust upon us as we sit at a desk. Children must get the opportunities to explore, investigate, experience risk, negotiate conflict, learn to talk to each other, move and develop their muscles, and what better way to do all those things then by playing?”
Q. What about outside play is it important?
“One obvious reason is that obesity levels are rising around the world. More and more children are on screens and losing touch with the world around them. Working in a fully outdoor nursery you can see how the children's attitudes change to being outside the more time they spend in it. For example, we used to have issues with trees that we planted being snapped our broken. Over time as we have become more established that happens less and less. We need to foster that spirit of conservation and natural awareness in our children from day one.
“You can look to many people smarter than me to demonstrate all the ways that the most perfect environment to learn and play in is the one just outside your doorstep. The socio-emotional skills that children gain by being outside in all weathers, working as a team, problem-solving obstacles and having a real sense of achievement for doing so, to me is vital for developing successful adults.
“Cognitively we could talk all day about the opportunities for developing literacy, numeracy, expressive arts just through playing in the outdoors. As a practitioner I also don't know how anyone can cope with not taking a group of 2- to 3-year-olds outside. The noise from a traditional indoor nursery! That's only one reason why arguments about children not being able to transition into a school environment from a fully outdoor one doesn't hold water to me. It is much easier to concentrate and therefore learn outside.”
Q. What’s your favorite book to read to the classroom?
“I've always loved ‘The Lorax’ by Dr. Seuss. I love the alliteration and silliness of the words and, of course, the overall message of the book. The children at Stramash have been especially drawn to ‘Supertato’ by Sue Hendra and that's quite a fun one to read and do voices with.”
Q. Anything inspiring to tell anyone thinking of going into this field?
“I love the fact that when working with young children (especially in a play-based outdoor setting ) you really never know what your day will bring. If you really want to make a difference in this world share yourself with a child and help them learn and discover about the world around them. If you start the journey I don't think you will ever regret it.”
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