Big vision for a small space

Big vision for a small space

Cowgate Under 5s Centre offers inspiration to all those settings whose desire to offer children a range of stimulating experiences outdoors is constrained by a lack of space.

Tucked away down one of the side streets off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh it provides an oasis of calm in the heart of the city. The outside space may only be small but it’s used for everything throughout the day as the children have access to it whatever the weather or time of day – which as the centre is open until late in the evening can mean that children have a unique opportunity to explore in the dark!

When the nursery moved into their new building in 2002, the outside space was just a small, uninspiring rectangle of barren tarmac.  They didn’t have funding to transform it in one go, so it’s been a gradual process as money has become available through fundraising, donations and grants. 

This is a transformation which has been guided by a long-term vision. The design reflects the centre’s philosophy inspired by the educationalist Fredrich Froebel, who believed that children learn best through spontaneous child-centred play, and that they should be surrounded by kindness, understanding and beauty. This is evident as soon as you walk through the doors as the centre has an unhurried and calm feeling where every one is valued and made to feel welcome.

Good design has enabled a wide range of experiences to be offered within a small space. Nearly all of the resources are made from natural materials and have been chosen to enhance the children’s curiosity and provide both challenge and risk. There are two timber houses at either end of the site (one of which is two stories high), a pergola with climbing plants; bird boxes, feeders and insect homes; a sand pit; a rabbit run with a rabbit; planted beds with sensory plants such as rosemary and lavender; an adventure playground with a rope climb, wobbly bridge and tyre swing; a greenhouse for growing; large-scale musical instruments; a raised wet area and a seating area with a storytelling seat.

The children are allowed to use all the equipment at all times as a member of staff is always present. I love the signs positioned throughout that are there to remind the visitor that they ‘encourage risky play’ and this is evident as the children are confident playing on their own with little assistance from the adults.

First thing in the morning the doors are opened wide and the children are free to move between the indoors and outdoors.  The outside space is, not surprisingly, very popular!

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