The wonder and awe of the natural world never ceases to amaze children. A squirrel foraging around for nuts before darting up the tree; the glimpse of a fox as it strides brazenly across the garden; the hoot of an owl at night. The woodland is closer to home than many of us realise, and children are often keen to learn more about the animals that live in it and their natural habitats.
Providing a range of resources like puppets, books and small-world play items, and memorable outdoor experiences that allow them to see at first hand where and how woodland animals live and survive, can go some way to satisfying children's curiosity.
Real and imagined
Animals that live in the woodland include badgers, owls, hedgehogs, dormice, squirrels, mice, frogs and foxes, not to mention birds and insects. These creatures depend on the woodlands for their survival. The trees provide habitat, food, shelter and protection for them.
Some woodland animals will be more familiar to children than others, depending on the individual child's experiences and the picture books they have read. Imaginary creatures like fairies and elves also play a part in woodland interests.
Debbie Simmers, one of the founders of Woodland Outdoor Kindergarten in Glasgow, says that children love being able to use their imagination in the woodland environment.
'They walk through the forest and find little coves and holes, and they have all sorts of ideas about who might live in them - badgers, foxes, rabbits or squirrels. They are constantly foraging about, making dens made of sticks and twigs for animals to live in. They like to leave things for the animals to eat - berries, leaves or nice flowers - and they leave flowers on logs for the fairies.
'They have an understanding of the environment and because they see and experience the harshness of winter, they understand why squirrels go and hide away with their nuts.'
But not all practitioners have nature this close at hand. One of the key resources that even the outdoor kindergarten uses is puppets. Ms Simmers explains, 'We don't see any badgers and we've never seen a hedgehog, so we use them in puppet form to play with.'
When access to woodland is limited, a trip to the park or even the nursery garden can provide plenty of inspiration, especially with the provision of the right resources. Here are some ideas of what to include in your woodland collection:
- Provide a range of puppets of all sizes - finger puppets, glove puppets and hand-held puppets. Try Wesco's Forest Animals finger puppets of a squirrel, badger, rabbit and owl (£13.80, www.wesco-group.com). Glove puppets of a fox, mole, hedgehog, badger and owl (£22.49 for the Woodland Puppet Set) are available from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk. The Hide-away House (£24 from www.mindstretchers.co.uk) is a soft tree house with six common woodland creatures that pop out from doors and windows.
- Offer a selection of soft toy animals, particularly for the younger children. Try the Otter - DeLuxe Woodland Animal Soft Toy by SoftPlay (£12.50) or the Britsh Wildlife Red Squirrel Soft Toy by Living Nature (£11.99), both available from www.amazon.co.uk and other suppliers.
- Choose animals that are close to life-size replicas and are durable, tactile and useful for outdoor exploration (see Best Buy). Try Wesco's Giant Soft Rabbit (£17.50), Hedgehog (£13.20) and Squirrel (£11).
- Make the most of small-world play. Provide animals like the RSPCA Animal Collections (£22.95 for a set of nine hand-painted, life-like replica woodland animals, including a deer family, otters and a badger), available from www.tts-group.co.uk; or the Brown Rabbit figurine (£2.49) from www.reflectionsonlearning.couk.
- Provide plenty of natural materials - cones, bark, twigs, stones, conkers, leaves and grass - for children to create habitats for the small-world play figures. Or try Round Bark, slabs of birch wood and bark (£14.95) and Assorted Pod Packs, a basket containing seed pods and flower heads in natural colours filled with texture, shape and smells (£19.95), both from www.nesarnold.co.uk.
- Ensure that children who are interested in the magical element of the forest are catered for. Woodland Folk (£22.95) are a family of eight elves with bendable legs and arms, useful for storytelling or small-world play. A set of six fairies ready for enchanting adventures (£7.99) is also available from www.mulberrybush.co.uk.
- Outdoors, try Mindstretchers' Tinkling Toadstools (£31.40), a set of copper mushroom and toadstool garden decorations that children can use to mark the location of secret houses and dens of the woodland folk. They have a spring joint that allows them to move in the wind and give off a delicate sound.
- Provide aids for den-making indoors and out. Children may want to create homes for the animals and pretend that they are a squirrel or a hedgehog hibernating in the winter. Try the camouflage Den Making Set (£38.95) from www.tts-group.co.uk or the Standard Dens Resource Box (£55), which includes frame connectors, bamboo canes and tarpaulins, available from www.playgardens.co.uk.
There is no substitute for getting children to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the woodlands. But, equally, if a magical forest is not close at hand, practitioners can use what they do have - parks and gardens - and continue their journey indoors.
Linda Godley, manager at Bewbush Children and Family Centre in Essex, says, 'We are in a built-up area, so we go for walks off-road and play with the leaves in the fields. Last year, we brought in leaves and bits of wood, bark, pine cones and conkers from outside and we made a floor-to-ceiling display with paper birds coming off the ceiling. We used glove puppets of woodland animals - squirrels, rabbits, badgers and hedgehogs - and found pictures of real animals on the internet.
'We also talked about hibernation and made the children aware of the habitats of animals like hedgehogs and where you might find them. We showed real pictures of hedgehogs curling into a ball when scared.'
Debbie Simmers also advocates the idea of bringing the environment inside where possible, and using photographs of children's local woodland rather than from a book that may not be familiar to them.
Provide good-quality fiction and non-fiction books such as the following.
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell (Walker Books): Three owl babies wake to find their mother gone. They sit on a branch and wait, but darkness gathers and they grow anxious. At last she returns, and they bounce up and down with joy, welcoming her home. Try this story using the Hide-Away Tawny Owl with three Babies puppets from the Puppet Company (£20), available from www.amazon.co.uk.
Tales From Percy's Park - The Rescue Party by Nick Butterworth (Harper Collins Children's Books): Percy goes on a rescue mission with his animal friends. A rabbit meets with a nasty tumble into an old well and all the animals gather together with a huge rope to help pull the rabbit out.
Reference Card Set from www.mindstretchers.co.uk: A concertina-style set of A4 cards which includes photographs and drawings of land mammals, garden birds, woodland trail, bugs in bushes, wildflowers and clouds.
The Wild Woods by Simon James (Walker Books): While walking in the woods with her Grandad, Jess sees a squirrel and wants to take it home as a pet. But Grandad says that you can't tame a squirrel. As Jess follows the creature into the woods, she discovers more natural wonders and understands that her Grandad is right.
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler (Puffin): A sneaky mouse outwits various forest animals with tales of the ferocious Gruffalo. But what will the mouse do when the Gruffalo actually shows up?
Cecilia Franklin, independent forest schools practitioner in Dumfries and Galloway, recommends Wesco's Giant Soft Hedgehog (£13.20). 'It's big, tactile, and waterproof. It's like a stress ball with soft prickles. It's really well-designed - you could squish it, sit on it or throw it in the river and it would still survive. I hide it along a path as the children come into the forest. It's a great lead-in for nervous children.'