Enabling Environments: Let's explore ... Minibeasts

Judith Stevens
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Go on the trail of creatures that hold a natural fascination for children with activities leading through all areas of your early years provision, suggested by Judith Stevens.

When you were a child and you played outdoors, what did you do? Many adults remember climbing, running, playing ball games, mixing water with mud to make 'magic potions', and making collections of things. Often the collections were of natural things, such as leaves or shells. Sometimes the play included small creatures - ladybirds, worms, snails or woodlice.

Children are still fascinated with minibeasts of all sorts, and we need to build on these interests. Of course, we, as practitioners, also need to ensure that children treat all living things with care and respect. Investigating minibeasts can offer many opportunities to explore aspects of personal, social and emotional development, as well as knowledge and understanding of the world.

An exploration of minibeasts may stem from a favourite story or information text or because a child or group of children has found a snail, worm or caterpillar in the outdoor area.


When planning a focus on minibeasts, settings need to:

- consider ways of encouraging the children to think about the creatures' needs and to feel a sense of care and responsibility towards them;

- ensure the children treat with respect any creatures that they may find on a minibeast hunt.

When planning to bring minibeasts temporarily indoors, practitioners should:

- develop clear boundaries with all the children to establish appropriate behaviour. For example, it may be appropriate for children to handle snails, ladybirds or worms for short periods, but inappropriate for them to 'catch' ants between their fingers;

- follow suitable health and hygiene procedures. For example, adults and children should wash their hands both before and after handling minibeasts;

- try to replicate the outdoor environment as fully as possible, including the temperature and food sources;

- always return the insects to their original environment.

To find out more about caring for minibeasts or observing lifecycles, see www.insectlore-europe.com and www.small-life.co.uk, suppliers of cages, food, caterpillars, stick insects, African land snails and various other minibeasts.

Wiggly Woo!

Incorporate rhymes into your focus on minibeasts, such as 'Wiggly Woo!'

There's a worm at the bottom of my garden
And his name is Wiggly Woo
There's a worm at the bottom of my garden
And all that he can do
Is wiggle all night
And wiggle all day
Whatever else the people say
There's a worm at the bottom of my garden
And his name is Wiggly
Wig wig Wiggly
Wig wig Wiggly Wooo-ooo!


Develop a role-play cave by:

- draping camouflage netting from the ceiling and adding more leaves and branches to create a gloomy cave area;

- putting bark chippings, dried leaves, tree stumps and logs on the floor;

- adding large plastic spider webs (or fabric with web patterns) and props such as explorers' rucksacks, torches, compasses, cages, explorers' hats with corks on strings, battery lanterns, enamel crockery, metal cookware, maps, information texts, clipboards and pens and lots of large plastic bugs and creatures including snakes.

Learning Opportunities
Having a growing awareness of the needs of others
Using language to recreate roles and experiences
Showing curiosity, observes and manipulates objects
Moving in a range of ways
Using imagination in role play

Adult Role

- Support children as they explore the resources;

- Support their creativity as they develop the role play to support their own fantasy play;

- Observe, and where appropriate, extend children's imaginative role play;

- Model the use of specific resources and act 'in role' as an explorer or someone who is lost and afraid;

- Ask open-ended questions which encourage the use of imaginative and descriptive language;

- Encourage children to add resources or use equipment in creative ways to support their play;


Add: laminated images of minibeasts; tissue paper and card in appropriate colours; pens, crayons and paints; pipecleaners, thick string, felt and other suitable materials for creating minibeasts

Learning Opportunities
Making links with earlier experiences
Talking for a variety of purposes
Selecting and using appropriate tools and materials

Adult Role

- Encourage the children to make comparisons and notice similarities and differences;

- Model use of the materials, challenge the children's thinking in how to use them and provide advice, where needed, on how to use and join the materials together;


Add: a Tuff Spot builder's tray full of damp potting compost. Add areas of gravel, sand, bark chips and small pebbles as well as large rocks, potted plants, branches, leaves, shells and fir cones. Hide assorted plastic bugs in appropriate places and provide plant pots, watering cans, small hand trowels and laminated identification charts.

Learning Opportunities
Showing care and concern for others
Initiating conversations
In practical activities, beginning to use the vocabulary involved in
adding and subtracting
Making connections between the small-world provision and events in their
own lives and those of familiar others
Expressing creativity through imaginative play

Adult Role

- Encourage the children to explore the resources and develop environments for the bugs;

- Ask questions that extend children's play;

- Promote the children's discussions about insects they have seen before;

- Support children as they explore the resources;

- Support the children as they retell and adapt familiar stories and develop imaginative play themes;


Add: an assortment of plastic bugs, sieves, fishing nets, sorting trays, paper bags, logs, metallic gravel, large rocks and pebbles in the dry sand tray.

Learning Opportunities
Displaying high levels of involvement in activities
Questioning why things happen and giving explanations
Using the language of size
Showing confidence with numbers by initiating number activities
Handling objects with increasing skill

Adult Role

- Observe children, noting significant achievements;

- Encourage the children to explore the resources - what is the same about them, and what is different?

- Support children's conversations, encouraging them to make connections with earlier or home experiences;

- Observe and where appropriate, extend children's play;

- Promote children's autonomy through the independent use of resources;


Add: pieces of plastic drain pipe and guttering, a spider hand puppet, an umbrella, a bowl and spoon, lots of plastic spiders, a CD of rhymes including 'Incy Wincy Spider', magnetic props of the rhyme and a magnetic board.

Learning Opportunities
Working as part of a group, co-operating and negotiating
Interacting with others, negotiating plans and activities and taking
turns in conversation
Enjoying rhyming and rhythmic activities
Talking about what is seen and what is happening
Showing an interest in why things happen and how things work

Adult Role

- Encourage the children to make connections between the objects and recall the rhyme.

- Support children's conversations, encouraging them to communicate what they are doing and why.

- Foster children's enjoyment of spoken language.

- Model explanations for children to help them expand what they are saying.

- Encourage children to talk about how they feel.


Add: assorted picture books about minibeasts including The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, props from the story including a caterpillar puppet and plastic/wooden fruit, a magnetic board or wedge and magnetic story props from the story.

Learning Opportunities
Working together as part of a group
Retelling and creating own stories using props
Exploring books
Using the language of size
Exploring numbers
Beginning to differentiate between past and present
Using imagination in stories

Adult Role

- Share books with individuals and pairs of children;

- Model the use of the language of stories;

- Support the children as they retell familiar stories and create their own;

- Ask questions about what the children are doing and why;

- Support children as they explore the use of the language of size and number.


It's really important that outdoor play isn't a repetition of indoors - in general, it should extend learning and offer opportunities for children to work on a larger, noisier or messier scale. Investigating minibeasts offers lots of opportunities to explore the natural environment and living things.

Practitioners may already have a 'wild garden' area, but if not, it is worth developing a small grassed area, to make the outdoor environment more insect-friendly. Try planting potted lavender, buddleia, cornflowers or wallflowers, as they will quickly attract butterflies, moths and ladybirds. Allow the grass to grow into a small 'meadow', and plant wildflower seeds with the children. Consider planting nettles in full sun, nearby, but safely sectioned off, so that children do not hurt themselves - these will attract even more butterflies and insects. Develop an environment that attracts minibeasts by building up areas of fallen leaves, grass cuttings, logs, tree stumps, broken earthenware pots, large and small rocks. Download images of the most frequently spotted insects and make laminated cards to display in the area.

Provide: large magnifiers, magnifying sheets, bug viewers, bug containers, clipboards and markers, information texts and laminated reference sheets.

Learning Opportunities
Showing care and concern for others, for living things and the
Knowing that information can be retrieved from books
Using language such as 'less' and 'more'
Examining objects and living things and find out more about them
Using a range of small and large equipment

Adult Role

Support children as they explore the area and ask open questions:

- Which sort of minibeast do you think we might find most of? Why?

- Why do you think the butterflies like the white buddleia? Why do some people call it a butterfly bush?

- What do you think we might find under the log?

- Where do you think worms might live?

- How could we find out what the caterpillars like to eat?

- What else do you think we might find?


Collecting resource boxes around predictable early childhood interests ensures that practitioners are well-equipped to respond when children show an interest for a particular topic. Such resource boxes can be added to as new items become available. It's always a good idea to have a list of the resources in the box, originals, where they came from and a reference to anything stored on a computer - for example, writing frameworks.

To support children's play themes around minibeasts, consider providing:

- storybooks and information texts about minibeasts;

- magnifiers, microscope;

- pooters, bug viewers;

- wings, masks and hats;

- fishing nets;

- cages, fish bowls, plastic tanks;

- boulders, logs, branches;

- assorted plastic minibeasts;

- minibeast puppets or soft toys.



Making time to talk to parents and carers is an important way of finding out about children's current interests and about what matters to them. Such information helps practitioners provide a curriculum that is both relevant and meaningful.

Having an existing interest in a particular theme means that children approach it with enthusiasm and expertise, giving them confidence and increased motivation to engage in the activities provided. Children can use this expertise best in carefully planned, open-ended learning opportunities without prescribed uniform outcomes.


Any significant interest that a child or children may have should be explored by enhancing a setting's continuous provision - that is, by adding theme-based resources to the areas of provision that are available daily to children and should comprise:

role play
small-world play
construction play
sand and water
malleable materials
creative workshop area
graphics area book area

By taking this approach, children can choose to engage with the theme, or pursue their own interests and learning independently. Adults need to recognise that children require a suitable length of time to explore any interests in depth and to develop their own ideas.


If children's interests are to be used to create the best possible learning opportunities, the adult role is crucial.

Adults need to be able to:

- enhance continuous provision to reflect the interests of children.

- use enhancements to plan meaningful learning opportunities across all areas of the EYFS.

- know when to intervene in children's play - and when to stand back.

- recognise that children will need a suitable length of time to explore any area of provision to develop their own ideas.

- model skills, language and behaviours.

- recognise how observation, assessment and reflection on children's play can enhance adults' understanding of what young children know and realise how these should inform their future planning.

Personal, social and emotional development
Communication, language and literacy
Problem-solving, reasoning and numeracy
Knowledge and understanding of the world
Physical development
Creative development


There are some great storybooks and information texts available about minibeasts. Remember to use the local library and encourage families and members of the local community to share books.

Arabella Miller's Tiny Caterpillar by Clare Jarrett (Walker Books) This story is an elaboration of the traditional song 'Little Arabella Miller'. In the story, Arabella feeds, shelters and watches over a caterpillar as it completes its transformation to butterfly. This book combines scientific accuracy - information on the lifecycle of the butterfly is included at the back - with wonderful illustrations and beautifully presented text.

Snail Trail by Ruth Brown (Anderson Press) Slimy Snail sets out on a trail. But where exactly does he go? Follow him up a hill, through a tunnel and into a forest.

Of course, no minibeast focus would be complete without some Eric Carle classic stories about minibeasts, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Bad Tempered Ladybird and The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle (Picture Puffin).

Zug the Bug: A Flip-the-Page Rhyme and Read Book by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins (Pat and Pals)


Are You a Spider/Ladybird/Bee/Snail/Ant/Butterfly? by written by Judy Allen and illustrated by Tudor Humphries (Up the Garden Path series, Kingfisher Books) Witty text and charming illustrations bring familiar small creature sympathetically to life.

Slugs and Snails/Earthworms/Caterpillars by Claire Llewellyn and Barrie Watts (Minibeast series, Franklin Watts)

How to Care for Your Giant African Land Snail by Lucie Mann (Your First ... series, Kingdom Books) - a basic beginner's guide with excellent photographs.

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