The White Paper 'The Natural Choice: Securing the value of nature' and the National Trust report, 'Natural Childhood', both set out the need to strengthen people's connection with nature and give every child in England the chance to experience and learn about the natural environment. Rising to the challenge was Riverside Nursery, a local authority run setting within a children's centre near a large social housing estate in North Shields.
This riverside area of North Tyneside comes high on the list of deprived areas - 643 out of 32,482 in the Office for National Statistics' Indices of Deprivation - with many unemployed households and lone parent families. Despite being within 4km of an award-winning beach and park, some children had never explored these environments.
This is by no means unusual. Today, 10 per cent of children play in the natural environment compared to 40 per cent of adults when they were young (England Marketing, 2009). However, this lack of engagement can have a detrimental long-term impact on people's attitudes and behaviours towards the environment.
To address the problem, Riverside Nursery embarked on a Forest School week, which proved so successful with staff, parents and children that it was extended for a further fortnight. Nursery staff developed the detailed plans for the project and explained to parents that the children would:
- be outdoors from 7.30am - 6pm, playing, eating, and even going to the toilet in a Portaloo, and
- sleep - and if necessary, shelter - in a huge tent stocked with blankets and cushions.
During the month-long preparation, parents and volunteers contributed resources, including sleeping bags, blankets, material and wood. Planning for the initial week included den-building, bug hunts, mud painting, woodworking, cooking on an open fire and making potato stamps, bird feeders, wig-wams, natural collages and butterfly mobiles as well as a couple of trips to nature play areas.
THE WEEK BEGINS ...
Day one began with children helping to set up camp. While the main tent and Portaloo had been erected beforehand, the children helped make dens from net, loose material and bushes.
During the week, the children used hammers, nails and water butts regularly for play and transporting; wood for construction and painting; and leaves, twigs and other natural resources for making collages and flower crowns.
Staff were amazed how relaxed and comfortable the children appeared to be outdoors. Feeling more carefree and calm, they began to solve their own problems, were confident to explore as individuals and not one child asked to go indoors.
Cooking on an open fire was one activity Riverside was keen to explore. Play England delivered a cooking session and set up a permanent fire pit which helped give staff the confidence to deliver this activity.
Using 'Managing Risk in Play Provision' as a guide, staff carried out a risk-benefit assessment to ensure the activity was safe while ensuring it remained challenging and engaging for the children. After explaining how to stay safe around the fire, staff involved the children in gathering firewood and building the fire. The children were also shown how to make bread and stuck their dough on kebab sticks attached to garden cane so they could cook their own bread at a distance. They then progressed to melting marshmallows for marshmallow and rich tea sandwiches.
The children developed:
- greater independence
- more complex language skills
- a deeper sense of empathy and stronger friendships, helping and looking out for one another as they played within their new environment
- greater confidence as they undertook new challenges, and
- used their initiative rather than being led by adults.
Staff often commented that they weren't needed any more, as the children became absorbed in all they were doing, clearly having fun and, at the same time, learning about nature, life, the world and themselves. Physically they were able to be more active, climbing, running, jumping and enjoying the space for free movement and active play.
Feedback from parents was consistently positive. One parent said of her twin boys: 'It is the first time my boys have been animated about their day at nursery. They have obviously benefited greatly from being outdoors. There were no signs of the usual clinginess as they made a bee-line for the outdoor area.'
Parents commented on improvements in their children's physical skills, co-ordination, speech and confidence and even sleeping patterns.
- more confident in going outdoors with the children in all weathers
- more prepared to take a step back and enable children to explore and maintain their curiosity of the world around them
- more relaxed working outdoors
- better able to provide flexible routines and to spend quality time with the children. One practitioner said, 'Somehow the children seem to have more voice, there are less distractions outdoors and we are not head-counting every few minutes - children seem to be aware of their boundaries'
- better able to provide challenging and risky play opportunities. One practitioner said: 'Supporting children who may have initially said "I can't do it", to then achieve the impossible is so rewarding.'
Interest in Forest School spread to staff from other rooms within the nursery. They were encouraged to spend a day at the camp and engage in the activities. This proved inspirational and now all staff are keen to participate in the Forest School experience with each of their nursery rooms.
Staff have also taken steps to explore the local area more. They have built links with and are planning regular visits to a community garden that it is within walking distance. There, the children are able to see beehives, polytunnels, allotments and raised beds. Further afield, the children have visited the wooded valley of Jesmond Dene and the Rising Sun Country Park.
The nursery is now planning to raise funds for a bell tent, which will become a permanent feature outdoors and so give all the children year-round access to a Forest School camp experience.
Ingrid Wilkinson is a development officer at Play England. For further information on the Riverside Nursery project, contact nursery manager email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
- Explore the big picture and discover small ideas on how to reconnect children with nature through play at 'Explore, Play, Connect', a Play England free event, to be held on Monday 25 March, from 10am-4.15pm. www.playengland.org.uk/exploreplayconnect
- Defra (2011) The Natural Choice: Securing the value of nature. http://sd.defra.gov.uk
- National Trust (2012) Natural Childhood, www.nationaltrust.org.uk
- Report to Natural England on Childhood and Nature: A survey on changing relationships with nature across generations (March 2009)
- Play England, Managing Risk in Play Provision, www.playengland.org.uk.