Barely a week passes without another study declaring that being in and with nature is good for our well-being. Yet increases in mental health disorders, childhood obesity and cuts to children’s services seem to speak of an unwillingness to help children engage meaningfully with the natural world. Schools and settings are ideally placed to correct this imbalance – if, as a sector, we embrace a different approach to outdoor play and learning.
Providing natural elements can seem an insurmountable challenge in UK settings, where types of building vary and space is often tight. However, it is possible, and there is much that we can learn from Japanese provision.
We had asked landscape architect Dr Ko Senda to find us settings that would demonstrate how the outdoor environment could build young children’s resilience, and hence he sourced settings with richly diverse and sensitively designed landscapes.
All served urban communities of varying densities and, as such, necessarily fitted into awkward plots – which in the UK we might well reject as too difficult to handle. And all were purpose-built. Repurposing buildings for kindergartens isn’t uncommon in Japan (we spotted a rooftop nursery from the observation deck at Yokohama’s tallest skyscraper), but this is not a favoured, let alone default, option.
While nature is highly prized in Japan, gardens are rare in city neighbourhoods and tend to be clipped and tidy rather than wild. Instead, early years settings make concerted efforts to create naturalistic landscapes, whatever the scale of their own site.
At Kohoku, which is one of the smaller outdoor spaces we saw (see Case study, Part 1), lush greenery is provided by an ornamental contemplation garden next to the main entrance. Filled with traditional Japanese flowers and shrubs, water features and aromatic species, it was created to commemorate the setting’s founding head teacher, and is one of the few gardens that children are not able to access independently. The practitioners are almost always able to accede to children’s requests to visit, because of its convenient, visible location.
Yurikago, (see Case study, Part 2), by far the largest setting we visited, has a sparse and open landscape, encompassing hills and embankments, a watercourse and expansive views across the cityscape. The atmosphere here is in complete contrast to the verdant garden at Kohoku – Yurikago feels almost desert-like, with wild fringes of long grass and towering pines.
The very tight plot of Fuji Kindergarten (the famous ‘doughnut school’) is complemented by an adjacent field of crops, maintained by the school and accessed daily. The concept of ‘land grabbing’ to allow children extra space to learn was a frequent feature of the urban settings we visited.
The language barrier made exploring the details of educational approaches behind the use of natural landscapes difficult, but our stalwart translators (Ko and Ryuta) did their best to draw out answers to our questions about how practitioners plan for, use and manage their natural landscapes, and why these spaces are so important.
‘Nature pedagogy’ is a relatively new phrase in the UK, and was unfamiliar to our Japanese hosts. However, the concepts behind it – slow learning; incorporating earth, air, fire and water into everyday experiences; learning from, with and in nature – were fundamental to the provision we observed. Settings recognised the need for city children to engage fully with the natural world.
Vigorous physical activity is central to early years provision in Japan and practitioners recognise the benefits to concentration, after children have spent active time in nature.
All of the study settings, with the exception of the ‘off site’ settings, keep domesticated animals; caring for animals helps children understand natural cycles and provides ‘wow’ moments. Turtles are very common, as are rabbits, chickens and large insects. Fuji has ponies, and Iijima and Yurikago both have very inquisitive goats. Here, children have important caring roles – not just feeding the animals, but also cleaning out their habitats and collecting produce.
Growing food crops is a central offering at Japanese settings. Rice paddies were as normal as a strawberry patch might be in the UK. Settings had ambitious allotments – some even had off-site or adjacent fields of crops – and food crops are harvested, prepared, cooked and eaten by children, supported by practitioners. As a result, children are willing to try new foods from the garden, and enjoy experimenting with cooking techniques and recipes.
Embodied learning and high levels of well-being are evident; children luxuriate in their physicality, whatever their level of physical ability. Challenging topography and compelling natural elements draw children into exciting, energetic and social play, using the environment and natural loose parts (logs, grass, bamboo sticks) to build complex play scenarios. Children show physical strength and emotional resilience as they persevere and repeat tasks until they are satisfied with their progress.
Japan has not yet embraced Forest School, but the ‘skogsmulle’ approach – Sweden’s nature-based approach to learning – has begun to take hold. The settings we visited didn’t recognise the need for a formal ‘named’ approach to playing and learning in nature, largely it seemed because playing in nature was fundamental to their overall philosophy. Children had access to tools that could enhance their experience of nature (for example, saws, mark-making items, ropes and pulleys) and most settings also provided opportunities for building fires.
While the study settings were diverse in terms of size, layout, features and character, they all included spaces that could be described as ‘natural’ or ‘wild’, and all provided natural materials for open-ended, loose-parts play.
Trees of every shape and size. Settings make the most of any mature trees for exciting play, installing tree houses, platforms, rope swings and other structures (for example, ladders) that allow access. Succession planting is evident – new trees are being planted, with species chosen for their ecological and play value.
Long grass is common, often seeded with wildflowers. The ‘playing field’ style of UK grass areas was absent; swards of grass are mown regularly but infrequently, creating wild meadow areas, with pathways mown through or squashed flat by children’s feet. Loose ‘dirt’ is the principal surface in play spaces, and it can be seeded with grass.
The reality of natural life cycles is visible and unambiguous. Children care for animals and are able to watch rabbits and goats raise babies, and will collect eggs from their chickens. Planting is frequently deciduous to emphasise changes in seasons, and cherry blossom time in spring is spiritually important to Japanese communities, so all settings have at least one significant cherry tree.
Plants for play – trees and shrubs lend themselves to prospect and retreat, but children also use plants in their play. Bamboo shoots, grass fronds, flowers and crops are all available to incorporate into (largely) imaginative and social play.
Freedom to roam – children are able to explore every extremity of their setting, enjoying steep hills, high trees, running water, firepits (supervised, of course!), trenches, tunnels and dirt, mud and long grass. Children’s bodies and minds are trusted to drive their learning and development, and they thrive in this nurturing environment.
Natural topography is exploited as a benefit, not disguised or fenced off. Hills and embankments are used for rope swings, aerial runways and slides. Hollows become hidey-holes or mud labs. Steep slopes are given multiple options for clambering – for example, timber steps, dirt ramps, tyre walls, logs and thick ropes attached at the summit.
Ecological concerns are explicit. Settings make use of sustainable energy sources, teach children about growing and harvesting food and focus on native and useful planting. Setting managers expressed to us their goal of developing children that will take on the challenge of climate change and sustainability, and understood that this could only happen if children valued the natural world – and that playing out in and taking responsibility for nature was a crucial step in this process.
Nature isn’t neat, or orderly; natural spaces are characterised by wildness and change. The opportunities for spontaneity and manipulation of the elements make natural areas unique and special. The learning potential of dirt, leaf litter, shrubs and mud, the joy of finding millipedes or birds’ nests, simply cannot happen if surfaces are covered in artificial materials and the ability to tidy up quickly outweighs children’s imperative to connect with nature.
The Japanese study settings impressed for many reasons, not least because the way they were designed and managed demonstrated with absolute clarity that children’s most basic and fundamental needs were at the core of outdoor provision. In these distinctive wild spaces, children shared, tested, communicated, explored, grew, stumbled, and experienced delight in their own bodies and in a strengthening bond with nature.
ADOPT AND ADAPT
- Discuss how increased access to a natural environment would benefit your children – and your setting. Consider the children’s well-being and physical activity levels, your environmental footprint and opportunities to learn about growing food.
- Audit and evaluate the natural elements in your setting: how many types of natural surfacing, species of trees and shrubs and layers of planting do you have? What kind of atmosphere does the planting create? Can the children enjoy prospect by climbing trees? Is there deep and dappled shade? Are there strong aromatics and beautiful colours? Where can children immerse themselves in nature? Do you have mud? Running water? Platforms in tree canopies? Long meadow grass?
- Use your audit to plan changes. Try to agree a focus and be realistic about timescales. Developing natural spaces for play doesn’t have to be expensive, though you need to commit time and money to caring for natural spaces.
- Examine your outdoor space using the Risk-Benefit methodology to enable challenging experiences. Focus on areas children rarely or never use. If these areas are considered ‘too dangerous’, explore ways of incorporating them and take a common-sense approach to their management.
- Slips, trips, stings and bumps are an inevitable part of outdoor play, especially in natural environments and with natural materials. Children only learn to manage their bodies and resources by experiencing risks, so promote this as a positive in your setting.
case study: IIJIMA KINDERGARTEN
The landscape at Iijima Kindergarten encompasses steep hills, ditches, mature trees, grass, scrubland and dirt and farm animals, as well as naturally occurring wildlife. It’s a richly vegetated landscape, large portions of which are covered in a thick shrub layer, with tall trees serving as the launch point for rope swings, treehouses and bridges. Children have the freedom to roam around the entire setting, but we observed that they generally stick with buddies from their own cohort and with their key adults.
The central area, in front of the building, is surfaced in the loose ‘dirt’ we saw in all of the Japanese settings. Children on bikes and trikes make the most of this only flat space and practitioners set out cones, canes and chalk markings for physical development exercises. The natural areas connect to this central zone via paved and rough pathways and are thickly wooded; its natural landscape is hilly and it’s perched above the city. We observed high levels of collaborative and social play – often incorporating the adults.
Iijima’s head teacher, Mr Watanabe, explained that connecting with nature and natural elements was one of his priorities for children, and that resultant high levels of well-being cemented relationships and motivated children to learn. Mr Watanabe and his team are familiar with the Leuven scales of well-being and involvement, and our own observations indicated deep learning was taking place:
- Children focus on an activity for significant lengths of time and can be gentle when necessary. Two children found, examined and fed a praying mantis with delicacy and joy.
- Eye contact and physical touch is common between all participants in the play. Children help one another to access the trickier aspects of the landscape.
- Children take care over their movements, thinking about how to traverse the spaces, using their whole bodies to balance in trees, roll down hills and jump in water.
- Tasks (which might be thought of as chores) are carried out enthusiastically – such as cleaning up after the animals.
- Adults’ and children’s body language speaks of self-regulation and confidence – even in complex or fast movements such as mounting the aerial runway.
- Facial expressions and tone of voice indicate delight in being free to roam outdoors, with friends, in nature.
- Experiencing change feeds children’s curiosity and adults show in word and deed that they value children’s interests.
Nature in all its variety
Natural elements at Iijima include:
- steep embankments with many different ways to move, including ropes, tyres, dirt steps, a timber tower, mud slides and mown paths
- mounds and hillocks, planted with wild grasses and flowers, shrubs and berry bushes
- mature evergreen and deciduous trees, several of which are perfect for small people to climb
- crop-growing areas: vegetables were grown in formal beds, but berry bushes and cherry trees were dotted all over the setting
- wildlife and animal hubs; domesticated animals include ducks, goats, chickens and rabbits. All have large enclosures, which children can enter (supervised by an adult). Indigenous wildlife thrives in the lush greenery, but bug hotels, nest and bat boxes and mini-habitats were also provided.
- mud and digging areas. One area of the main play space had a covered digging space – a ‘sandpit’ of dirt. However, children were able to dig freely anywhere, and digging equipment was provided in several places.
The benefits of nature play
Staff told us (via translators and a written survey) that playing in nature was important for their children, not least because many of them have no garden at home. They also said:
- playing in nature reduces illnesses and children’s immune systems become more resilient
- physical strength and dexterity are increased, including the muscle groups that will lead to strong tripod grip
- adults are more likely to ‘preserve the world’ for future generations if they learn to respect it as young children
- nature play has well-being and stress reduction benefits
- children have very little physical independence living in the city; it’s good that at Iijima, they are able to roam widely
- real-life problem-solving helps children understand abstract concepts later
- interacting with other children in self-chosen scenarios builds confidence and communication skills.
Nature play provides no ‘right answers’, so children have to try different approaches to reach a successful conclusion. An example is the setting’s disintegrating embankments, which make climbing downhill very challenging. Lots of children slip over on the way down; all of them pick themselves up and continue the journey. For Mr Watanabe, unstructured, self-chosen learning through play is the core offer at Iijima (indoors and out) and he has created a landscape that lends itself to adventure, challenge and curiosity.
About this series
After a whistle-stop tour of kindergartens in Yokohama in 2017, I was determined to return to delve deeper into the exhilarating outdoor play programmes I’d seen. As a member of the International School Grounds Alliance, I was able to use its 2018 conference as the opportunity to plan a detailed research and visit programme.
Supported by a generous grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, my colleague Mary Jackson (pictured right)and I spent two weeks visiting schools and settings, talking to head teachers, parents, children, practitioners and designers, and observed hours of rich, challenging, physical outdoor play and learning.
Our visits were curated by landscape architect Dr Ko Senda, of Tsurumi Junior College. The professional backgrounds of Ko and his colleague Ryutu Otsubo (of Japan’s Playground Safety Network) helped us to investigate the theory and practicalities that enable such high-quality, risk-taking play to take place. In particular, we focused on how risk-taking outdoors can foster resilience in young children.
This series aims to share our findings with a view to helping UK settings plan new approaches to risk-taking outdoors.