Enabling Environments: Outdoors - Only natural

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A woodland wonderland at a nursery in West Lancashire is helping children to develop understanding and empathy for the world around them. Ruth Stokes investigates.

For Beautiful Beginnings Day Nursery, set in the 50 acres of parks andgardens of Scarisbrick Hall School in West Lancashire, the naturalenvironment has always been an important feature of day-to-day life.Now, a new outdoor development has increased opportunities for play andlearning - with a particular focus on supporting the children'sunderstanding of, and respect for, the world around them.

Over the past seven months, the setting has been working on an outdoorexploration area, made up of dense woodland and a 'Jungle Forest'clearing. It caters to all ages, from birth upwards.

Perhaps surprisingly, the idea for the development was sparked by thediscovery of a caterpillar in the grounds. Early years manager LizFortune-Price explains, 'A child found a caterpillar and we starteddeveloping a mind map around it - how we would look after it, what itwas going to eat and where it was going to sleep.

'Suddenly, it dawned on us that a big part of our role is to teach thesechildren the importance of stepping over a caterpillar rather thanstepping on it. Understanding nature provides the children with empathyon all levels - not just with caterpillars but with birds, foxes,badgers, geese, other children, their friends, their teachers and theirwider family.'

PLAYTIME

The 180-place nursery previously had extensive garden and woodland areasfor both the under-threes and the over-threes, but the new developmenthas been carefully planned to offer a wider range of experiences forall. To ensure its effectiveness, the children were encouraged to helpshape the space.

'It's been lovely to take them out at every stage and ask them what theywould like to see and do,' says Ms Fortune-Price. 'A lot of the ideascame from there. We listened to what they wanted and how they might usethe environment and we offer experiences that supplement that.'

This has resulted in a varied and exciting outdoor area that feeds bothimaginative and physical learning. Features include:

- Fairy glen Wind chimes, mossy areas on rocks and natural woodenfairies create a mythical atmosphere. The children are currentlyforaging in the outdoor environment to find materials to make fairyhouses.

- Base camp A big square area is lined with logs, and four other logsinside this make a fire pit at the heart of a campfire set-up. Childrenhave used it to make their own dough and barbecue marshmallows.

- Magical bridge Trolls live on the bridge and won't let the childrenpass unless they have a magic word. However, the narrative of this areacould change at any time with the prompting of staff or children. Fakegrass underneath offers a space for babies to crawl.

- Mud kitchen Pots and pans, a hob, an oven, a pestle and mortar and asink with running water give the children everything they need for roleplaying with mud pies.

The setting also has a pirate ship - made from mounds of earth for thehull and a tree for the flagpole - plans for a treehouse, and is workingtowards introducing a stream.

LEARNING FROM THE LAND

The nursery is part of Scarisbrick Hall School, one of the leadingindependent schools in the region. 'The academic side is important toour pre-school children, so we make sure there are opportunities todevelop numeracy and literacy skills,' says Ms Fortune-Price. 'We canteach the whole curriculum out there.'

However, the environment is flexible enough to be exactly what thechildren want it to be. The basic earth-and-tree structure of the pirateship is an example of this. The staff will always begin with anobjective, but if the children go off on a tangent then the adults willfollow their lead and offer support where it is needed.

Children have been enjoying getting on their knees and foraging foritems, and the mud pie kitchen has proved to be particularly popular.The younger children have been heading off on Gruffalo hunts andsearching for Jack and the beanstalk in untouched woodland. A woodpeckerand a gaggle of geese have both been visiting regularly, allowing thechildren to get an idea of their habits.

While there has inevitably been much excitement, the setting has alsowitnessed a more surprising outcome. The environment seems to guide somechildren who are normally quite restless to focus better on particulartasks - something that Ms Fortune-Price believes is due to the lack ofdistractions, such as bright colours and toys, that you might find inthe interior of a nursery.

MAKING THE MOST OF IT

The value of taking time to absorb the sights and sounds of the naturalworld is something that has worked its way into the training of staff.The setting has been running weekend training sessions to look at thehealth and developmental benefits of the area, offer fun ideas foractivities, and teach practitioners to consider the natural environmentas a blank canvas for play and learning.

'Some people have said "we need this and that", but everything we needis out there,' says Ms Fortune-Price.

In addition, there are plans to send a member of staff away to get aLevel 4 Forest School qualification, so that they can then teach therest of the staff the Levels 1, 2 and 3 Forest Schoolqualifications.

The nursery has also lined up an event for parents, to illustrate whatis being provided. That way, if children go home with a nettle sting ora graze on their knee, parents can understand how this balances with thebenefits to education and well-being.

It is early days, but the nursery is already confident that it hassomething special. From the way some children have developed an abilityto focus to the wide array of animals on the doorstep, there areopportunities for growth here.

Nursery reports show that the children are already beginning to exhibitgreater amounts of empathy. Like the setting, they are learning to taketheir cues from nature.

MORE INFORMATION

www.beautifulbeginningsdaynursery.co.uk.

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