Roots and shoots

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As summer comes to an end, gardeners start preparing for winter: tidying fallen leaves, planting bulbs for the spring, and protecting some more delicate plants from anticipated frosts.

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Professor Cathy Nutbrown

The garden and gardening have often been used as metaphors to describe children and childhood. Many early childhood pioneers believed that the nursery garden was an important place for children to grow and learn. Susan Isaacs' writings include many examples of children learning in the Malting House garden. Margaret McMillan created nurseries where the garden was central, with parents involved in tending vegetables and herbs alongside the children. In Germany, Friedrich Froebel set up his Play and Activity Institute in 1837, renaming it 'Kindergarten' in 1840. His Kindergarten included toys (for play), dancing (for health) and tending the garden (to foster awareness of nature).

It is no accident that in many countries the traditional word to describe a setting for young children is 'kindergarten' - a garden of (or for) children. Being outdoors and witnessing the seasons fosters a growing awareness that the same space can change with the weather. I often pass a nursery on my way to work, where in summer a large tree in full leaf casts gentle shade onto toddlers on soft green grass. That same tree stands stark, dark and frost covered over the white snowy garden in winter when wellingtons and warm coats are essential. Having a sense of the changing seasons also enhances children's own sense of self and of being.

The garden is a reminder that change happens, and change and growth take time. I have a small booklet on my bookshelf called 'Quality in Learning for Under Fives'. It was written in 1991 and says this: 'Gardeners don't plant runner beans in January to get an earlier harvest than their neighbours; if they tried they would probably get shrivelled and stunted beans. They fertilise the ground in the early months of the year, so that when the beans are planted - at the right time - they will flourish.'

There is an important lesson here, about being patient with the early years of childhood, creating the best conditions for babies, toddlers and young children to grow and learn, while at the same time allowing them to take their time to develop, and think and understand.

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