Dandelion Education has created an outdoor nursery in which children of all ages and abilities can flourish and develop as resilient critical thinkers – with much of the work in developing the space carried out by the practitioners and children themselves.
Among the top priorities in developing the provision were the children’s mental well-being, collective responsibility and resourcefulness. Dandelion wanted to be a setting without walls, unnecessary noise, plastic, artificial light, central heating and constraints on children’s freedom to move, and started as a space with only a few trees, a hedge and an expanse of grass. Even now there are no ‘toys’ – the children use the environment to make whatever props they need for their play.
What the setting did acquire was a range of natural materials including logs, tree trunks, willow whips and fruit trees. The team, alongside the children and parents, used branches to demarcate paths and pallets to create a theatre, music area, book shelves and swings. They dug pits to house a mud kitchen and garden area and used bales to create areas for climbing and jumping. Holes were sawed into the hedge to make dens, and parents sawed logs to make seats. Hazel poles became a reading pod. The children helped build the frame that would support canvas and so enable them to eat outside in all weather.
‘It’s great that you can create an outdoor space without spending loads of money,’ said one judge, while others praised the use of open-ended materials, not being ‘over-planned’ and ‘making excellent use of what they have’.
When planning the space, the setting consulted the children and families about their wants and needs, as well as professional agencies for advice on provision for children with social anxiety or an attention deficit hyperactivity or autistic spectrum disorder.
The space, in particular the trees, offers adventure, challenge, satisfaction and achievement for all, with risk-taking central to the setting’s approach. The trees are ‘differentiated’, some low with natural steps and ropes and others providing scope to climb up to 15 feet high. Areas with tools enable children, with the proper training, to use hammers, saws and cordless drills independently.
With the weather bringing daily changes to the environment, Dandelion offers children a sense of security, safety and continuity through set scripts and songs.
All the children are benefiting from this vibrant learning environment, with the Dandelion team pointing in particular to their mathematical skills, physical strength and dexterity, and progress as independent learners.
Dandelion’s success is perhaps best illustrated by the progress made by some of its children with SEND. One boy’s mother has cancelled his referral to Great Ormond Street Hospital as the Dandelion environment is reducing his behaviours linked to ASD, while a girl with ASD characteristics is said to need no further support while remaining at the setting.
‘It’s a truly unique setting, and we feel very lucky that our little girl gets to spend her precious childhood years at Dandelion’, says one parent.
Gigglers Day Nursery, Bolton
Gigglers Day Nursery, Bolton, was granted land from its local council, enabling it to extend its outdoor space from a small decked area into a large, learning-rich garden.
Features include a wooden tepee, with blankets, pillows, books and fairy lights, a mud kitchen, walk-in sand pit, music wall, rope swing and digging area.
Staff, parents and children were all consulted on planning the area, with much of the work done by staff, and their husbands, during their weekends.
With commitment and creativity, the team has developed a space that challenges, inspires and supports, enabling children to engage in experiences that strengthen both their muscles and minds. It embraces children’s natural drive to explore, to test their own abilities and to play without restrictions.
The Cheshire Day Nursery Kindergarten@Latchford, Warrington
Holyrood Astley, Bertram Nursery Group, Manchester
South Hills Nursery, Wilton
Stramongate Nursery, flood recovery garden, Kendal
Open to early years settings that have developed elements of their provision to create stimulating, child-centred learning environments in line with the principles of the EYFS