In this age of health and safety legislation, of our media obsessed with the dangers lying ‘out there' waiting for our children, where watching a screen of one kind or another is the default position at home, some educationalists are yearning to set children free.
Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood says, 'trees, branches, grit and mud are all fabulous teaching resources; playing with nature is what children were simply born to do. Think of how happily children can play on a sloped piece of grass; rolling, running, and hopping down - it comes instinctively.' Yet in actuality, on the front line in schools and nurseries, recent years have seen schools and local authorities curbing their chances of adventure for fear of litigation should an accident occur.
The Secret Garden Nursery in Fife, opened in 2008 and is certainly a counter balance to this common over-protection. 'Here we are in the woods with pre-school children; climbing trees, warming ourselves with fires, supporting the creation of their own magic. We have no toys, limited practical resources but plenty of space and opportunity to go where the imagination may take us,' says proud founder Cathy Bache.
Whilst there are now more than 700 Waldkindergärten (forest nurseries) in Germany, The Secret Garden is one of less than 10 such nurseries in the UK. It was a large lottery backing, from the Lottery-funded Awards for All scheme, that helped Cathy get going.
Initially finding the staff proved problematic; 'getting the right people is challenging; there is a need to have staff that are compassionate, comfortable with a mindful practice, have, or have the intention to develop, a true connection with nature, and crucially are happy to be out in all weathers 8 hours each day'. Cathy says it's taken 3 years to get the recruitment process working, and admits to some trial and error; 'our current method involves asking for a CV and letter, doing a 6 hour workshop in the woods with nature connection exercises, followed by some days of shadowing'.
'It's a long drawn out process and not all candidates choose to go further than the workshop - which is great from our point of view as it demonstrates that they are gaining a clear insight right from the start as to what we're looking for in a staff member and know when to step away!'
Perhaps the main concern from the authorities has been hygiene. The Care Commission demanded explanation over the particular issue of hand washing, although they are now satisfied with procedures. It's of course desirable for young children to have running water, which The Secret Garden lacks. Now they use hygienic wipes and sanitisers; the children quickly get used to using them independently.
It's practicality and independence which is the running theme here. The nursery is open 8.30 - 5.00, they have a yurt with a stove where they have lunch and snacks, Cathy says; 'we move from the play park to the woods at 9.30 ( ½ mile walk up hill), back to the park at 4.30. Children are aged 3+ and carry their own rucksacks with a bottle of water, packed lunch and spare clothes - hats and gloves during the winter too.'
Many of us, on first introduction to the concept, may be perplexed about how it all works; where is all their stuff? What do they do all day? Sue needs no convincing on the overall ethos, she explains why the outdoors is the wholly child-centred setting; 'Modern adults have been brainwashed by market forces into thinking young children need specially-made "toys" to play with, but the most productive and satisfying play happens outdoors in a natural setting and doesn't require any particular equipment - just whatever comes to hand. It doesn't need any adult help or direction either - when they're outdoors, children find endless ways to entertain themselves.'
Even in ‘bad' weather
The outdoor educationalists insist that children don't have this concept of bad weather they just see weather. Cathy tell us; 'we've a very strong awareness of how we talk about the weather; I talk about challenging weather rather than bad, miserable, cold. If I heard a staff member saying to a parent "it's been a miserable day" I'd go nuts!'
Cathy will admit to some children being more resilient than others; 'a minority do have a difficulty with the weather but it's often a learned attitude from parents or simply because they're not dressed properly. The 3 year olds do have to be supported more in challenging weather when they first come out with us, if they're 4+ and been with us for a year they're usually totally at ease whatever the weather.'
'The weather is wet, the skies are grey, the wind is blowing strong, and sometimes cold, the clouds obscure the sun, but there is nothing wrong with this - it's the weather and it changes', says Cathy, who's adamant that it's up to the adults to remain upbeat and positive as children will quickly pick up on negative attitudes.
Instead of concentrating on the weather, it's the play they focus on; "consequently most of the children develop physical and emotional resilience that supports their play during the challenging days. Some children are very aware of the weather in respect of how it will affect their play - the wind blowing in a certain direction means we can't visit their favourite place in the woods - they develop an understanding of cause and effect, they too become weather watchers! If it's getting cold we have fires - so that's fun!'
Whilst rules and regulations alone would see it unfeasible for most settings to wave farewell to the indoors entirely, mainstream teachers are visiting The Secret Garden for inspiration, as Cathy explains; 'we receive a huge amount of interest; visitors and teachers attending workshops. I'm impressed with this great openness and willingness to find out more and return with ideas that create better ‘outcomes' in the outdoor world for children.'
Sue believes a shift in the mainstream to follow aspects of the outdoor approach can only be a positive one; 'All human babies are born needing to play - it's their natural learning drive. They want to explore the material world around them, to find out how it works and how to control it. The drive to play comes from within, it's very powerful, and is hugely important to children's physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. We ignore it at our peril.'
Cathy's positive ‘can do' attitude is infectious and extraordinarily encouraging. Of course The Secret Garden have days when activities run less smoothly; 'we can have hard days of infectious crying, but again it's supporting those that are having the melt-down and now that we have a lined yurt with a fab stove life seems very easy in the woods!' This attitude of turning a testing day, into a cosy cherished experience helps explain the merits of this appealing, convincing approach.
What the parents say at The Secret Garden
'Secret Garden provides, in my opinion, unique experiences for my daughter. One that engenders a caring, safe and secure setting whilst allowing freedom and a respect for space, individuality and nature.'
'We have been using the nursery for nearly a year now and I believe the Secret Garden has allowed my child to develop her personality in a unique way. We intend using the Secret Garden until our daughter starts school and would have no hesitation in recommending it to other parents.'
'I think the outdoor environment in which the Secret Garden operates offer the children an unrivalled quality of life and learning.'
Phoebe Doyle is a freelance journalist
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