In this busy world of structure and routine, even time spent in nature is an add-on to this compartmentalised lifestyle so many of us lead. The growth in movements and concepts such as Green Hour and Forest School are welcomed, yet it is possible they are simply another ball to juggle in our lives. In terms of fast food, it's the equivalent of asking if we want lettuce with our burger.
As the slow food movement is growing roots and shoots, ensuring that people think more holistically about their food, the educational equivalent, arguably, are nature kindergartens. The trouble is, most of these have developed in European countries where English is not the first language. Thus there has been limited information and knowledge about nature kindergartens and their pedagogical approach. This has led to misassumptions, as illustrated in this comment I received recently from a father, after blogging about his daughter climbing up a tree:
As an Englishman living here in Sweden I had initial reservations about the what I considered "Hippy and Liberal" outdoor schools, how wrong I was! The fear of the unknown I think I can blame for this. I cannot praise the system and school enough, I'm sure you experienced the staff dedication during your visit. I am anxiously awaiting my second child attending the same school.
In 2010, Claire Warden wrote Nature Kindergartens, which for me is one of her most interesting books to-date. Since becoming a freelance education consultant I've been quite picky and critical of many books about outdoor learning and play because I feel the dots aren't being joined. The role of pre-school education within the context of wider societal issues is often omitted. In particular the need to consider the importance and impact of place.
I can remember opening her book for the first time and feeling a warm glow of satisfaction as I scanned the contents page and lost count of the number of times "place" was mentioned. Furthermore, the theme of the book is about the relationships between people and place and the activities that happen as a consequence of spending extended periods of time in a natural setting. It's about allowing children to make connections and learn through playing and being in nature, all year round and in all weathers. It's about the role of the practitioner to facilitate this through skilled observations of, and interactions with, children.
This diagram is now part of the definition of learning used in the Outdoor Learning:Practical guidance, ideas and support for teachers and practitioners in Scotland, published by Education Scotland, 2011 and ghost written by the Creative STAR team!!!
"So what?" you might be asking. Well, it came as no surprise when Mindstretchers Nature Kindergarten at Auchlone was inspected earlier this year and received "Excellent" ratings in all five areas. This is unprecedented. Gaining "Excellent" in one area alone is a huge and rare achievement within the Scottish inspection system. It was quite a visit, apparently, with a troop of HMIe inspectors staying significantly longer than usual and being particularly thorough.
For me, it was visiting the I Ur och Skur pre-schools and primary schools that changed my way of thinking. At the first Rain or Shine pre-school, I dismissed my observations of children, excusing their superior physical skills, dexterity, social and communication skills, high levels of creativity and imagination down to their good parenting and nice middle-class backgrounds. After a further five visits, I had to admit that the commonality of the approach had to have some impact on this.
Creating a firepit at the meadow
In Nature Kindergartens, Claire explains the rational and the approach succinctly. The book begins by looking at some of the research into the benefits of children spending time in nature. Next, the influence of Montessori, Froebel, Reggio Emilia and others is considered in relation to the work at the Mindstretchers' nature kindergartens. The importance of collegiality and the development of a warm, family community is highlighted. There are frequent, positive references to similar international examples.
The chapters move on to look at how children need to experience a variety of wild places and lead risk full lives as part of developing their sense of belonging. Playing in wild woods is often more transformational compared with a garden area. However, a sense of wildness can be gained even in a small patch of urban greenspace for young children. The concept of affordances is examined. The abundance of large and small open-ended materials for play makes natural areas a place that stimulates creativity, imagination and deep thinking about many issues, especially around sustainability and caring for the world in which we live.
Finally Claire stresses the need to allow for time. This is where nature kindergartens add so much value that other nature-based approaches do not. Being outside, daily, all-year round in all weathers in natural settings allows children to make connections at their own pace, to take the time to absorb, process, reflect and re-visit ideas and concepts at a depth which simply isn't possible in a once-a-week visit to a nearby wood.
Time to rethink pre-school provision here in the UK? Yes. And this book will help everyone do this.