by Carol Duffy, Early Childhood Ireland
I stood transfixed in the centre of a field in Farley, near Salisbury, taking in a spectacle that took my breath away. Every part of my being knew I was witnessing the pure essence of nature pedagogy and childhood play provision. The overwhelming beauty of children at play in nature was both emotional and inspiring to witness. Malaguzzi’s 100 languages of children came to mind as I watched children of all ages and stages inhabit this field of dreams. Their body language, gestures, joy, and actions spoke volumes of the potential of natural spaces to engage, exhilarate, calm, and captivate babies and young children.
I was on a site visit as part of the Landscapes for Early Childhood Network (LEC) summer 2019 meeting. Farley Nursery Schools had generously offered us an invitation to their three outstanding private nursery schools located in the heart of the Hampshire and Wiltshire countryside.
Standing in the middle of it all I was struck by the simplicity of the spaces, the numerous loose parts available and the wise use of the natural topography. Underpinning this simplicity lay a depth of knowledge, skills, experiences, and passion that had made this dream possible. Commitment, knowledge and a true belief in children’s right to outdoor play has enabled this place to work for children throughout the seasons no matter their age or their dispositions.
Outdoors offers babies wonderful sensory stimulation vital to their development and wellbeing. In Farley Outdoor Nursery I watched it unfold in action as babies sat cradled on laps being read to in the summer sunshine, as they played in sensory-rich, deep sandpits. In the garden, babies crawled across soft grass between the miniature apple trees. I sighed at the beauty of sleeping babies cocooned in their wooden coracle nests under the shade of the giant horse chestnut tree, while others gleefully splashed in the homemade pools of cooling water on this warm summers day. One newly walking active infant blew me away with his tenacity in mastering the pushing of a wheelbarrow. Left to his own devices he figured it out by himself. I smiled as a toddler capturing some “me” time toddled past exuding a contentment and capability in toddling around the garden absorbing all that was going on around her.
Dotted around the grassy field children of all ages and stages were at play. The ample space and ethos of the setting meant that all play ideas and needs could be catered for simultaneously. Everyone could find a space to play, to wallow, or to just BE. The sense of freedom was palpable and yet from what I could observe this freedom maximised the engagement and involvement of both children and adults.
All around, pockets of play developed and organically dissipated as children exercised choice and self-regulation. Two pals saunter through the tall grass deep in conversation stopping now and then to inspect insects on the stalks of grass. Nearby a small group test their agility on a balance beam they had just created, while another child enthusiastically requests their key worker to race him around the field.The field was boarded by trees and bushes that simultaneously offered security and play possibilities. Well-worn dips and hollows around the perimeter signalled the favourite spots for play, the places that children had moulded with their presence.
My attuned eye could see the attraction of these spaces, the sloping mound of grass worn to clay from thousands of eager footsteps, the rope swing that hung from a tree, the hollowed-out den of willow that offered perceived privacy and shelter from adult eyes. The cluster of large stones that had provided a seat for a contemplative child, and a few moments later became a den for the jungle animals who were escaping the chasing gorilla.
Underpinning this beautifully simple environment of open grassland was a deep commitment to and knowledge of children’s interests, needs and capabilities. The seamless provision between indoors and outdoors, the ample loose parts, and the warm interactions of adults combined to provide quality experiences for children.
The visit provided me more insights than I can recount here but suffice to say I am left with many new perspectives and ideas to bring to my early years mentoring work.
A sincere thank you to the Early Childhood Outdoors LEC Network and especially to Sue Palmer and Farley Nursery Schools for this inspiring opportunity. https://www.farleynurseryschool.com