Learning through Nature

Way back in 1997, Robin Moore and Herb Wong wrote a book documenting the incredible transformation of an American school’s grounds from an exposed asphalt desert into a nature-filled paradise of happiness, wellbeing and highly motivated learning – called Natural Learning: the life history of an environmental schoolyard and subtitled ‘creating environments for rediscovering nature’s way of teaching’.

The story of Young Friends Nature Nursery’s path of inspiration and development, led by the children’s engagement and enthusiasm, looks like it could be our early years UK version: replacing “that dreadful astro turf” with a deeply 3-dimensional nature-filled landscape.  Filled not only with the many relatives who co-inhabit the Earth with us, this landscape is clearly also heavily populated with so many of the concepts, processes and meanings in the natural world that young children are driven to interact with and get to know.

As founder of SNAP (Sustainable Nurseries Against Plastic) and advocate of sustainable learning, Louise Lloyd-Evans has also been very active in the burgeoning world of sustainable nurseries.  I’m delighted to hear from her that she is now able to make more time for writing, presenting, sharing and pushing forward this long-overlooked role for early childhood care and education.

As part of this, she and colleague Alison Featherbe will be exploring their approach to sustainability as a case study in the upcoming Nursery World online conference on Outdoor Play on 23rd and 24th November. Author of our recent post on sustainability mindset, Janet Packer, will also be sharing a case study of Growing Wild at this virtual event.  A virtual tour of Young Friends Nature Nursery is available on their website’s homepage and their Facebook page is here.

‘Replace the astro turf’ sounds like a great call to arms!  I’m looking forward to Louise’s next instalment about their travels towards sustainability on this blog.

Learning through Nature by Louise Lloyd-Evans

My captivation with children learning in nature began many years ago, when the nursery had a conventional urban garden; but still we ate, played, and learnt outside, albeit with plastic toys.  I will be forever grateful to a friend for inviting me and my handful of nursery children to her allotment.  Messy, muddy, and overgrown; they were immediately ‘in flow’ – not despite the untidy jumble of nature; because of it!  They rummaged in the compost pile, watched, and had discussions with spiders in the cracked greenhouse, made stick dens, watered plants, sat absorbing nature on their own and toddled and wandered about together.  A place of well-being – so much to see and explore.  They were genuinely happy there, initiating their own learning, using so much language.  There was nothing else for it – I put my name down for a plot of my own.

Four years later, we finally acquired what we came to call our ‘Nature Plot’ – a tennis court sized plot of land owned by the council which we filled with composting, fruit trees, vegetable beds, a pond, hedgehog houses, bug hotel, wormery, wild area and outdoor classroom.  A place of quiet nature and growing.  Years on, we call it our Kitchen Garden – because it is used to grow our nursery food.  Another story.

Back at the nursery, the garden at that time was astro-turf.  We had a token green roof on our shed, a veggie ‘patch’ and a digging area.  As time went by, we observed the children at the Nature Plot and compared it to their play in our garden.  It was nature that was inspiring them – not the astro-turf.  At the plot the learning and development was richer and more meaningful than at the nursery with its structured equipment and toys.

So, we thought – what if we began to learn through nature at the setting too?  It was not long before we decided to get shot of all our plastic toys and begin to create a natural curriculum inside and out.  Everything spiralled.  I became gripped by the benefits of nature.  I bit the bullet and began meetings with garden designers.  I decided a native woodland was the way I wanted to go.  The idea was that it would be completely natural – once established it would require no planting.  It would be messy and wild, just like a real woodland.

So, we gutted our garden just before the first lockdown – the children watched through conservatory windows as our brilliant gardening duo Ben and Olivia brought in 100’s of native plug plants and saplings.  All of us watched with excitement as the bees and butterflies immediately flew in, even when they were still in their pots!  It was magical.  The Woodland Trust donated saplings to encourage wildlife, and we put up bird boxes, baths, installed hedgehog houses and holes in our fence ready for our (fingers crossed) new inhabitants.

One of the most important conversations whilst we watered our young woodland, whilst the children were at home during that lockdown, was whether the children would need manufactured equipment.  Would they trample on or respect our beautiful native plants?  But when they returned, they proved my worries unnecessary.  They were fascinated with the underside of logs, looking at spiders’ webs, the pearled rain drops on leaves and simply feeling the wind on their skin.  It was exciting.  We breathed a sigh of well-being – children in nature.  A true delight.  Of course, most of them had spent large amounts of lockdown on screens which made this even more poignant.

Our children now learn exclusively through nature, inside and out.  We look at and draw the things we see in our woodland, we wait patiently for spiders to have babies, heat our hands over our fire pit and stove, make tarp shelters, use chestnut poles to make dens and arrange logs to jump and climb on.  The children use critical thinking skills to think about ways we can encourage more wildlife and make pretend in the overgrown bushes.  We watch our wildlife camera to see what has visited in the night, stamp in puddles and make bridges over them, and in Autumn crush fallen leaves to make potions.  Sometimes we have practical jobs that need doing like picking pears and herbs to cook with, stirring the compost, and this Autumn we cannot wait to fill our wormery with worms who will feed our kitchen garden.  Our child-initiated approach means our children can explore in their own time – no one interrupts their flow.

Our woodland Garden is messy, overgrown, exciting, and calming.  Replacing that dreadful astro turf was one of the best decisions we ever made.  Our urban children are getting a rich daily dose of nature that they simply would not get otherwise.  We are dedicated to nature, biodiversity and sustainability, and believe teaching our children to develop the knowledge and passion to save the planet is crucial.  But that is a story for another blog…

All images are (C) Young Friends Nature Nursery.  Photographs must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.

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