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Gardening with Hannah Genders

Natural play

Posted on October 21 2011 at 1:19:06 0 comments

Hannah Genders helps youngsters to get away from the screen and into the great outdoors.

O ver the past six months I have had the privilege of working with two schools, looking at their outdoor space and helping to encourage the staff and pupils to use the school landscape for learning and natural play.

There has been a movement in recent years towards more playgrounds using natural materials and allowing children to take risks and play outdoors, in the ways that many of us in the current adult population would have taken for granted in our childhoods.

Recent research shows that children spend half as much time as we did engaging in unstructured outdoor play, and that an average child now will spend only four to seven minutes’ playing outside each day, against seven hours in front of an electronic screen.

The natural play movement is trying to redress this balance and encourage children not only to play outside in their own gardens, but also to use the landscape around school buildings for learning, exploring, building confidence and engaging with nature.

I have always had a strong belief in the importance of being in touch with the natural world for both children and adults, so it was great to have the chance to work first hand with children and staff. 

The two school projects were very different in what they wanted to gain from more outdoor learning. The first school, in Broadwas near Worcester, already had some very good facilities: these included a pond, a storytelling area, a vegetable garden and a secret garden.

The youngest class were already doing a regular outdoor session and the school wanted more involvement throughout all the age groups.

With this in mind we arranged several outdoor sessions for the whole school, including pond dipping which was a hit with all the age groups, looking at what was already in the pond and how to increase the habitat for more wildlife.

We had a day of den building – not only was this great fun, but the children also learned about teamwork, design and construction, and listening to each other’s ideas. They created some great spaces and came back to play in them during the school day.

In fact one group also learned first hand about nature as a female pheasant decided to nest in their den while they were indoors having lunch – we found her sitting on eggs when we came out again!

The value of a den building area where the materials remain all the time and the children are free to create their own space is enormous; it really gives them chance to explore their own ideas and creativity. There is opportunity for social interaction but also time to sit and think in an outdoor environment.

This school is also fortunate to have a secret space which is enclosed and under trees, and for the final session one teacher had worked with the children to create “natural faces” on the tree trunks. They loved it and were very proud of what they had done.

We also had a rhythms workshop where we made chimes from bamboo to test the different sounds and then went all over the school playgrounds playing out rhythms on different trees, logs and fences.

The second school I worked with was just over the border into Herefordshire. The school had acquired a small piece of land from a local farmer, but had nothing in it – so the children designed this space from scratch.

We started by measuring the plot, using each other to measure, using tools, checking the aspect to work out where the sunniest part would be, and we did soil tests, which involved rolling soil into a ball in our hands – this went down very well. The children couldn’t believe they were allowed to get muddy at school.

The result of our work together is a lovely outdoor play area, which the children have really taken ownership of. It has some raised beds for growing vegetables, a stage (their own idea for performing outdoors), a den-building area, fire pit and small bog garden.

On some occasions we have done the simplest tasks like weeding or moving soil, but they always tackle any jobs outdoors with such enthusiasm that I have become even more convinced of the value of this sort of project.

If you have an area in your garden which could be given over to a natural play area, have a go and encourage your children to spend more time in the great outdoors.


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