Many of us are planning our provision around being outside more of the time. It is my view that this will do more than just limit the spread of coronavirus, but it will also help to combat the lack of nature in our children’s lives and promote a more healthy outlook and lifestyle.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 12% of households have no garden or shared outdoor space, which rises to 21% in London and Black people are nearly four times as likely as White people to have no access to outdoor space at home. This will have made lockdown for those families very difficult, so the time is ripe for us to get outside. You may have heard the phrase ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, coined by Richard Louv, which despite sounding like a medical condition, is a metaphor to describe children who are, quite literally, deprived of nature and the freedom to play outdoors. This can even have an impact on their physical and mental health and wellbeing (Louv, 2010).
My colleague, Annie Davy addresses this issue in her recent book, “A Sense of Place: Mindful Practice Outdoors” (2019). It provides excellent ideas about how to spend time outdoors and use nature as a resource for teaching young children. It explains how children learn through their senses, and the importance of linking with the outdoors whilst being mindful and more available to our children. Nature is all around us and children have a natural curiosity about the world which we can foster as we explore together.
Annie reflects upon the terms ‘biophilia’, meaning that we have an innate affinity with the natural world, and feel happier when immersed in it, and ‘ecophobia’ which is perhaps not so much a phobia, but an irrational fear of things like climate change or natural phenomena, such as hurricanes or lightning. The difference between someone feeling anxious or worried about the natural world versus someone who loves to be in nature, will be the amount of time they spend connecting with nature. She states, “What seems to turn people on to nature in a positive sense is hours spent in a wild or semi-wild place as a child and/or a teacher who had led them to understand, respect and love nature” (Davy, 2019, p.35).
This was certainly true for me. In addition to spending a lot of time on the coast or on Dartmoor, I also remember one particular teacher’s passion for nature and having nature study lessons at school where I learned to love our natural world. We need to ensure that we become those teachers that our children will remember in the future. Awe and wonder used to form part of the curriculum and one of the changes to the EYFS that I welcome is the inclusion of the ‘natural world’, which may help inspire settings to explore nature. The early learning goal in the EYFS reforms early adopter version states,
Children at the expected level of development will:
- Explore the natural world around them, making observations and drawing pictures of animals and plants;
- Know some similarities and differences between the natural world around them and contrasting environments, drawing on their experiences and what has been read in class;
- Understand some important processes and changes in the natural world around them, including the seasons and changing states of matter (DfE, 2020, p.15).
However, it is interesting to note that going outdoors or studying nature first-hand is not mentioned! We must ensure that we take our children outside. If we want them to think about the changing seasons, what better way to teach them than to feel the autumn wind, see the leaves blowing around as they fall from the trees, and to experience the seasons changing for themselves. One lovely activity we often do as a family every autumn is to go on a welly walk and see how many different coloured leaves we can find. We sometimes thread them onto a stick to make almost a rainbow of colour.
Many children are not allowed to pick up and play with sticks due to safety concerns, however, it is my view that such concerns should not prevent this exploration. Instead, we can use it as a learning opportunity and encourage the children to play safely, offering them guidance to keep them safe, for example, remind them where the end of the stick is and to always ensure they are in a space before waving it around. As educators supervising children outside, we must remain vigilant and safety conscious whilst enabling them to still engage with nature, and risk-assess as appropriate.
Here are some practical ideas of how we can connect with nature this autumn:
- Go on a welly walk in the local neighbourhood, try to find some mud to jump in!
- Whilst outside, take a moment to encourage the children to notice the fresh air and fill their lungs.
- Collect some sticks and leaves and use them to create stick-man and his family.
- Make some wild art using any natural materials available (leaves, bark, twigs, petals, conkers).
- Collect conkers and use them as counters.
- Go on a mini-beast hunt and find out everything you can about where they live and what they might eat.
- Create a leaf shape out of card and stick a strip of double-sided tape on it. Children can collect items on their walk and stick them straight on the card.
- Invite the children to find as many different coloured leaves as they can and thread them onto a stick.
- Take photographs of different aspects of the natural environment, we can refer to these when back in the setting and remember our walk…
- Talk to the children about poisonous berries, seeds, plants, and other hazards (e.g. litter) and explain to them what they can and can’t pick up and that they must not put anything in their mouths.
- Go on a senses walk whilst outside to think about what we can see, hear, smell and touch.
- Bring the outside in to help connect the children with nature, e.g. set aside one of our tuff trays to be an exploration tray and include a different selection of natural materials to explore each week.
- Position a bird feeder near a window outside and fill with seed or fat balls, it is surprising how many birds can be encouraged to feed even in heavily built -up areas, then create some simple spotter guides to help children to recognise the different birds.
- Find some sycamore seed ‘helicopters’ and throw them into the air to watch them spin.
- Replace plastic toy food with real seeds, fruit and vegetables in the role play area. There is a world of difference between a plastic pumpkin and a real one!
- Encourage the children to see where fruit and vegetables grow, change the varieties to match the seasons and use for cooking or snack time.
It would be easy to feel negative about the situation we find ourselves in, the changes that have taken place and the things we have to live without at the moment. So let’s try to see the silver lining here and embrace the wonderful opportunity to re-connect with nature and practice mindfulness outdoors.
Further reading and references:
Davy, A. (2019 “A Sense of Place: Mindful Practice Outdoors”, London, UK: Featherstone
Louv, R. (2010) “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”. Atlantic Books.
Office for National Statistics (2020) https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/
DfE (2020) “The Early Years Foundation Stage” - EYFS reforms early adopter version July 2020
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.