Adventures in Nature
What would playgrounds look like if children could build them themselves? Maybe something like The Baui, an adventure playground in Hamburg, with its huts, towers, bridges and ladders that the children had created from scratch. I’ve just got back from a study trip with Meynell Games, looking at play and playwork in Germany where I’ve been inspired by some truely great practice. At these construction playgrounds children are given wood, tools, nails and free reign to build the playspace as they chose. The concept is not unique to Germany. There is one, The Big Swing, not far from me in Eccleshill, Bradford, but its the only one I know of in West Yorkshire whereas in Hamburg and Berlin there seems to be one in every neighbourhood. Thousands of children and young people are able to spend all their free time hanging out in these freeform playgrounds that they’ve made for themselves.
We visited a wide range of play settings and saw the importance these city cultures place on quality play opportunities. The school playgrounds we saw were not designed by children, but the landscape architects had consulted with them first and incorporated their ideas into the plans. What results in an exciting space that offers engagement and challenge; 7ft walls to jump off, steams to play in, hillocks to roll down and secret hiding places where the teachers can’t see you. It’s enough to send the Health and Safety Officer into meltdown, but its actually had a positive effect on accident rates; there are more accidents but they are a lot less serious i.e. bruises and grazes not broken limbs and concussion (a fact duly noted by their insurers). When you think about it, when all you have to play in is a rectangle of tarmac you’re more likely to climb the walls that surround it or run across it at full tilt to find some level of challenge. As may people are now recognising, taking managed risks is important to gain an understanding of ourselves, stretch our abilities and consequently learn to challenge ourselves in other areas of our lives. If children are wrapped in cotton wool and don’t learn to manage their own risks, as young adults they may play it too safe or take unacceptable risks through a poor awareness of danger.
There are some brilliant examples of exciting and challenging playspaces in the UK but the ubiquitous primary-coloured swings/slide/climbing frame combination is all too familiar wherever you go in the world. Having grown up with these we might ask ourselves ‘what’s the harm in fixed equipment and safety matting?’, but the trouble is we also grew up with playing outdoors, building dams and dens and generally running free whereas today’s children are much more supervised. The school playground or the park offers the most free play many children get, so we need to make sure it offers variety, risk, challenge and flexibility. We need a wide range of materials, heights and surfaces, we need loose parts which can be arranged and rearranged according to the game and most of all, we as adults need to feel confident in allowing children to managing their own risks. Its time to stop playing it safe.
At parents’ evening last week I was flicking through my daughters’ literacy books. Story after story concerned adventures in the woods; getting lost and having to build a den to sleep out, meeting bears and other wild animals, cooking campfire teas for fairies. Some of the inspiration for this writing must have come from their experiences at forest school. Working in schools, I often hear teachers say that pupils are struggling with writing, not over pencil skills, phonics or spelling, but because they don’t know what to write about.
As a child I was an avid reader of Enid Blyton stories. My siblings and I would roam the countryside looking for Famous Five style adventures. (Once we did find some stolen treasure, but that’s another story). We built dens and campfires and cycled or walked for miles only coming back when we were hungry, but these days children have nothing like this freedon. Our worries about traffic and stranger danger mean we keep our children where we can see them. TV and computer games keep them occupied indoors and experiences outside the home are often prescribed and controlled; dance classes, swimming lessons and visits to the shops. There seems little space and time for children to play freely and invent their own stories, so its no wonder some are not inspired to write.
I’m working with a year 1 group this term (5&6 year olds) and we’re focusing our forest school on storytelling. So far we’ve created a story together about an old lady, a dragon and some burried treasure. The outdoor space and freedom to act out the adventure means the story has become real. (I knew this had happened when one of the children complained the dragon had just bitten her!) We’re collecting the photos and drawings in a class book which the children can write in week by week. Like all children they are naturally inventive and I’m enjoying hearing about fairies with spots and heros with nettle hair and huge moustaches. Their teacher has taken the book back into the classroom to encourage more writing in between sessions; I look forward to seeing the stories evolve.
Nature has always inspired people to write and children are no exception. I have a collection of drawings and writing that children have given me following forest school (e.g. “Forist shcool is the best shcool ever”). I’m going to scan them and create a gallery on my Facebook page, because they inspire me that this is a job definately worth doing
How muddy is too muddy? Forest school programmes run all year round and given our British climate we are lucky to be able to experience a wide range of weathers from hot and sunny to damp and rainy, often all in the same day. We’re outside a good chunk of the day so whatever the weather is doing, we feel it first hand and encounter its effects whether its slippy surfaces, a breezy fire or steam rising from your wellies. Last week I ran a session in the snow with some pre-school teachers and we enjoyed exploring the play possibilities it offered, such as making footprints and slides. I love the fact that the drama of the changing seasons mean that sites never look the same from one visit to the next. On our weekly sessions we can observe the tiny changes such as the trees gradually coming into leaf, puddles drying out to dust. Our St Ives and Middleton Woods forest school programmes run in the school holidays so there is 6 or 7 weeks between each one and the children comment on the profound changes to their bit of woodland; the reduced light levels due to leaves on the trees, the leafy woodland floor becoming a carpet of bluebells. (more…)
I’ve been scanning the skies for any sign of aurora borealis, which was predicted to make a rare appearence above the UK this week. I’ve seen some amazing recent pictures taken up in Scotland. However a good helping of cloud and the ambient light pollution in our part Yorkshire are making sure the only northern light we can see is the orange glow of Bradford street lighting. This wasn’t the case when I was down in Herefordshire at the weekend. England’s least populated county has virtually no light pollution making stargazing on a clear night child’s play. (more…)
I love Christmas, but as the big day gets nearer I start to wonder if I love the idea of it rather than the reality. Its such a busy time of year, with a month full of concerts, fairs, Christmas shopping and and trying to tie up work so you can take some time off. The joy of the season just seems to be lost when you’re stuck in a crowd at the overheated shopping centre listening to Slade on an endless loop. It would just be nice to spend some peaceful time with your family instead of rushing around ticking off lists. We had this in mind when we proposed a family Christmas craft session in the woods.