This week began for me with much eagerness, long before it commenced. Not only because I have a passion for outdoor learning, but as a parent of an ex-Secret Gardener, I have witnessed first-hand the incredible outcomes children experience from attending this award-winning outdoor nursery.
Presence, nature, play. So much more than a motto, but unquestionably the essence of this wonderful nursery. Those three words completely encapsulate not just my own experiences this week, but undoubtedly those of the children I had the privilege of joining in the woods.
Having children outside year-round for 8 hours a day certainly provokes surprise amongst some people but having witnessed the benefits through my own daughter and by experiencing 4 days in the woods with children this week, it has thoroughly reinforced my perception that the benefits are invaluable.
Each day for me began with a ‘tune-in’ with other staff, 10 minutes before children arrived at the park in Letham. A chance to ground oneself, to breathe the fresh, crisp autumn air, feel the ground beneath our feet, become tuned into/aware of our surroundings and check in on each other and how we are feeling that day.
Instantaneously, I felt at ease. A deep sense of presence.
Day one was a shadow day, instructed to observe the children at a distance, thinking along the lines of ‘David Attenborough and animal watching’. There is a significant focus, which I witnessed throughout my week here, on allowing children to find their own play and inspiration within the outdoor environment and an understanding of the way in which adult input can (unintentionally) negatively influence this.
One of the first significant observations I made (although I had already experienced this from a parent’s perspective) was the gentle, nurturing nature of the staff and strength of relationships they had with the children and parents. This caring, thoughtful, safe ethos was evident at every stage throughout my week; from friendly, meaningful interaction with parents at drop off, complete understanding of and respect for the children and parents, to the gentle manner staff have with children, even down to radios being used between staff to avoid the need for any shouting. Every necessary action, from gathering together for the walk to and from the woods, to washing hands, going to the toilet before lunch, and thanking the woods for having them, has a song. A beautiful, responsive way in which to direct instruction in a gentle manner without simply talking at the children and telling them what to do. One highlight for me is a short water break on the slow meandering walk, taken at the children’s pace, up into the woods, where a song (which the children discuss and decide on the topic) is sung to the cherry tree. It is very apparent, and inspirational, to see the level of voice children have in every aspect of their time with Secret Garden. Their thoughts and who they are as people are truly valued.
Promoting independence and asking peers (rather than adults) for help if needed, was also evident throughout every action taken by staff. From play, to encouraging children to collect, put on and fasten their backpacks before the walk to and from the woods, packing up their lunches, putting on gloves and decision making. I was very cautious in my attempt not to get too involved or instigate conversation or play, but to observe and respond to child-led conversation directed my way in a way to keep the focus on their thoughts or gently redirect back to them. One example of where this was particularly apparent, was the daily walk up though the picturesque village of Letham to the woods overlooking. Holding hands with children for the walk naturally led to conversation, observing the delight and wonder the children found in absorbing their environment, watching birds hop through bushes, waving at tractors, watching the rain rushing down the side of the road, flooding into the drain, all instigated much conversation, which I had to work hard to step back from and participate in when prompted, but not lead. I found this became easier as the week went along.
Moving up through the village and beyond our stop to sing to the cherry tree, another pause is taken at the ‘thinking spot’, where song is sung, and children share their thoughts on the weather, wind direction and between them, suggest the best area of the woods to use as base for the day. ‘Moon Den’ was the most popular choice for my week there. Being a very wet week, it provides a large tarpaulin to give some protection from the elements during lunch.
Moving into the woods and entering a quiet space where play is allowed to develop naturally by the children at their own pace, adults being encouraged to step back to a non-invasive distance to prevent disruption of the magic that unfolds. From an observer’s perspective; the play, resilience, imagination, teamwork and creativity I witnessed was more than I could ever write about. It’s hard to put into words the wonder I experienced myself at having the opportunity to glimpse into the life of a Secret Gardener. From observing mudslides, to races in the woods, creating roads through the leaves, Peter Pan’s house, pushing up tarpaulins to delightfully watch the rain rushing off, taking turns leaping from bale to bale, to the inquisitive minds admiring rain drops running along a piece of string and inventing their own water drains by placing small branches over the string, allowing the rain to rush down the twigs. This last one was particularly interesting to observe as I was able to see how careful, selective questioning from the staff member can at times, when used delicately, enable even deeper inquisition.
Resilience is a trait that oozes from these children. I don’t recall hearing a complaint throughout my week. All this despite them facing challenges, falling over, getting wet/cold on occasion, struggling to find a way for something to work. Yet they all had the resilience to keep going. Watching a child charging full speed before falling face first in the mud, picking themselves up and carrying on laughing is quite exhilarating to see!
Behaviour management was something I saw very little need for. This environment lends itself incredibly well to freedom of every sort. For this reason, it seems there is always something of interest for their inquisitive minds and enough space and freedom to seek out a quieter, reflective spot if that is what a child feels they need. Where there was any need for intervention, it was done in a very quiet, gentle, effective manner and quickly resolved.
(Reasonable) risk taking and self-risk assessing is something I was delighted to see so much of. Not just throughout play, but also through activities like fire-lighting (which they had asked to help with). This led them to instigate a fascinating conversation around properties of fire. Although I didn’t see it during my week, I am aware the children are also allowed use other tools/saws etc in the woods, all of which are critical in improving safety awareness, strength/motor skills, and developing the important life skill of making judgement about risk.
There are some routines throughout the day and as described earlier, these are initiated beautifully, and responded very well to, through song. Lunch time at 11:30am is preceded by a toilet and wash hand routine (both of which have their own song). Snack at 2:30pm consists of fruit, vegetables and rice/oat cakes and is prepared in the village hall opposite the park in the morning before being carried up to the woods with any other small kit needed for the day. ‘The garden’ was another base used on a particularly cold day as it offers a yurt with a stove to offer slightly more protection from the elements if needed (although this nursery runs all year-round, so the children are well wrapped up and prepared for all weathers). However, the yurt and garden also provide a good base within the woods to keep some larger kit (tarpaulins, spare clothes, compost toilet, etc) closer to whichever base is used each day.
This inspiring week has enlightened me further into the magical experiences of the Secret Garden children. Having deepened my knowledge and passion for outdoor learning, it has allowed me a greater understanding of how to create and implement an enabling, child-led outdoor learning environment for my future primary classes.
Carol Duncan (placement reflection, November 2018)