In the Woods

Stepping Forward to Step Back-Winter Care of Children

As much as possible, when facilitating play for children at the Secret Garden we try to hold the space without taking ownership of it, in a culture of  ‘stepping back,’  a gentle yet powerful tool.

One intuitive practitioner worded it perfectly when she said she felt we should be ‘like trees.’ This puts us just outside the frame of play, protective but unobtrusive, not interrupting or directing, and simply maintaining a respectfully distant, quiet watch.

This approach is in concession to the fact that children seemingly at play are actually working hard-creating, testing, inventing and negotiating without adult input is where bonds form, links are made and minor triumphs tot up to major achievements, in social and physical development, and in a healthy trickle of pride, contentment and self-worth.

In every season it can sometimes be necessary to breach this code and step forward again if children need support to interact with each other safely and respectfully, but in the winter months this can increase for a variety of reasons; most presciently there is just simply a need for more 1:1 care.

Ensuring gloves and hats are on, mats are sat on and children are warm and dry, wellies and waterproofs are secured with socks free from leaf-litter or other uncomfy detritus, innovative strategies for pins and needles communicated and tissues distributed, the woods in winter can be thrilling and beautiful but equipping ourselves against the elements and modelling good self-care is vital to maintain equilibrium.  

Keeping spirits up and positive associations with nature ticking along are equally vital, particularly for new Secret Gardeners who haven’t yet experienced a full year in the woods and therefore have not yet been through a full seasonal learning cycle.

So we adapt…beginning with our daily routines. Knowing one of the best ways to stay cosy and rosy is to generate some of your own heat, in the park we try and discourage too much sitting on the swings and to encourage chasing games or climbing and clambering.

We try to keep a good pace walking up and down the hill to the woods, and try to make sure that everyone is kitted out comfortably, to their individual preferences, before setting off. Some children will often feel cold, some hardly ever will.

Warm lunches or a warm drink with lunch are highly recommended, so if children have brought flasks these will be met with great enthusiasm. Post-lunch, the story will often be short and sweet, or incorporate more actions or song, to get the blood moving and muscles engaged after a period of stillness.

Yoga or ‘adventures’ to other parts of the woods are good afternoon activities if children are struggling to zip back into play. 

Laughter and fun being the most warming of all, this is also the time of year when staff and children can really revel in the joy of games. Scavenger hunts, Hide and Seek…Flood, Fire or Freeze…What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?  and many others devised by one of our especially inventive practitioners not only warm the body but also the soul, reinforce connections with the children, and can provide a wonderful distraction from conditions that some may find challenging.

Winter is also fantastic for giving the children the opportunity to help with seasonally-appropriate jobs. Dragging a trug and collecting sticks on a crisp day, learning to saw, hammering rocks or spreading straw all introduce an element of fun, risk, and physical exertion, inspiring confidence via a selection of achievable challenges.

In our Spiral Curriculum, there are a few symbols that glow particularly brightly at this time of year. Ivy (willingness to express needs and ask for support) Silver Birch (showing signs of being confident and feeling safe with others, using assertive and responsible strategies) and Squirrel (sometimes taking initiative with ideas and leading others).

As practitioners, we try to nurture these by modelling warmth in our words and our deeds.

‘Are you nice and cosy?’ has proven to be an inspirational little couplet for encouraging Ivy and Silver Birch moments- it is head, heart and hand-warming to witness children helping themselves and each other with finding and putting on hats, jackets and gloves.

In the post-lunchtime hubbub we might dial up a couple of notches from our usual Whispering Practitioner volume to announce ‘I’m just going to put another layer on as I’ve been sitting still for a while and I want to be nice and cosy.’   

Nice and cosy…nice and cosy…reminders, gentle, consistent and demonstrable, of how to stay comfortable and therefore stay curious-are peppered throughout the day.

Extra layers quietly placed behind children as they eat, clean gloves put on after handwashing, warm fires to sing into and a blanket-lined tent for anyone who needs a rest in a quiet corner… there are so many ways to stay happy in the wild and once established these echo through the days and weeks to circle back again in lovely Squirrel moments.

The children can and do learn the limits of their own comfort and start to manage it on their own terms, inspiring others to do the same.

Staying comfortable enables us to stay curious, and to keep seeking out experiences in the open air-be that icy, wet, or blustery-that reward and fortify us. Looking back once more to the Spirals, the Scots Pine symbol represents ‘a sense of wonder and willingness to explore and engage with new places.’ A tree, and an idea, which is evergreen, and a reassuring constant throughout the year.

Written by Mazz Brown.

In the Woods

The Secret Gardener’s Story 2022 

This story is a collation of all the incredible play the children at the Secret Garden have been engaging in over the past year. Weaving in moments of nature connection, numeracy, literacy and our Spiral curriculum, all of the ideas are the children’s own, all of the quotations are theirs too.  

A great many thanks to the children for the endless inspiration, and to the staff team for their wonderful observations.  

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year. 

Mazz Brown December 2022.  

Once upon a time, some children went to play in the woods.  

On the way they noticed some icy puddles, which some of them wanted to break, but others said the ghosts could catch them if they did that.  

They visited the lambs. They patted one that had only been born that morning, helped to feed another one, and helped to bed the sheep with new straw. And they sat in the tractor! 

When they arrived, the children were busy. Some of them made a fire, collecting wood, sorting the sticks and even making a fire safety circle.  

One was riding on her unicorn and a couple more were talking about a birthday party. “We’re going to play pass the parcel’, ‘and I am going to be 4.’ 

‘You’ll need 15 layers for that and I am 4 and ¾.’ 

From the woods, they could see smoke coming out of the new yurt chimney for the first time.  

They made shapes behind the tarp as the sun was shining on it. They acted out animals, while the others guessed what they were.  

Two children made a stick bus with log seats. The rest enjoyed rides in their bus-it had a round steering wheel made out of branches. 

At lunchtime, there were six strawberry cakes. And for the bad guys, hazelnut soup (it’s poisonous!) Some crumbs were fed to the birds, and the children discovered rhyming words. Tickle and pickle, bear and pear – please and cheese – cat, mat, hat. 

Someone said: ‘If you eat your crusts you’ll get hair on your hands!’ 

Then kittens and dogs were jumping into the swimming pool. 

‘We’re swimming in a sea of leaves!’ one child said. 

A pack of puppies were being walked on their leads. A sloth hung from a tree and a beautiful mural appeared on the woodshed. 

Two ladybirds sunbathed on a twig, and when the sun went in, the ladybirds crawled under the bark.  

There were snowdrops to count, and snow, and snowmen. A den that needed moss putting inside, with a door and a booby trap. And a trip to the zoo to feed pandas, penguins and elephants. 

Someone spent a long time watching a queen bumble bee crawling slowly up a tree…someone else watched a pheasant in the field. 

Once upon another time, the children noticed tulips on the walk up. What colour would they be when they opened?  

Bamboo was needed (for koalas) and plants from different parts of the woods. Curled fern fronds were found, they looked like mini broccoli! Someone drew a big spiral in the leaves, then made wings to turn it into a bee. 

Two children planted seeds they found, discussing how they would need water, sunshine and special wishes to make them grow. 

 ‘I wish, I wish, I wish my plant will grow,’ they said. 

Two others led a yoga class. Workers rebuilt the den, and one made soup for them to have afterwards. It needed more water-it was a bit too thick! 

Then came the new soft beech leaves…two children collected nectar to make green honey.  

The speedboat needed to be fixed to get to Edinburgh zoo. Some other children went to a funfair through a magic gate on a motorcycle, and others on a minibeast adventure…a couple more had toast and butter on the train to Dundee. 

Two children sorted grass. Which was the longest, shortest, medium size? Someone else used sticks to check and compare the height of her baby reindeers. Another found a V-shaped stick. 

‘It could be a triangle or bunny ears,’ they thought. 

‘Or antlers,’ said another.  

‘Or legs for Stickman,’ someone else suggested.  

Others threaded found items onto a woollen ‘loom’ between the trees. 

‘This tree is so tall, taller than me, taller than all of us, taller than the Eiffel tower in Paris,’ somebody said. 

The children saw 11 bees fly out of a hole in the ground, and made a protective area around it to warn others. 

There was a big adventure to Monimail, where there was a stream with green water snakes, and they made garlic soup.  

Someone said: 

‘It was the best day ever.’ 

Once upon another time, there was a Tree Blood Farm, with bark to pick off a fallen tree.  

Some children made a cosy safe nest for a robin, and there were baby wolves, pirates with leaves for treasure, and a pen built for some guinea fowl. 

‘They have wings but can’t fly,’ someone explained. 

Pizza was made and there were races, with children running around the outside of the quarry, and saying ‘well done!’ to each other.  

One child found a tickly ladybird, who opened its wings and flew onto his hand. Another child found a moth, and gently took it on a leaf, telling his friends,  

‘Shh…’ as he showed them. 

Some children decided it was time to rebuild the den again, while others were chatting about the crocodiles in the swamp. Another, while strimming, discovered lots of ripe brambles. 

There was a 5th birthday party with lots of cakes. But then one million Gruffalos tried to crash the party & were scared off with sticks!  

Once upon another time, the children heard a loud noise just as they arrived. Perhaps a deer? Where was it? Where was it coming from? 

There was a new ice cream shop, singing, and musical instruments being played. Some children collected water in the tarp to make potions, some others learnt to count in Dutch. 

One child was galloping along on their uncontrollable horse with cannon booster power. Spaceships were built, and there was ballroom dancing… 

A hairdressing salon, with haircuts, colouring, washing, conditioner and a mega dryer opened.  There was also a Bake Off competition, with some of the children making cakes, and one of them the judge. 

One afternoon, there was a lovely visit from the moth man. He came to show the children different moths he had caught. One of the children also found a moth, she was very gentle moving it. When it flew away another child said, 

‘It’s going back to nature.’ 

The children were invited to collect cooking apples from an apple tree, and they enjoyed freshly picked pears given to them by a kind neighbour in the village. 

One child opened a sweet shop. She had lots of customers! 

The children saw that the leaves were changing colour on the cherry tree, from red to yellow and brown. They saw the geese flying overhead.  

‘It’s like a bow and arrow.’ 

‘It’s like a smiley face.’ 

‘It’s like a Pterodactyl,’ they said.  

The children cooked fish biscuits and blueberry-flavoured sausages, and someone found the smallest baby ladybird ever. Some children went on a trip on the aeroplane but it needed some repairs before it could take off. 

Almost everyone made conker people. Pumpkin soup was made on the fire, and a couple of children visited a funfair and went on a rollercoaster which got out of control…they had to be rescued!  

Others went on a boat ride, and another group worked in a chocolate factory, making treats for all.  There were also autumn raspberries…and lemon balm… 

Once upon another time, the children saw the trees looked bare ‘without their leaves.’  

They watched the wind blow leaves off trees, they listened to the sound of wind, comparing it to the sea. One said, 

‘The wind is tickling me.’ 

Some children weaved willow shapes from broken willow they had found on the ground, wrapping string round to hold them. Others were farmers, ploughing the land.  

Some made Christmas decorations using yarn over a cut out cardboard Christmas tree, and Christmas cards which they delivered, singing. 

‘It’s an adventuring kind of day,’ one child said. 

The snow returned. Snowballs were thrown and some children made a ramp to sledge off a straw bale. They sledged in the field. They even sledged their way home. 

Somebody said: 

‘Giddy up Rudolph!’ 

(Not) The End…  

In the Woods

Watch Out, But Go For It!  

The Benefits of Risky Play 

We have seen many children arrive at the Secret Garden, often having just celebrated their third birthday, and not only get to grips with our unique entry into the nursery day (waterproofs on, backpacks on, playpark interlude, then a half-mile hike up to the woods) but also with the unique terrain, and the risky play opportunities this provides.   

Although everything exciting has some element of risk involved, denying children the right to discover what they are capable of is to deny them vital opportunities to develop and thrive on their own terms. By taking chances in their play, children learn valuable lifelong skills; how to risk-assess independently, how to support, communicate and negotiate with others, how to navigate the sometime-turbulent waters of getting mixed results…  

Naturally, there are limits. The safety of both staff and children is taken very seriously, with risk assessments regularly updated for all of the locations we go to, and through. (Deliberately titled ‘Benefit Risk Assessments’ in acknowledgement that great gains can be made from giving activities with an element of risk a go.) Adults are aware, always watchful, nearby and on hand should they need to step in. 

But in the main, the parameters are set by the child. Although physical dexterity, judgement and observation skills differ, children are naturally primed for survival and intrinsically aware of their own boundaries, capable of measuring risks and making sound judgements. Many children are skilled at self-regulation, with an instinctive sense of their own capabilities. It would be careless to overlook this and prevent them from shaping their individual approach to risk. 

We also have a responsibility to respect and nurture the children’s natural curiosity, enabling and facilitating play that rewards them in the pursuit of it. This cannot exclude risky play, with levels available for all. For every tree that can offer a challenging climb six feet off the ground, (this, we feel, is a comfortable limit) there is a log that can provide a balancing opportunity of just a few inches.  

We believe strongly in helping children to recognise and set their own limits when it comes to assessing and tackling risky play. For example, a child asking a grown up to lift them up into a tree or onto a swing is perhaps not quite ready for a challenge of that size. Which is perfectly fine. With a trusted adult closeby, holding the space for them, often we find this same child will be ready later that day. Or later that hour, or even after a few more minutes of considering, evaluating, emboldening…  

Witnessing first-hand the obvious triumph and pride a child gains by ascending one branch higher, whizzing down a mudslide or landing deftly on top of a hay bale is like seeing a fire suddenly catch. The accomplishment is electrifying, and the child will often whoop, beaming, or run about as a sudden rush of joy powers through them. 

Launching out into the wilderness is exciting. Testing oneself in the wilderness is exhilarating, and returning from the wilderness buoyant from the experience is life-affirming, building independence, confidence, and fanning the flames of self-belief.