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Nature Kindergartens and Forest Schools - Creating a vision

The following blog is an excerpt from chapter 1 of Claire Warden's Nature Kindergartens and Forest Schools. This book provides valuable insights on how to create and manage a Nature Kindergarten or Forest School program. In chapter 1, Warden explains how she came to implement the first Nature Kindergarten in Scotland and explores the different values she used to underpin the approach. Please refer to Nature Kindergartens and Forest Schools to read all 13 of her underpinning values. 

'Tell me... What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?' -Mary Oliver

The journey started several years ago when I received a phone call from a lovely person called Sarah. As a mother, she was looking for someone to support a local nursery to prevent its closure. My great 'Life Plan' had not included the development and implementation of a methodology. Sometimes life has a way of unfolding, and for me these forays have afforded a wealth of wonderful experiences across the globe. So, after a meeting with a group of parents we decided to develop the centre as our definition of a Nature Kindergarten linked to the models seen in parts of Scandinavia and Europe. 

The term Nature Kindergarten has come to stand for our definition and approach of naturalistic wild spaces that provide children with a landscape in which to play for very long blocks of time. The approach or methodology about how you work with them in that space is as important and has key aspects that we consider to be effective and essential to our definition. A summary of the key aspects of Nature Kindergarten are defined in each chapter of this book. The Nature Kindergarten journey and this book that stems from it are personal to me. I would like the concept to be personal for you too and to this end, each chapter has some key points to think about or for you to follow on your journey. 

Our decision to create a centre was an absolute conviction that 'natural' spaces both in terms of resources, environments and the mentoring skills of the staff are the most effective and appropriate for children. The more I see, the more it makes you reflect on what is defined as high quality childcare. As I travel the world listening to practitioners who work in a variety of spaces, with a variety of children and their families, I developed an opinion that some f the western traditions developing in childcare and education are not always the best for the inner child. 

These are the values I use to underpin the approach we have:

Small numbers of children in home styled space
The rise of large centres with hundreds of children on roll concerns me for both the emotional aspects of the children but also how the relationship develops with the families they come from, so we decided to create centres akin to children's houses, small units of no more than twenty children in local spaces, so that the link within the local community is supported and in some cases developed. The houses are set up to be just that, small units with cosy spaces, often with log stoves for heat, blankets and slipers make the lodges homely places with direct year round access to wild spaces, everyday. 

Mixed age group sessions
The children work in family groups with 2-5 years old in the same group, this creates what I feel is a more 'normal' way to learn. Family units have the natural age range and give the children a buffer zone where they can be 'emotionally polished' to smooth off some of the aspects and behaviours that do not suit a community based space. The apprenticeship approach to learning has been used for a long time in education and is very effective as long as all children within it experience challenge in their thinking. 

Community hub
In some instances when families do not have extended family around them, urban lifestyles can actually lead to some isolation if there is no common meeting place. Day care of children whether playgroup, family centres, toddler groups or nurseries offer this forum for parents and carers to network and become involved in the community of the centre - a 'fellowship' as Froebel would have said. We decided to offer social experiences such as felt making classes, jewellery making, construction days, eco-days or family sessions for adults to create connections, both within nursery but also at weekends, holidays and evenings. 

Open-ended resources in visually simple spaces
The rise of over-designed resources with too small a role for creativity can lead to children who are too prescribed in their thinking. The ability to vocalise and reflect, to inspire, and to problem solve are attributes that have come from a place where children have been given some autonomy and the space to 'think outside the box', both in terms of the curriculum and the spaces they are in. The resources we put into the centres are flexible and open-ended that ensures they have multiple uses across the curriculum. The spaces are defined after watching children and their play behaviours so that the organisation of the space makes sense to the children using it. For example the play dough or clay goes into a role play area or as a medium for connecting blocks or modelling characters to use in small worlds both inside and out. 

Risk full learning
The most complex hazards are removed in the nature kindergartens, but the risk remains. The development of a risk adverse society is creating what Tim Gill calls the 'shrinking horizons of childhood' where the independence and freedom of childhood has been curtailed. If we listen to experts from other parts of the world such as America, we find Richard Louv talking of the 'criminalisation of natural play' through public response to children playing in a stream. On the other side of the world we find Sue Elliot who is supporting the development of naturalistic spaces in Australia. The global aspect of the work I now do provides me with the wonderful opportunity to meet the children and these people across the globe. There is a global trend towards risk aversion, but alongside it is a tenacious group of people fighting for a children's right to feel 'the knot in his stomach', the adrenaline, when you start to move out of the comfort zone. The naturalistic spaces are first and foremost for the children, their experiences outside have inspired many people to reflect on their own provision no matter how small or urbanised. 

Eco friendly and sustainable living
The rise of plastic and especially unrecyclable plastic materials has been a concern for the company for some time. Previously, increases in Local Authority funding and grants has lead to a rapid advance in the amount of plastic equipment in centres that in the cause of technology are designed to ping and 'whirr'. There are two aspects of this that concern me. Firstly, is the environmental impact where the amount of plastic going into landfill sites is truly staggering. Given that the children using the resources are going to be the ones facing the waste minimisation and handling it is only right that we start to ask questions on their behalf so that the earth is still beautiful in sixty years time. Where do broken resources from educational spaces go? Do people ask about the disposable options when they buy a resource? Our approach has risen out of an ecological awareness. It almost passes as a given that all the Nature Kindergartens hold a green eco school status. For international readers, this is a quality indicator in Scottish education that ensures that centres work in environmentally aware communities, encouraging children to reduce waste, power use, litter, water use, and promote sustainability, healthy eating, biodiversity and the use of school grounds. 

Secondly, the closed resources often have very limited play affordance and therefore flexibility to the learner. If too much emphasis is placed ojn the artificiality of materials, trying to replicate reality, I would question why not just use real materials. In most cases they are far more sustainable, especially if they have had a natural evolution, for instance wooden wheels. 

We hope you enjoyed this except from Nature Kindergartens and Forest Schools by Claire Warden. The full book is available from the Mindstretchers shop in both a physical print format as well as a digital e-book. We are able to ship internationally. 

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