The Conductor Laetitia Devernay

I found Mudlark Find Number 8 in a small art shop in the village of Haworth (West Yorkshire – where the Bronte sisters lived) this summer, and to my delight it’s available to the rest of the world through Amazon (there are several other interesting looking books in the section ‘other customers who bought this item also bought…’).  The description given is a good representation of what I felt about this simple but deep publication:

“The Conductor” is a striking and award-winning illustrated volume, originally published in French, that tells the story (without words) of a symphony conductor who ventures into the forest and conducts a musical movement of trees that magically become birds in flight. Eloquently written and beautifully illustrated, readers are drawn to its pages spread after spread. As this charming tale unfolds, the reader explores colour, perspective and motion throughout an amazing musical transformation; readers can almost hear the score swelling off the pages…This picture book is hard to classify, but ultimately its distinctive vertical trim size and enchanting story line will draw in art and music lovers alike”.  

Children will also be drawn to it I’m sure, and it will be a really good book to accompany children’s pleasure in playing with falling and fallen leaves through the autumn and winter months, adding wonderfully to their imaginations while doing so.

With this section of my website, I share some of the many wonderful treasures I dig up while researching and supporting outdoor play for children from birth to seven. I hope they inspire you too, and help you to create motivational, meaningful and satisfying outdoor play experiences for all the children you work with.

Mudlarking is the ancient practice of digging in the mud of the Thames to find treasures.  It still goes on today, uncovering and recovering some amazing artefacts from the life of London city through the centuries.  Click on this link for more information about mudlarking.

Green Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Mudlark Find Number 7 is an award-winning book published by Roaring Brook Press that is great on many levels for supporting outdoor play and ecological connection.

The artist’s paintings are evocative, textured and beautiful, each page leads the looker-reader to anticipate the next, and it has a good environmental message – ending with the colour ‘forever green’.

Most of all, I like the attention it gives to the subtlety in colour and the names we give to all the different greens we can notice and enjoy.  The language used for this is also excellent: “jungle green, khaki green, fern green, wacky green; slow green, faded green, glow green, shaded green” – superb!  This should make children and educators and alike want to go searching and look much more closely at what we mean by green – and to give those greens their own names…

With this section of my website, I share some of the many wonderful treasures I dig up while researching and supporting outdoor play for children from birth to seven. I hope they inspire you too, and help you to create motivational, meaningful and satisfying outdoor play experiences for all the children you work with.

Mudlarking is the ancient practice of digging in the mud of the Thames to find treasures.  It still goes on today, uncovering and recovering some amazing artefacts from the life of London city through the centuries.  Click on this link for more information about mudlarking.

Imagine if all this rain was actually snow!

Imagine if all the rain we had this winter was actually snow!

During last summer, I was invited by my friends at Community Playthings in the USA to write about ‘risk and challenge’ for their Collage newsletter.  It now sits under the ‘Resources/ Articles’ section on their website, and can be found here. Later in the year, while I was over there presenting at the NAEYC annual conference with Mary Rivkin (author of The Great Outdoors: restoring children’s right to play outside, which is just due out from NAEYC in 2nd edition), I was fortunate to visit with these lovely people in upper New York State.  We visited several outdoor-oriented early childhood settings together, one of which was Saratoga Springs Waldorf Nature Kindergarten based in Saratoga Springs State Park.  It was apparently 8 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s minus 13 degrees Centigrade!) overnight and all the water in the marshy wood was frozen solid.  The children literally threw themselves at all this had to offer and their play was fabulously physical and social.  What I witnessed certainly fitted with my thoughts about making sure children can embrace their life with the enthusiasm they are born with.  The staff commented that they weren’t used to visitors being so comfortable with their approach to challenge and risk! Thanks Rae for the experience.

Here’s what I wrote.  For the other articles in the same newsletter by Joan Almond, Deb Curtis, and Lenore Skenazy, click on these links.

Embracing life with enthusiasm – supporting young children to become competent, confident, courageous and resilient. 

“Young children need challenge and risk within a framework of security and safety.  The outdoor environment lends itself to offering challenge, helping children learn how to be safe and to be aware of others.  Children are seriously disadvantaged if they do not learn how to approach and manage physical and emotional risk.  They can become either timid or reckless, or be unable to cope with consequences.” [1]

What helps you to embrace life with enthusiasm?  What helps you to take advantage of opportunities that make your life richer, more interesting and more successful?  What is it about you that enables you to go for a new, as yet untried or intriguing experience?

Some of these things have to do with how we think about the challenge involved and its risks: is it too scary, will I be able to do it, will it go wrong, can I manage if it doesn’t work out?  Feeling safe and comfortable in a novel experience comes from having developed a sense that we can cope with the challenges around us, and manage the consequences if things do not go as planned.

If children are to be able to take advantage of the opportunities their lives offer them, and grow into people who feel like they can ‘go for it’, deal with uncertainty and enjoy whatever happens, then they need a childhood filled with opportunities to develop the appropriate dispositions, knowledge and competencies that allow them to both feel secure and to be safe.  Consider too that challenge has physical, emotional, social and intellectual components, so children need to build ‘risk-competency’ in all of these areas.

I am very aware from my work in the UK that the outdoors is seen as more dangerous than indoors for young children, with ‘outdoor play’ and ‘risk’ almost being contingent terms in the minds of many practitioners and parents.  Since accident statistics simply do not bear this out, I suspect that media and marketing share much of the blame for this creeping belief.  Such increasing fear levels in our societies, with the resultant change in childhood experience, are of great concern because of the harm that this is so ironically doing!  The danger is that, by attempting to remove risk, we remove the vital opportunity to become ‘risk competent’.  For children’s wellbeing and all-round development, it seems that the consequences of not taking risks could be more severe than the potential dangers in risk-taking.  If we are raising a generation who have not learned to manage risk for themselves, will they be able to make sensible decisions, and will they have the capacity to keep themselves safe?  Will they then be fearful of new experiences and unwilling to try things out?

Benefiting from challenge and risk through play outdoors

“Young children need to be able to set and meet their own challenges, become aware of their limits and push their abilities (at their own pace), be prepared to make mistakes, and experience the pleasure of feeling capable and competent.  Challenge and its associated risk are vital for this.  Young children also need to learn how to recognise and manage risk as life-skills, so as to become able to act safely, for themselves and others.” [1]

Among its very many benefits, playing and learning outdoors has the positive value of being more able to offer challenge and stretch in all sorts of ways, providing opportunities for children to find out about their own boundaries and to push at them.  Indeed, humans are biologically primed and driven to do this as a continuous task throughout childhood!  While the vulnerability of children is strongly at forefront of our minds – in our worlds, it is really hard to see the child as competent – the Scandinavian views of children, childhood and cultural values are more balanced towards the robustness of children and the desirability of a resilient, risk-competent population [2].

There are three important pillars that support a child able to embrace life with enthusiasm, and it is our task as adults involved in the child’s upbringing to work hard at putting them in place:

  • Being ready: feeling that life is positive and therefore being able to explore and become engaged.  Being ready also requires a robust sense of ‘self’, with an, “I can” rather than, “I don’t believe I can” or, “I daren’t” approach to life.
  • Being willing: experiencing strong motivation for an activity and therefore wanting to persist (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again).  This also requires the construction of resilience towards ‘mistakes’ and ‘failures’, together with the ability to learn positively from them.
  • Being able: as well as dispositions and attitudes, knowledge must be built up through authentic experience, so that the child actually acquires the skills and competencies needed to be and feel safe.  This includes becoming able to look forward to judge possible consequences and being able to deal with them if they should occur, and also thinking about consequences for others and knowing how to help them.

How are these dispositions, knowledge and skills built?

  • Children can only learn through real, hands-on and challenging experience – supported by more knowledgeable guides, such as adults, who are also ensuring inappropriate risk is removed.
  • They need very many opportunities to learn about themself from the inside, calibrating their body and emotions in relation to the demands of life.
  • They must have a huge amount of opportunity to gain knowledge about the world, learning how it works and behaves, and becoming able to predict what might happen.
  • As well as becoming aware of potential risks in their actions so that they can manage them, children need to become able to react positively when unexpected things do happen, and draw on suitable responses to keep themself safe.  This means experiencing tricky (appropriately risky) things, in a supportive and nurturing environment, so that a personal response repertoire can be gradually acquired!

Role of the ECE setting

“Safety of young children outdoors is paramount and a culture of ‘risk assessment to enable’ that permeates every aspect of outdoor provision is vital for all settings. 

Young children also need to feel secure, nurtured and valued outdoors.  This includes clear behavioural boundaries (using rules to enable freedom), nurturing places and times outside, and respect for how individual children prefer to play and learn.” [1]

It is our duty and task to ensure that our children grow up able to embrace life with enthusiasm: to understand their limits but seek to push them at a comfortable level and pace, to know how to keep themselves and others safe, to be adventurous and have courage, to be able to enjoy the uncertainty of new experiences through knowing (a deep belief gained by personal experience) that they can cope with this, and to bounce back when things have not gone well.  These need to be internalised so that the child really believes this about his or her self.  This can be constructed only through a great deal of personal experience of suitable challenge (with appropriate risk), where they are supported or guided just enough to become independently successful.

Making this happen takes time, will, attention and on-going effort.  It requires conviction and a values-based, whole team approach; a clear and well-articulated rationale for the benefits of outdoor experiences and for offering challenge to children; parents who are well engaged with the desirability of play outdoors; lots of staff and parental discussion and professional development; attentive, confident and courageous educators who feel well supported; constant review and reflection; a framework of proportionate, reasonable and sufficient safety that enables beneficial experiences (making things as safe as necessary, rather than as safe as possible); forward thinking and contingency planning.  However, the two most important strategies are to know each child well as an individual, working to that individual’s style, pace and interests, and to actively involve children at the heart of your risk management processes.

What we are doing in the UK

In the UK, thanks to a very active play sector, we now have an established and positive Government-endorsed approach to risk in play and education, enshrined in a high level statement from the Government’s own Health & Safety Executive together with comprehensive guidance for a ‘benefit-risk approach’ to risk management in place of risk removal [3].  We have a long journey ahead to turn around the juggernaut of risk aversion, high anxiety levels for our children and deep concerns about litigation, to reinstate the well-established connections between hands-on outdoor experience, challenge, risk-competency and positive life dispositions [2].

However, we really do seem to have begun that journey, and there is certainly a desire and willingness amongst many educators and play professionals to be brave enough themselves to address this.  The ‘risk of no risk’ has been recognised and is rising in our awareness to counter our risk-aversive culture, such that we can be optimistic that our children might indeed become “competent, confident, resilient and self-assured” individuals [4], who can, both now and in their future, embrace life with joyous and brave enthusiasm.

[1] The Shared Vision and Values for Outdoor Play in the Early Years (The Vision & Values Partnership, 2004) can be downloaded from janwhitenaturalplay.wordpress.com

[2] Risk Competence: Towards a pedagogic conceptualisation of risk, Eichsteller, G. & Holthoff, S. (ThemPra Social Pedagogy C.I.C) is available at www.social-pedagogy.co.uk

[3] Managing Risk in Play Provision, Ball, D., Gill, T. & Spiegal, B. (Play England and the Play Safety Forum, 2008) is a downloadable PDF from www.playengland.org.uk

[4] Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (Department for Education, 2010) Principle of the Unique Child

Thanks to Community Playthings for the great image, which accompanies my article on their website.

Timmy Time Sport Relief

21st-23rd March is Sport Relief weekend – and that’s not far away.  The charity has created a lively lamb Timmy to engage young children in being physical on the day (and beyond of course) – playing Hide and Sheep, Sheeplechase and (best of all) Woolly Jumpers.  Free downloadable resources are available (if you need them) from Sport Relief’s nursery page Timmy Time.  Incidentally, the favourite play of Ramatu, the 4 year-old from Ghana featured on the site, is… making mud pies.

One of the things children most love to do is to jump and leap (and it’s really good for the development of balance and body awareness, as well as contributing to fitness and happiness), so I can see this being a very popular idea.  If you’d like to investigate leaping further, take a look at the DVD The Sounds of Leaping from Sightlines Initiative.

Fantastical Guides for the wildly curious

Fantastical Guides for the wildly curious

Ways into Hinchingbrooke Country Park by Deb Wilenski with Caroline Wending

Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination Fantastical Guides for the wildly curious

Deb Wilenski and Caroline Wendling have watched and listened – patiently, perceptively – over months to these children, and what they have learnt from them is astonishing. To read this book is to see innocently again, and to renew your sense of words as being able to forge and conjure. It brims with the power of make-believe.
Robert Macfarlane (author of Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways)

I gladly accepted the invitation from Sightlines Initiative to write a review for this lovely and important text, which appeared in their newsletter in September.  The book is available to purchase from Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination online shop (£7.50), and more can be found about the Hinchingbrooke Project on the excellent CCI Footprints blog.  But don’t stop there – dig more into the subject by listening to a discussion event called ‘You are where? Finding real and fantastical ways into wild places’, which includes presentations from Deb Wilenski and Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places.  

Here is my review of the book:

This book records a highly perceptive piece of work with young children.  It is written for the people who visit the park and also for people who want to explore the remarkable minds of children, to deepen their thinking about childhood and education, and for educators trying to work out how to be with children in the outdoors.  It illustrates on the one hand, how being outdoors in a natural environment can be powerful for children and their thinking, and on the other, how to harness the special nature of the outdoors and how to work outside with young children. 

This small book is many things.  It is an enquiry into the remarkable imaginative state of childhood.  Children take their imaginations seriously: real and fantasy are purposefully intertwined as a way of exploring the world, the self and relationships, as an authentic way of discovering and making meaning together.  Perception and processing in the child’s mind (child-think) is so different to adults’: though this study we clearly see this at work and witness how it is supported and maintained rather than turned into adult-think.  Deb’s thoughtful language takes us deeper into interpreting children’s dialogues and actions; and deeper into understanding and appreciating the power and complexity of what is taking place.  I recommend therefore that this short book is read through first to get the feel of the journey, and then read again slowly, delving into the layers of what is being told.

It is also serious research into the phenomenon of being outdoors, in nature, and as a child.  Why do we take children into woodland?  Why do we do Forest School?  And, importantly, what can we take back from this into everyday provision and practice?  Some things stand out in this research.  The elemental imperatives of mud, water and wood.  The intensely three-dimensional nature of woodland, sky and below-ground.  The multiplicity of ways into and through the woods, and the layers of existence and discovery to be found there.  That physicality is so important and that physical and imaginative journeying are inseparable, making children powerful, adventurous and brave.  And perhaps most of all, the ease with which children respond to and find identity with the atmosphere and feelings, the features, objects and processes in natural environments – and the ease with which they share and communicate this with each other.  The research makes a very strong case for using natural spaces for outdoor experiences, or strengthening the ‘wildness’ of on-site outdoor and indoor provision .  As children got to know and gave identity to their place in the park, they built their own identity from being in it – “I was there”.

Thirdly, it is a study into the pedagogy of being in the outdoors with young children, revealing many important pedagogical elements.  What children did in the woods, as they discovered their own ways and places, was what made them part of it.  Free and uncluttered by equipment and adult agendas, the visits were repeated over a long period of time and in changing conditions that uncovered different aspects of the wood’s personality, offering ‘new lands’ which the children encountered with enthusiasm, collaboration and courage.  Adults who ‘walk alongside’ children, present, attentive and available, can listen more intensely to what children are telling. What is clear here is the effort in the adults’ thinking and understanding, and therefore an exciting awareness of what is really going on for the children.

Finally, it is an exploration into linkage and continuity between practice outside in a visited place and inside where everyday learning takes place, showing us how to connect children’s outdoor and indoor experiences so that they build upon each other.  Intentionally bringing the worlds and wildness of the woods into the classroom substantially influenced the nature of ‘indoor’ learning experiences, and harnessed what that environment could provide for revisiting the real and fantastical place that the park was becoming – stories, research, drawing, projection, sculpture and so on.

During this project, the children became acutely interested in the idea of ‘doors’ as a way of launching new imaginings, stories and ways of being in this place.  Doorways as thresholds and portals are about freedom, excitement and adventure.  In these woods anything is possible and children know how to find it.  In revealing this place “as it has never been known before”, this insightful and exhilarating book offers a doorway for everybody and anybody to discover the outdoors as it has never been seen before.  Jan White, Sept 2013

In December 2011 and then again in April 2012, I contributed to the Nursery World conference on the ‘National EYFS Review: successfully implementing the revised framework‘.  My contribution was looking at Physical Development – why it had become a ‘prime area’ (hooray) and what really effective outdoor provision for physical development would include.

This led to me being asked to write several articles – for Nursery World’s equipment special on Physical Development, published in Spring 2012 (article in a previous post – part 1) and for Early Years Update, published in Summer 2012 (articles in a previous post- part 2).  I’ve also now been invited to write on this subject for Exchange magazine in the USA, published in the May/June 2013 edition (article in this post).

This has become a key part of my work and I’ve become something of a crusader for children’s need to MOVE and BE PHYSICAL.  I’m now facilitating a new Post Graduate Certificate [MA in Education (Early Years), double module 60 credits] in Children’s Physical Development from birth to Seven in collaboration with paediatric physiotherapist Sue Heron of Tatty Bumpkins, at the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) in Birmingham.  This will run alongside my double module Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood, which is running again successfully this year.  Both courses start mid-October – contact CREC for further details about the 2014-15 courses.

Exchange is the magazine produced by the World Forum Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to promote an on-going global exchange of ideas on the delivery of quality services for young children in diverse settings – over 80 countries are involved.  Exchange is distributed mainly in the USA, however a digital international edition is also available (currently free for the first year’s subscription).

Thanks to Petra Arzberger and parents of children at Children’s Oasis Nurseries in Dubai for their very kind permission to use the great images in this article, taken on my visit there in January 2013.

39 Exchange Somersaults and Spinning p1 copy

39 Exchange Somersaults and Spinning p2 1 copy

39 Exchange Somersaults and Spinning p3 copy

39 Exchange Somersaults and Spinning p4 copy

blossom buddies

Mudlark Find Number 6 is a book I’m adding to my Fairies collection.  Found in the nursery classroom of my good friend and inspirational teacher, Vanessa Lloyd, now of St Asaph VP Infant school in North Wales, Blossom Buddies: a garden variety makes me smile.

Inspired by her 3 year-old son’s love of being outside, Elsa Mora describes how she “went out with a basket and collected some natural elements like petals, branches, leaves… and started composing silly characters with them in my studio.  Since they were so fragile I decided to take some photos so I could look at them later, and that was the beginning of the series of flower characters in this book…  I hope that the pages in this book bring a smile to your face and also make you think that it is important to slow down sometimes and enjoy the simple things that life and nature have to offer us every day.”

The petal, twig and leaf characters on each page look like a cross between fairies and aliens, and also make you appreciate the complexity and detail of flower parts.  The book itself has around 140 individual flower characters, but you can also purchase a calendar with twelve of the best on a bigger scale (I’ve taken mine apart and laminated each page for use outdoors) and a delightful set of notelets called Ecobuddies (unfortunately only of one of the petal fairies) that would go down well in an outdoor writing kit.

With this section of my website, I share some of the many wonderful treasures I dig up while researching and supporting outdoor play for children from birth to seven. I hope they inspire you too, and help you to create motivational, meaningful and satisfying outdoor play experiences for all the children you work with.

Mudlarking is the ancient practice of digging in the mud of the Thames to find treasures.  It still goes on today, uncovering and recovering some amazing artefacts from the life of London city through the centuries.  Click on this link for more information about mudlarking.

Futurelab – Projects Archive – Mudlarking in Deptford

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