Jan White Natural Play

Natural Play, Natural Growth, in the Early Years


Playing & Learning Outdoors wins national award!


Well, it won!  The recently-new second edition of Playing and Learning Outdoors, as described in my earlier post when it was short-listed, has been selected as the winner of the Staff Resources category of this year’s Nursery World awards.  I wasn’t able to attend the Gala Dinner event at the end of September, but the shiny trophy and framed certificate are proudly waiting on my mantelpiece for my children to see when they are home next.  I think this is the first actual trophy I’ve ever won (my son has more than 20 from his childhood football career!).  I’m very chuffed to have this recognition for the book, and grateful for all the ongoing positive feedback I get about how it has helped both students on courses and practitioners who are thinking about their provision outdoors.

Thanks in particular to Julie Mountain (of Play, Learning, Life) and Juliet Robertson (of Creative Star Learning) for their written recommendations for the award, and to Routledge for both submitting the entry and publishing both editions in the first place.  While you’re thinking about good books for outdoor play, check out Julie’s book The Little Book of Free and Found, and Juliet’s Dirty Teaching: A beginner’s guild to learning outdoors – both are wonderful additions to the resources to support effective and satisfying learning through play outdoors.

This is what Julie has to say about the book (she originally wrote this review for her own blog site):

Playing and Learning Outdoors – review

“This is one of the most valuable books in my very substantial ‘outdoor learning and play’ library and I was delighted by the arrival of a second edition, as my first edition is pretty dog eared by now. What makes this book so special is the combination of Jan’s phenomenal knowledge and understanding of this subject, her undimmed delight in it and her generosity in sharing what she knows.

Generosity and abundance are key themes of Jan’s and I love the way that this attitude permeates the book. For example, the potential of elements such as sand are explored thoroughly, examining the value of sand play in early years, offering ideas about good resources for sand play, suggesting ways to enrich the experience, identifying outcomes to look out for and then still more: lists of books, websites and blogs to read. Each chapter begins with an overview of what it covers and ends with suggestions for further research. In between, Jan’s informative and lively writing style engages the reader and clarifies complex pedagogical concepts.

I work with many schools and settings each year and this book is on my ‘must have’ resources list for each of them. Any setting aiming or claiming to provide high quality outdoor play experiences should have this book – not on a shelf, but open, well thumbed and with slightly mud spattered covers and full of hastily inserted post it notes indicating points of interest. It’s a book to be used, not filed. It’s also a book that works within any educational jurisdiction, focusing as it does on children’s key developmental imperatives rather than the narrow educational outcomes Governments (of any and all flavours) seek. Jan’s always been a huge advocate for connecting with the natural world and this is fully explored within the pages of this second edition.

The resource lists and ‘further information’ sections are invaluable references and I’ve found myself delving more deeply into the pedagogical approaches Jan describes in this book because of a intriguing or unexpected signpost to another resource. Impeccably researched, this second edition will provide experienced outdoor practitioners and new students alike with fresh insights and new sources of inspiration.

If you hear Jan speak you cannot help but become captivated by the scenarios she uses to illustrate excellent outdoor play in the early years. This book does full justice to her work and I’d highly recommend it to settings aiming to improve the quality of outdoor play and for practitioners wishing to develop their own understanding of the elements that combine to support high quality outdoor play.”

Thank you Jules and Juliet – and thank you Nursery World!

NWA_blue2014 winner

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Woolly Jumpers for Sport Relief

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.


Make a Mud Kitchen for Mud Day – new guidance published today!

Cooking up something wonderful again

I’ve been so looking forward to posting this post!  It will very soon be International Mud Day (29th June) and what better way to prepare for this wonderful celebration of childhood and nature than to create a mud kitchen with the children in your home or setting?

As a child, I experimented and played with mud, painted with it, dug in it, made mud pies and loved the feel of it on my body.  This fascination led me to study a degree in Soil Science and a lifelong love of the stuff of the earth.  As a four year old, my daughter’s summer was fully occupied with making innumerable ‘concoctions’ with substances from the kitchen, such as flour and sugar, and anything she could find in the garden: soil, gravel, leaves, berries, water.  She spent long periods of time deeply absorbed in grinding, mixing and decanting.  I looked on with delight and marvel at this wonderfully curious and imaginative child; and the scientist in her was clearly evident.  Now as a young adult she has a very enquiring, creative and resourceful approach to life – and is training in Fine Art! (1)

Having contemplated children’s fascination for mud play for many years, I have come to the understanding that everything is there – elemental materials, enquiry, fascination, transformation, alchemy, fantasy, agency and self discovery.  It seems to me that mud play is one of the most valuable and vital experiences we can provide for children – and it certainly should be a core offer outdoors in all early years settings.  Children’s mud play is worthy of attentive observation and focused research by early childhood professionals and parents – and I’d love to see it seriously researched at Masters or PhD level.

Choose the place and make the space

So, as my contribution to International Mud Day in this, its second year, I’m delighted to announce the global availability – as a free online resource – of my new ‘Making a Mud Kitchen’ booklet, published in collaboration with Muddy Faces and several mud kitchen enthusiasts across the UK and Ireland.

Below is an extract from the booklet and the whole document can be found on the Muddy Faces website, including a downloadable PDF.  Please share it widely, in the spirit with which it is published (please acknowledge the author and publisher).  There are hundreds of wonderful, homemade mud kitchens being shared on blogs and pinterest around the world – take a nice long tour and be enthused and inspired!

Making a Mud Kitchen – Just do it!  [© from Making a Mud Kitchen by Jan White]

There is little more important in our physical world than earth and water and they are truly intriguing things, especially when they interact.  Mixing soil, water and a range of other natural materials has a foundational role in early childhood which has deep importance, and endless possibilities for well-being, development and learning.  The breadth and depth of what these experiences offer young children is truly remarkable.

Mud kitchens provide something quite different to a soil digging patch, whilst also being much more easily managed.  A mud kitchen includes elements of the much-loved domestic corner and cooking from indoor play, which are then hugely enriched through the special nature of being outside.  Mud kitchens work well all year round, and need to be seen as a core element of continuous provision outside.

Mud kitchens do not need to be fancy and certainly do not need to cost much.  There is nothing to beat the simplicity and character of creating your own unique kitchen from scrounged, begged and discovered items.  And remember, the best mud kitchens are made in collaboration with the children who will be using them.

Fit it out

Delving into the Meanings of Mud Play [© from Making a Mud Kitchen by Jan White]

Young children are endlessly interested in – and biologically programmed to explore – the stuff of the earth, how materials behave and what they do.

Making connections through discovering and investigating cause and effect is the stuff of brain development and scientific process.  Curiosity, fascination and the pleasure of finding things out are fundamentally important to the human state: being human.

An even more powerful level of experience for the explorer is that they are the one making things happen – giving feelings of control and power, and over time, building a child who has a strong inner sense of agency (which itself is key to well-being and mental health).

The processes of making ‘concoctions’ bring the worlds of science and art completely together through possibility thinking.  The growth of imagination and creativity happens through building on concrete cause-and-effect experience to posing and predicting ‘what if…?’  Good scientists do this all the time, as do artists and all other innovators.

Even better, the experience of making concoctions brings the child into the realms of magic and fantasy – reminding us of the ancient fascinations of alchemy.

Get busy in it!

The best mud kitchens, and those which have the most atmosphere and character, are made from found, gathered and donated items – especially when these come from the children’s own families.  It’s important not to spend much money – what matters to children is that these things come from the real human world, to combine with the stuff of the real physical world.

In order to drive forward my campaign for a Mud Kitchen in every early years setting in the UK, Muddy Faces and I have also been working on a very thoughtful and inspiring range of mud kitchen resources for their online shop, and the first 6 collections have just been released (and discounted for Mud Day):

“The aim of the Mud Kitchen range is to deepen the understanding, importance, value and range of experiences from mud play as continuous provision and to support practitioners to achieve this.  Each set is a collection of beautiful items that wonderfully support young children’s natural desires to explore and discover, imagine and create, relate and interact.  Each collection has been carefully selected starting from what we know young children want to do and with strong regard for how children’s play and learning is best supported during the early years.”

I plan to make an area on this website for gathering useful and sharable materials to support the growth of mud kitchens.  Please do let me know of anything you think should be on there.



(1) text from Playing and Learning Outdoors by Jan White (Routledge, 2008)

All images (C) Jan White Natural Play and the photographers.  With great thanks to all these friends who share children’s passion for mud play as demonstrated in these images, and especially to Liz Knowles and Muddy Faces for their belief and commitment to the cause.


Celebrating Dandelions for Earth Day

Today is Earth Day and, inspired by Juliet Robertson’s recent post about celebrating it (thanks Juliet), I want to celebrate Britain’s best plant – the Dandelion.

Yesterday, after many gloomy and rain-filled days, the sun shone all day long.  As I drove to and from delivering some training at Early Excellence in Huddersfield, I passed verge after verge stuffed full of uncountable numbers of dancing dandelions, fully open and making the most of that lovely heat and light.  What a truly heart-lifting sight an expanse of dandelions is!  What stunning plants they are.  Why on earth do we have such a negative attitude to them, which we most likely pass on to our children?

I often sing the praises of dandelions as play materials on training courses, and have been eagerly waiting for Dandelion Season here in the UK.  I love all the spring flowers, especially primroses having grown up with coppiced woodlands full of them in Kent (mostly developed land now).  But my admiration and feelings for the humble dandelion have grown as I’ve become more aware of just what spectacular plants they are. 

Have you ever noticed how complex and beautiful they are?

Well, they are here now and, as it has been for the last few years, it’s a very good year for them again – and long may they stick around!  Why are they so wonderful?

Ÿ         The flower itself is highly complex and incredibly beautiful, with a dense central area and delicate outer rim; the green bracts on the underside are also lovely;

Ÿ         Their yellow colour is the most perfect yellow: strong, luscious and sunshine-filled (unlike the weak and sickly yellow of the acres of rape seed our country is now covered with at this time of year – have you noticed how it’s taking up residence into our verges too?)

Ÿ         If you feel the flower, especially with your cheeks or lips, it’s exquisitely soft and cool;

Ÿ         If you smell the flower, it’s revolting (apparently bees, ants and moths also like the early nectar source, but I guess this is to attract fly and beetles with different smell sensitivities to humans…)

Ÿ         The stem is long, waxy and curiously hollow, and allows great jewellery to be made;

Ÿ         The white sap from the end of the broken stem, which I was told as a child would make me wet the bed, is intensely bitter and sharp on the tongue, and therefore surely unlikely to make children who play with them wet the bed!  The French name for the plant pissenlit derives from the strongly diuretic roots (it’s also known as Dog’s Lettuce and Mole’s Salad) – I’m glad the more Norman name meaning lion’s teeth (dent de lion – from the shape of the leaves) made it into our language though.  It makes your fingers sticky and dirt-attracting and is hard to get off: fascinating stuff.

Foraging and collecting is an ancient drive so present still in children's play

Not only are dandelion flowers wonderful in themselves, there are also the obvious pleasures of the seeding stage with its exquisite structure and its well-known time-telling abilities; and the value of the leaves to rabbits and foraging humans (both leaves and flowers are edible with high vitamin and mineral content).  But I most love the way dandelions close up when it’s wet and come out to bask when it’s sunny – such enthusiasm for life and pleasure in the here-and-now moment. 

And I especially love the super-abundance of the plant.  The epitome of the R-species (with its high seed production and short life-cycle it has a rapid response to opportunity) the dandelion is an opportunist able to take full advantage of every prospect open to it.  Is this perhaps a metaphor for what we seek to do through early years education, in laying the foundations for a resilient, capable, confident and self-assured person who is able to make the most of their abilities and talents as they grow?

Their abundance is key to their play value

And then, above all of this, is the reason I love dandelions professionally – because they make such stunning play materials, especially when available in abundance:

Ÿ         collecting them feeds our ancient foraging instincts, so visible in children’s play;

Ÿ         arranging them in jam jars is wonderfully satisfying;

Ÿ         they make excellent jewellery – easier and better than daisies;

Ÿ         the heads and stems taken apart lend themselves to pattern and picture making (see also the adult artworks of Andy Goldsworthy and Marc Pouyet)

Ÿ         crushing and using the yellow pigment from flowers and green colour from leaves can contribute to much petal perfume making and cocktail creating.  The milky sap is good for potions and spells, and the roots are interestingly vegetable-like;

Ÿ         they are excellent for garnishing mud pies and other mud kitchen cookery, and have real cooking potential since the whole plant is edible.

The garnish completes the dish

 I am enthused now to do more to promote these fabulous plants for children’s play – and to ensure that they are ‘designed in’ to any play and learning environment I’m involved with. 

I’m also thinking of introducing Dandelion Day as a sister to International Mud Day (29th June) – would you be in on it?

Artists and art; Children and play

All images (C) Jan White, with thanks to Learning through Landscapes and Danish settings visited with the help of Inside-Out Nature for the inspiring experiences of dandelions at work in children’s play.

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Fantastic conference on Environments for Young Children, Berkeley, California, 27-29th June 2012 – Call for proposals open till 25th March!

Shelter 4, Rachel McMillan Nursery School, London, UK

The Global Collaborative OnDesign for Children (OnDesign) is a recently formed working forum of the World Forum Foundation on Early Care and Education, a grass-roots, global network of people working with and for young children.  We are an enthusistic and experienced group of early educators, architects, landscape designers and others who focus on issues related to designing spaces where children can learn and grow – indoors, outdoors and the spaces in between.

The OnDesign collaborative seeks to bring together practitioners and researchers from around the world to engage in a variety of interactions, debates and collaborations. We are seeking to engage professionals involved in working with young children, as well as policy makers, architects, landscape architects and designers in a collaborative effort to understand the needs of children and how best to deliver stimulating environments to support learning, discovery and joy.

The OnDesign Working Forum came together in May 2011 at the World Forum on Early Care and Education conference in Hawaii.  The initiative has been spearheaded in particular through the enthusiasm and dedication of Ken Jaffe, Director of International Child Resource Centre (ICRI) based in Berkeley, California, and is already a good mix of early childhood educators, architects and landscape professionals from across the globe, with a driving group spanning the UK (Jan White), Brazil (Vera Melis), Mexico (Ivan Galindo Herrara) and eastern (mike Lindstrom) and western USA (Paul Roberts and Ken Jaffe).

We are eager to make it possible for practitioners and researchers in all relevant fields to come together so as to learn from each other and to initiate collaborations that can take thinking and action into new places.  It is important for us that this is a global initiative and that we are learning about and developing the quality of environments for young children in all parts of the planet and all walks of life, and the Global Collaborative OnDesign for Children is thrilled to announce its first International Working Forum

Boroondara Preschool, Melbourne, Australia

This working forum will challenge views on model building design for children, present state of the art building reviews from around the world, provide opportunities for deep discussion of approaches to incorporate the latest design features into children’s buildings and spaces, and establish an international network under the Global Collaborative OnDesign for Children that will offer a dynamic interface between architects, landscape designers, early childhood educators, planners, local and national governments, and the greater public on issues related to design of optimal buildings for children.

  • Dates: June 27-29, 2012 evening reception on Tuesday, June 26, and lively sessions Wednesday, June 27 through Friday, June 29. We also hope to offer optional extensions before or after to visit model sites, celebrate International Mud Day, and enjoy a tour of hidden treasures in the gorgeous San Francisco Bay Area!  More information on these extension activities will be provided when they are confirmed.
  • Location: the Clark Kerr campus of the University of California at Berkeley – Clark Kerr is a beautiful, self-contained mini university with lovely grounds, great food, and world-class facilities including lodging. Across the bay fromSan Francisco,Berkeley is known for its ethnically diverse community, culinary attractions, and amazing building design and scenery.

URGENT – The call for presentationsis open until 11pm, 25th March!  We are planning for a wide variety of presentations, discussion groups, posters, interactive workshops, centre visits and active, hands-on sessions.  If you would like to participate, contribute or just have a suggestion for an interesting topic, please submit an outline proposal online.  We will make selections that create a stimulating, global and well-balanced programme over the three days.

To learn more about, contact or join OnDesign, and for up-to-date information on the Working Forum conference with registration, submission and accommodation details, please visit the OnDesign section of the World Forum website.  To find out more about the World Forum in the UK, contact the UK representative, Laura Henry at Child Care Consultancy.

St Kilda & Balaclava Kindergarten, Melbourne, Australia

 All images (C) Jan White.  Thanks to Kindergartens in Melbourne, Australia (visited with the help of Sue Elliott and Play Australia) for these images showing attention to transition zones that make it easy for children to move between indoor and outdoor environments as part of the ‘indoor-outdoor’ programming that has remained common in Victoria.

Rachel McMillan Nursery School was set up in a very poor part of London in 1914 by nursery pioneers Margaret and Rachel McMillan, with a design that intentionally enabled children to be outdoors as much as possible – the big ‘shelter’ windows folded right back to allow plenty of fresh air indoors as well.