Jan White Natural Play

Natural Play, Natural Growth, in the Early Years


New article: Embracing Life With Enthusiasm

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.


It’s Spring now – why not think about going barefoot!

The flat rubber-surfaced conception if a ‘safe’ outdoor environment is clearly not a rich place for providing babies, toddlers and young children with the sensory and loco-motor challenges they need for good development.  Over recent years, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the landscape (topography) and surfaces that children need to be exploring, before they are three as well as after.  I’ve often heard of children going into the woods on their first Forest School visit who have found the woodland floor too challenging and even scary or upsetting (I do also come across adults who are not used to negotiating this bumpy, sloping, unpredictable footing; and finding it quite demanding themselves).  If adults find this ground difficult to manage, they would perhaps not see it as surprising that the children do; but I think this situation is really alarming.  If a child does not possess the balance, eye-foot coordination, flexibility of foot-fall and responsiveness of limb control to react to unevenness in the ground by the time they are three, I think something – or more likely, lots – of important things have been missing in their early locomotor experiences that would act to generate good levels of capability, confidence and self-efficacy in their physical lives (and therefore all other aspects of their lives).  Observing 3 year-olds playing outside in Danish Kindergartens, it became clear to me just how much balance, control and confidence, willingness to challenge themselves and physical freedom these children have, with trust from adults that is combined with an assumption that they are perfectly competent to be doing what they were doing.  So, I’ve spent a lot of time considering what our children have been missing (from birth onwards) and what they need in their lives in general – and from their play outdoors in particular.

Young children need to spend lots of time every day moving in a landscape that provides a good range of different surfaces.  Indoor environments tend to be very limited in the variety of floor surface – wherever the child goes, it is likely to be smooth, firm, free of bumps and of uniform resistance.  Outdoors, children are so often contained and restrained in pushchairs and car seats.  However, while they are crawling, and as soon as they are getting confident at upright walking, they need to experience increasing demand on the body and brain for strong locomotor skills to develop.  A good outdoor environment for this aspect of physical development will offer:

Ÿ         surfaces with variety and that are less predictable,

Ÿ         surfaces that are soft and give way a little underfoot (such as grass, sand and bark),

Ÿ         surfaces that slope and offer a range of gradients,

Ÿ         surfaces with different levels (such as steps and terraces with different ways of getting between them),

Ÿ         uneven and bumpy surfaces that need a lot of attention and response (such as rough and worn grass, woodland floor and boulders for clambering),

Ÿ         surfaces that change with the weather, seasons and over time (such as a ‘mountain’ of loose earth),

Ÿ         contrast as the child moves from one kind of surface to another,

Ÿ         a good variety of things for the child to pull, push and carry while doing all this moving.

How about these wonderful and wise words from the Austrian artist/architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1991), to be found on the wall of the Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna.  Like Gaudi, Hundertwasser made the floors of his buildings uneven, and very beautiful to move on:

“If man is forced to walk on flat floors as they were planned thoughtlessly in designers’ offices, estranged from man’s age old relationship of contact to earth, a decisive part of man withers and dies.  This has catastrophic consequences for the soul, the equilibrium and the wellbeing of man.  Man’s ability to experience ceases and he becomes disabled, mentally and organically. The unseen floor becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet and brings back natural vibrations to man.  It is good to walk on uneven floors and regain our human balance” [my italics].    

During my research in this area, I’ve been drawn into the world of Barefoot Living.  I’ve never liked wearing shoes and was raised to believe it was good to be barefoot.  But until recently, I thought I was unusual and perhaps even a bit weird – I do the gardening barefoot, loving to feel all the different surfaces and sensations through my feet, and finding it unpleasant to have shoes on when I’m out there.  Now I’ve discovered that there is a global community of people who take this much further – and resist the expectations and demands in the West to be shod when out in the community (The case for bare feet).  In finding out more about this, I have come to the conclusion that shoes are actually not good for children’s developing feet and locomotion.  It also makes me think that it’s time to reconsider what we do in outdoor play in early years settings (in the UK), as this is actually an environment where children could go barefoot (and I know that they commonly do in New Zealand).

Ÿ         Why are we so sure in the UK that children should wear shoes when they go outdoors?

Ÿ         Why has it often become a mantra and even a rule that children must put on shoes to go outside? 

Ÿ         Why do we assume that babies should have shoes put on their feet as soon as they start to walk, and certainly if they are outdoors? 

Ÿ         How is it that at least half of the world’s population don’t wear, and don’t need, shoes? 

Ÿ         How did we evolve as bipedal primates without the protection of something on our feet?

Ÿ         Has the world really become more dangerous to our feet, or our feet become so much more delicate?

Ÿ         Why is it so hard to buy shoes that fit feet that have spent a lot of time being unshod – that is, why don’t they make shoes that fit the natural shape of feet?

Ÿ         How have we become so convinced that shoes help young feet to develop well and that we need them for our feet to operate properly?


So much information enters the body via the feet, which the child then makes a response to in order to move successfully, that it is worth contemplating why we are so keen to put shoes onto children’s feet as soon as they are walking.  Surely, at this time particularly, the toddler needs their feet to be feeling the ground and operating as they are meant to.  As Dr Paul Brand observes, “A barefoot walker receives a continuous stream of information about the ground and about his own relationship to it, while a shod foot sleeps inside an unchanging environment” (quoted in Born to Run, McDougall, 2009). 

Observing that “children have an instinctive understanding that shoes are unnatural”, and recommending that “children should not wear closed shoes with toe springs, elevated heels or arch supports until at least the age of eight, or they should at least minimise the use of such shoes to minutes per day” (p77), anatomist Dr Daniel Howell (The Barefoot Book, 2010, p45) explains that even sensible shoes can do the following to feet and gait:

  • diminish the flexibility of the foot and toes,
  • reduce the gripping and push-off functions of the toes,
  • virtually eliminate the sensory feedback between the sensitive sole and the brain,
  • redistribute body weight and load-bearing placements in the foot,
  • alter the positions of joints in the foot, ankle, knee, hip and spine,
  • dramatically reduce the spring action of the arch,
  • reduce considerably the shock-absorption function of the arch      .

So long as the environment has been carefully checked for unacceptable hazards there must be times and places where we can enable children to experience so much more of the world through this wonderfully sensitive, but surprisingly robust, part of our body.  Could we start a movement for barefoot childhood?  I’m certainly going to keep raising the issue and prodding assumptions.  I’d love to know other people’s thoughts…

 All images (C) Jan White, Early Childhood Natural Play.  Thanks to Liz Knowles of Muddy Faces for these wonderful images of the liberated foot!

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Announcing the Landscapes for Early Childhood Network

Digging into what makes a good outdoor environment for young children

The interface between understandings of environments and design processes on the one hand, and understanding of young children and their play and learning on the other, is a very promising arena for exploring and revealing knowledge that might enable us to create really effective outdoor environments for young children to be in. 

However, this is an area that so far has been very little explored, especially in the UK, and in both disciplines the issue of early childhood outdoor environments has been substantially neglected.  It is unusual for ECE training and research to look deeply into outdoor environments, and very rare for landscape students at any level to study environments for young children.  And yet, outdoor environments have recently received large amounts of Government funding for improvement within the English EYFS framework, and in Wales and Scotland there is continuing focus on this area of education.

Landscapes for Early Childhood is a UK-wide network that aims to bring together professionals working in Early Childhood Education (ECE) and Landscape Architecture, and from both academic and practitioner perspectives, experience and knowledge in each field – in order to dig into, explore and discuss the elements that create really good outdoor environments for young children from birth to seven, and for those who work with them.

Founded by Jan White (Early Childhood Consultant specialising in provision for play and learning outdoors) and Helen Woolley (Chartered Landscape Architect and Reader in Landscape Architecture and Society in the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield) in Spring 2011, and supported by PlayGarden, the network has so far met twice: 

 Ÿ         In February 2011 at The  University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England – with input from Helen Woolley, Jan White and Cathy Nutbrown (Professor of Education at The University of Sheffield).

 Ÿ         In June 2011 at Canolfan Tu Fewn Tu Allan (Inside Outside Centre) Colwyn Bay, North Wales – with input from Lisa Williams (Centre Leader), Marie-Christine Schmidt (Landscape Architect for PlayGarden), Cathy Kiss (President of Play Australia, Melbourne) and Sue Elliott (Senior Lecturer in ECE and Author on natural playspaces, Melbourne), and a field visit of the Centre.

 Ÿ         And is holding its next meeting in Carmarthen, Wales on 19th April 2012, where the focus will be on Nature as the Teacher (see Landscapes for Early Childhood page for the programme of the day).

Taking time to think things through...

This meeting is hosted by Eileen Merriman, Senior Lecturer in the School of Early Childhood, University of Wales: Trinity St David and will be held at the Trysordy Resource Centre, with a field visit to where teaching students are introduced to learning outdoors in the Welsh Foundation Phase. 

If you are a Landscape professional and/or academic working anywhere in the UK/Ireland who is seeking to increase understandings of strong and enabling outdoor spaces for young children’s learning and development, or an Early Childhood professional and/or academic with an interest in understanding and developing the quality of effective outdoor environments for young children, and would like to join our network or attend a meeting, please do get in touch with Jan White at jan.white@lineone.net or via this website.

Helen Woolley can be contacted at: h.woolley@sheffield.ac.uk or on 00 44 (0) 114 222 0608

Creating environments that are really good for children

All images (C) Jan White.  Thanks to settings visited in Denmark, facilitated by Inside Out Nature, for enabling us to experience the truly child-led provision and practice as exemplified in these images.


Words Matter – opening up a needed debate?

Poking and pondering...

I remember a conversation with Marjorie Ouvry around 10 years ago, about whether we should be saying Outdoor Play or Outdoor Learning.  We agreed on outdoor play, because of our beliefs that learning happens through children’s own play, when it has meaning to them.  However, I also felt at the time that it was fine to use whichever term helped to create change in the quantity of time and quality of experience children got outside in their early years settings.  If the practitioners, or indeed the local authority staff, needed to think of it as ‘learning’ (being an activity that carried more meaning and motivation for them), then it would be most effective to use that more valued idea.

In the last couple of years though, I’ve noticed increasing use of the term Outdoor Learning and have become uncomfortable about its ascendancy.  Words matter: as words are tools for thinking, the particular words we use in ourheads (self talk) and to communicate with others (think together) influence the way we think – and have an impact on what we then do.  I feel it’s time to open up a debate about the language we are using to think about and develop our practice outdoors.

My proposition is that what we really mean (or should mean in the UK with our traditions for nursery education from the British Nursery School) is Learning Outdoors, not Outdoor Learning.  My reasoning is this:

Firstly, I trained in the 1980’s as a teacher in Science and Outdoor Education.  When you just read the term ‘Outdoor Education’ here, such things as abseiling, creek-walking, canoeing, hiking, sailing etc. probably came to mind – actually that is Outdoor Pursuits.  Outdoor Education should mean ‘education in and through the outdoors’ in its widest sense (education about the outdoors is embedded into all experiences, as well as being focused upon at times).  Outdoor Education tends to mean a particular set of experiences that are indeed deeply meaningful and transformational for the participant, but it does not tend to mean learning in the bigger and wider sense of  ‘in and through’ being outdoors.  I think Outdoor Learning tends to set up a mind-frame, like Outdoor Education, of a set of experiences in the outdoors – just as ‘Forest School’ does (indeed another debate to be had is the almost synonymous use in many people’s heads of Outdoor Learning and Forest Schools, and perhaps this partly explains that muddling!)

Manipulating an idea to think it through

Secondly, in the UK we have a foundational tradition of children being, playing and learning through play in the outdoors (as well as indoors) from our wonderful (and admired at the time by many other countries) Nursery Schools heritage – which seems to be strangely forgotten in the new discourse around Forest Schools.  I know that what I believe in, advocate and work to realise is learning, across the whole child and the whole curriculum (whether emanating from inside the child or from external guidance documents) through capturing and harnessing what being outdoors does for and to the child – not a subset of experiences.  My own life’s experiences in teaching have shown me again and again that children learn well outdoors, whatever the learning experience is.  The learning is usually more relevant, more motivational and deeper when it happens IN the outdoors.  I think this is better described by Learning Outdoors.

Finally, as an example of how words shape thinking and understanding (and possibly jeopardise good progress), take ‘Outdoor Classroom’.  I’m really quite alarmed by the recent explosion in this concept – as being (especially in schools) a shelter big enough to seat the whole class together, so that the teacher can lead a lesson.  This ‘classroom’ is dangerously close to being the box of the indoor classroom placed outside. It may not have physical walls, but I’d suggest that the dynamics, power balance, freedom and learning processes (things people unanimously identify as key features of the special nature of outdoors) change little from teaching and learning indoors!  My feeling is that this is a serious red herring for real progress in children’s learning experiences.  The outdoors IS the classroom.  Its ceiling is the sky, the views, the rain, the sun, the wind and so on and on.  It’s as big as the space the children have access to and can see beyond the boundaries.  And it is a rich and open as nature and the adults have made it.

The wonderful and expansive learning place of outdoors

See how the words we use influence how we think, and how we share our thinking?  So, the Masters programme I’m designing is called ‘Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood’.  Perhaps it should be ‘Being, Playing and Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood’.  If we are going to develop the use of the outdoors as a deep and effective place for children’s being, playing and learning, we need the word-tools to think about and discuss what it needs to be like so as to work best at helping children to thrive and grow. 

What do you think?

Thanks to Robin Hood bilingual outdoor kindergarten in Berlin for the beautiful experience of being outdoors with toddlers, as captured in these images.