Jan White Natural Play

Natural Play, Natural Growth, in the Early Years

Natural Play – Philosophy & Approach

Enabling children’s natural ways of growing, learning and thriving with the help of the natural world

Working as mentor with Sandfield Natural Play Centre, we are together developing an approach to learning outdoors that draws from a comprehensive philosophy about young children, how they experience life and learning, and how the natural outdoor world supports them to thrive and grow.  The elements of this philosophy are outlined below.  If you are interested in a study visit to multi award-winning Sandfield Natural Play Centre in Knowsley, near Liverpool, please contact me or the owner, Sue Scott, at Suzanne@sandfield.org.uk  (tel 0151 426 6262).

 Ÿ         A Natural Curriculum

At the heart of our thinking is a belief that children’s own need and drive to learn can be trusted.  The young child’s body and mind has its own developmental agenda and processes, which they should be enabled to find and follow.  We want to highlight and trust their natural play drives, aiming for a truly child led curriculum.

 Ÿ         The Natural World

We believe that children need the natural world and that it looks after them.  They are biologically designed to be in it and therefore thrive by being in intimate, everyday contact with it.  It provides the most generous and powerful learning environment, with great affordance for child-led learning and development.

 Ÿ         Embodied learning

Natural Play stresses the importance of physicality, movement and doing.  Children under three have an especially great need of sensory stimulation and movement, and this is best found in the natural outdoor environment.  We seek to provide a multi-sensory and movement-rich environment and curriculum.

 Ÿ         Child-paced learning

We understand that everything children take note of and want to do has value and is valuable to them.  Young children need time to think, to repeat, to return to things and to come back later to something that has interest for them.  We want to develop the notion of ‘slowliness’ and value long periods of time together outdoors (in clothing that keeps us comfortable and safe).

 Ÿ         Adventure and adventuring. 

We want children (and adults) to be able to find excitement and a sense of adventure, venturing into unknown but secure enough places in the imagination and discovering new things about themselves and their world.  The natural world offers a strongly adventurous environment.

 Ÿ         Risk is an intelligent behaviour

Children need to develop a strong inner sense of competence and agency.  We want to be able to provide freedom, flexibility and rich experiences within a framework of safety.  We want children to develop a ‘growth mindset’ that enables them to a have a go, go for it and try again and know that ‘I can do it’, emotionally, physically, cognitively and socially.  For this to happen, the adults supporting them must also feel capable and confident in this environment.

 Ÿ         Authentic experiences

Young children must have real, direct, hands-on opportunities that are experiential, meaningful and worthwhile to them.  Natural Play focuses on what matters to the children – what their big ideas are and what they want to know – and enables these enquires to emerge over time.  It focuses on ideas and theory-making (how do things work), through experiences such as growing and eating, schematic play, taking things apart, caring for the setting’s environment, and interacting with humans and nature.

 Ÿ         Imagination, creativity, science

These are at the heart of children’s natural play.  The pleasure of finding things out and of imagining what might be is part of being human and a major purpose of childhood.  We see children as scientists and creators at the same time, with feelings and thinking woven inextricably together.  Natural Play seeks to feed children’s curiosity, fascination, wonder, awe and to provide satisfaction of their deep drive to learn and make meaning.

 Ÿ         Belonging and Caring

Of great importance in Natural Play is a focus on well-being, being together, being able to trust and rely on others, having a voice and developing a deep sense of belonging both to the group and to the natural world.  Through attention to the layers of caring from the inner child outwards, we aim to build foundations of a desire and need to care for the self, society and the planet.

 Ÿ         Enabling adults to enable children. 

A major task for the management team is to build the confidence, self-belief and competence of all practitioners in the setting.  Our aim is that staff feel good about themselves, consulted and truly part of the team.  We want them to become eager to learn about the children and their play, and enthusiastic co-learners with the children.

 Ÿ         Parental engagement and involvement

It is vital that we create and maintain strong dialogue and equality with parents/carers in the partnership of providing care and education for their children.  We will develop strategies to involve families with the vision and development of Natural Play at Sandfield, including them as much as we can in the journey of the centre.

(C) Jan White, Early Childhood Natural Play & Suzanne Scott, Sandfield Natural Play Centre, Sept 2010

7 thoughts on “Natural Play – Philosophy & Approach

  1. Hi Jan, Just linked to you on our post about how important play is in the early years and I used Sandfield’s example. I hope you & Suzanne like it.


    We’ve followed that with a post suggesting sending MPs a ‘Love Outdoor Play’ valentine’s card – be lovely to know if any nurseries you work with might like to do that?

    All the best, Cath

    • Hi Cath – yes I saw the link while I was signing up to the Love Outdoor Play campaign! I will also send my name and logo to NCB as a supporter. I’ll suggest to Sandfield and others about the Valantine’s card too – great idea…

  2. Jan –
    thanks for connecting with me. I really like the approach you are developing here. So often I think children’s spaces are over designed. As you say we need to highlight and trust the natural play drives of children.

    I especially am drawn to the authentic expereinces point. We put children in prepared or created environments when they really need the ability to interact with authentic processes and real life situations.


    • HI Michelle, thanks for your comment. Authentic experiences is very dear to my heart. I’ve come to understand that children are strongly (biologically) driven by a need to know about and make meaning of the physical world and the human world – the real world and real life, and definately not synthetic replicas or ‘children’s’ things and places that isolate them from this (such as children’s menues and children’s play areas).
      You’re in Oregon aren’t you? Do you know about the World Forum OnDesign meeting on designing environments for children in California this June (see my webpage on it) – would be great to meet you there!

  3. Hello Jan,
    I would really love to know more about Sandfields Center. I have a small child care at my home nestled in the Blueridge Mountains of North Carolina. The area I live in gives me great opportunity to have a natural learning space inside and outside where the children can explore their world freely. Eventually I want to open a small child care center for about 50 children 0-3 years old with the curriculum set as Sandfields does. How does your teachers assist the children in learning? How do they structure their lesson plans or does the center have lesson plans? I would appreciate any feed back and/or material at all. Thank you, Vanessa Gilliam. My email is vanessa_ray1206@yahoo.com

  4. Hi Jan, I am good friends with Ann Thompson and live in North Carolina where I have just opened a new child care facility that is dedicated to infant and toddler natural play. Thank you for sharing your ideas and wisdom on nature and play in all you do.
    Vanessa Gilliam

    • HI Vanessa, good to hear from you and thanks for the fabulous images you provided for our Valuing The Outdoors booklet. I hope I get to visit your new centre one day! Jan

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