Jan White Natural Play

Natural Play, Natural Growth, in the Early Years

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Mudlark Finds *3: A First Book of Nature

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

With this section of my website, I want to 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.  Mudlark posts will be brief and to the point.

Mudlark Find number 3 is a truly beautiful collaboration between children’s author and biologist, Nicola Davies, and natural history artist and illustrator, Mark Hearld.  In writing the book, which presents many lovely aspects of our natural world by each season, Nicola says that ” I cast off my grown-up self, and found the me I was at five or six.  Inside that younger self I could see the world as I saw it first – not just the sights and sounds of nature, but the feelings and thoughts about it that ran through me, strong as the tide.  This book comes to you from that little girl who stood in a barely field at dusk and felt the world turning.”

A first book of nature

Make sure that you linger over the images created by Mark Hearld and let the way he has caught so much of what nature feels like grow on you.  Although it’s hard to choose, I think my favourite pages are both of birds in winter: starlings (such a common bird while I was small and now a struggling species here) and ‘patchwork pigeons’.  For me, he has really captured feelings and thoughts – and the movements and characters of his animals.  If, like me and my daughter, you are captivated by this artist’s work, you might also be interested in Mark Hearld’s Work Book, also available on Amazon.

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Articles on Physical Development (part 1)

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 this post) and for Early Years Update, published in Summer 2012 (articles in next post).  I’ve also now been invited to write on this subject for Exchange magazine in the USA (part 3 to follow).

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 going to be 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 module Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood which ran successfully this year.  Both courses start mid-October – contact CREC for further details.

Nursery Equipment 28th May 2012: Introduction –  Action Points by Jan White can be found on the Nursery World archives website – search under the title of the article.

35 NW Action Points p1 copy

35 NW Action Points p2 copy


Mudlark Finds *2: Forest Childcare Association

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

With this section of my website, I want to 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.  Mudlark posts will be brief and to the point.

Mudlark Find Number 2 is a great new initiative and resource, The Forest Childcare Association created by Kay Woods of Kids To Go, that is designed to encourage and support home-based childcare practitioners and settings to get out and make the most of their local environment, especially the more nature-filled locations.  This is such a good idea!  Kay has provided a really thoughtful, well-researched and comprehensive membership pack, consisting of an introductory booklet, business tools, self certification and a booklet of 50 crafts and activities for forest childcare – all written in a down-to-earth style that is very accessible.  Membership is a realistic £15 and all transactions are done simply online.

Forest Childcafre Association screen shot

Kay makes the case that embedding this as a core part of your provision is a sound business enhancement that parents will choose for their children.  She is a passionate advocate for connecting young children with the nature in their locality and using this as the great learning resource that it is, and clearly has lots of personal experience and expertise in this area.  In the forthcoming second edition of my book, Playing and Learning Outdoors (due out in Nov 2013), I have added a seventh ingredient for high quality outdoor provision – that of harnessing the locality and community immediately around your setting.  So this resource resonates strongly with my new campaign to reclaim the streets for young children and harness this as a super-rich additional layer of everyday outdoor provision!


Mudlark Finds *1: What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen?

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

With this section of my website, I want to 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.  Mudlark posts will be brief and to the point.

Kicking off with Mudlark Find number 1 is this super book from Nick Sharratt.  I actually chuckled (cackled?) my way through it on first reading, and think it’s a perfect companion to Mud Kitchen play – either as a response to what children say about what they’re doing and making, or as a stimulus for yet more playful and imaginative thinking.  Definitely one for the Mud Kitchen library, sitting alongside other spells and potions books.  What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen? is available from Amazon here.




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.


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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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.

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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.