John Muir could turn a phrase and he knew a thing or two about nature and the importance of being outdoors too. He had personal and intimate knowledge of how the natural environment can affect us and was championing a more outdoor lifestyle over 100 years ago.
As we try to navigate our way out of our Covid lockdown, almost 100 years to the day since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, it feels pertinent to look to history for some context, in the hope that in we can glean a little insight or, better yet, answers.
As one of the great adventurers and early environmentalists, John Muir was studying our impact on the natural world and its impact on us, yet even as he did this, in the mid 1800s, society was beginning to retreat indoors. Now, nearly 200 years since his birth, many of our communities are almost completely removed from nature.
Richards Louv’s 2005 book; Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase – Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). The term, though controversial, is now widely used to describe the correlation between children spending less and less time outside connected to the natural world, the rise of sensory and behavioural conditions and an alarming increase in child and adolescent mental health issues (McCurdy et al, 2010).
Although Muir’s words still carry weight, we no longer need to rely on them to extol the virtues of spending time in nature. We have an avalanche of research from around the world that confirms what Muir was saying all those years ago; that time spent outside, particularly for children, is inherently good for us and provides far more than the immediate or surface level benefits. The evidence of this is clear. The benefits of children playing outside in challenging, natural spaces is significant. Children who access free-play outside have better coordination and motor skills, they have improved problem solving abilities, better focus and are more resilient than those who don’t. And that’s not all, their physical and emotional health is better, they have more regular sleep patterns, generally perform better in school and are better at managing their social interactions and conflict too.
Yet despite all this research and knowledge we still live and work within systems and a society that places warmth and comfort above challenge, ‘attainment’ above experience and the avoidance of risk over resilience. We worry more about bad weather than children’s (and our own) wellbeing.
Despite all the positive things our politicians and sector leaders say, the research on how much time our children spend outside is damming – we have not prioritised time outdoors and we have not supported or championed outdoor play nearly enough. A UK survey from 2010, of over 2000 children, reported 64% of children play outside less than once a week and around 20% have never climbed a tree in their lives. There are, of course, multiple factor that have contributed to our current position but, never the less, the result is our children are outside less and less, travel shorter or no distances alone when they do, and spent virtually no time unsupervised. Whilst I fully understand the risks and factors that have led us here we can’t ignore the impact this is having on our children’s development and general health.
It’s a sobering reality, yet the winds of change have been blowing. The UK government statistics show the the British population has been starting to make moves back outdoors . It’s slow, nearly glacial at times, but it is happening and we must focus on these positives, because there is an opportunity in front of us right now. Covid-19 has been a tragedy and I in no way want to make light of the life threatening and, for some, life ending virus. It has been scary and unsettling and will, in time, negatively effect almost everyone. But, there have also been positives and we need to see them and exploit them.
As the hustle and bustle of our daily lives was abruptly removed and we were suddenly forced to spend unstructured, unplanned and enforced time at home we started to struggle. Gradually, we acclimatised to the change and finally we found a coping mechanism – time outside. Road traffic disappeared, bike sales rocketed and urban areas became a wash with pedestrians as we all started venturing out into the great outdoors. People are again going for their walk in nature and they are receiving far more than they were seeking.
It feels like we have a chance to keep this momentum up, keep our society engaged in the natural world and become more mindful of it’s enormous benefits, and its fragility if we don’t look after it.
The earth is starting to breath again too, the smog is literally lifting and there are green shoots of recovery appearing. We must recognise and value this change and grab the chinks of light that have appeared out of the darkness of those early lockdown days.
So, how do we improve our lives, our communities and our environment through nature? … We do the only logical thing; get our children and young people outside, into nature and allow them to lay the foundations that will give them, and all future generations, a lifetime of adventure and a deep connection with outdoor life and the natural world around them.
All the goodwill and evidence in the world didn’t get us back outside, it couldn’t convince us of the innate benefits of nature on our health, or development and our happiness. We are not, as a collective population, capable of ‘following the evidence’ but, we are driven by fear and, as negative an accretion as that is, it is a behaviour we can exploit. Never before have I heard so many people discussing the benefits of playing and learning outside and its not in the context of the above evidence, its in the context of this pandemic. It’s from the perspective of parents and carers worried about the transmission of the coronavirus. A virus that will survive and spread far better in enclosed and unventilated spaces. Spaces, by the way, that we designed and created to block out the wind and the rain and the sun’s natural UV rays… all things that inhibit and halt this virus’s progress.
So, as perverse as it may sound to play on the fears of parents, we should understand the potential it brings for positive, transformational change. Pragmatism should become our tool and we should move away from preaching the greater benefits for now and assume a more pragmatic and supporting position. Reassure and allay these fears by creating positive outdoor opportunities and show how well it can work. Show parents, carers and our fellow professionals that it is not just about moving the inside outside but it is about working differently, using the natural environment as our resource and toolbox and begin to play and learn with nature, not just in nature.
Its time for us to open the door and let people walk through (or outside), irrespective what their motivation might be, for every parent and child who walk in nature, we will all receive more that we were seeking.
John Muir was gently directing us outside all those years ago but we didn’t listen, maybe now we have a chance to to reignite his message and turn a global pandemic in to global change. But like any great change it always starts with a few determined and dedicated people and I think our numbers are growing. Parents and professionals alike are open to the change. It’s time to invite them out to join us instead of telling why they should.
CM, September 2020
The oak is one of my favourite trees. They tower above with a stillness and a quiet confidence that comes from a life well-lived. They have strong roots and stand tall under their own weight, gently cradling those who climb, sit and occasionally swing amongst their branches.
The oak is the perfect metaphor for what I hope to create through FossoPLAY. The idea of its’ growth and development, strong roots, of its’ resilience and fortitude to withstand the elements and the challenges it must face as it grows. This all chimes with the ethos and ambition of the nursery.
I say nursery, but like the oak we have big ideas… Perhaps I’ll stick with FossoPLAY for now, it feels broader, less prescribed.
FossoPLAY is the niggle that’s developed in the back of my mind since I began working with children, it’s the voice that’s been getting progressively louder since the birth of my children and is now the ringing alarm sounding in my ears daily.
The alarm comes from seeing children (my own included) peering over the top of tablets, smart phones and other nondescript screens, from seeing seemingly happy children morph into Tasmanian Devils at the switch of a socket and, more sobering, from watching the steady increase in children considered overweight and obese and the pervasive mental health epidemic sweeping across our country’s youth.
These examples are the ‘stick’. I’ve used them to scare myself into action but they are not the reason I want there to be a FossoPLAY – that’s far more to do with the ‘carrot’ (that’s a healthy eating reference, see what I did there).
It’s my own children and my childhood that motivates me. It’s easy to fall in to the trap of focusing on the bad, the tabloid fear of zombie kids and over weight wains’ but I don’t belive in being motivated by negativity – what if things get better, where’s your motivation then?
My motivation comes from remembering my own childhood outside building fires on the beach and dens by the loch behind where we lived. I consider myself (and the research backs me up) to be part of the last generation to grow up with relative freedom and the opportunity to roam ….unsupervised! The last generation of kids without the internet – although we did have the Venga Boys and Noel’s House Party so ‘swings and roundabouts’ (that’s a play reference, keep up).
Jokes aside, it’s important. As a child I felt free, I met up with my friends face to face and we connected, sometimes we argued but we were connected and engaged in a common goal. I had freedom to find my play and my interests with no expectation of how ‘fun’ it should be. I was left to get bored, an important step in the creative process, and I got to take risks and push my own boundaries.
I didn’t feel I was academic but i was coordinated, with good balance and a head for heights and I took huge confidence from being good at the physical stuff, a confidence I still carry to this day – although it’s more a “when i was your age i could…” kind of middle-aged, retrospective confidence now.
To this day if I’m stressed or feel the weight of the world is on my shoulders, I take a deep breath and go for a walk or set myself to a job on the yard and the stress lifts, I find my perspective, my family comes into view and my life feels familiar again.
We’re very fortunate to live where we do, we have acres of space, literally, and I can watch my kids outside playing on hay bales and scrabbling in the dirt and stones and they’re completely lost in their play. They’re laughing and planning and negotiating and shouting and a million other things, and I feel like those are the moments, as a parent where I’m getting it right…. I’m not doing anything, other than consciously leaving them to work it out for themselves. Those are the moments when I see the people I hope they’ll grow into – happy, engaged, creative and dynamic young adults.
In my day job I’m often invited in to help the staff with behavioral issues. I’m by no means an expert but I have some experience and an interest that means I’ve done my research into child behaviours, trauma and attachment. I would go in to see the staff and always end up asking the same question “have you tried taking them outside?” It’s not rocket science, I’m aware, but it’s had a 100% success rate. I’m not saying it cured all ills but it gave the kids the space they needed to cope with their emotions and gave the staff a strategy that allowed them to cope and to manage their emotions too.
So, why all the rambling above… because what I’m clumsily trying to explain is that time and time again I’ve seen how the outdoors brings balance and perspective, how it provides risk and reward, how it grounds us like the roots of the great oak and teaches us about our own inner strength and resilience. Through all that it instills a quiet confidence, that alluring quality that some people have; humility mixed with unwavering resolve and self-belief.
Now why wouldn’t we want every child to have that? Isn’t that really what we all want for our children, happiness and the ability to cope with whatever life through at them with a quite determination and a smile.
Great oaks from little acorns grow…..
OK, so that’s the values and aspirational bit, how that becomes reality, well, that’s what I need to work out over the next few months (and years). I hope some of you might even be willing to help me figure it out along the way. To me it’s more than just a nursery it’s part of a movement, but oddly a movement that takes us back in time in order to move forwards for our kids (that’s a Back to the Future reference… just because).
As the cold weather arrives we have a habit of retreating inside. Its easy and convenient and there’s nothing wrong with that but there are so many advantages to getting outside in the winter. Warm clothing and staying active means that even the littlest of children can spend hours having fun out in the fresh air (and they’ll sleep like little logs at bedtime as a result – bonus!).
Here are 10 of our favourite things to do when the trees have gone bare and the snow begins to fall…
1. Snow Painting
There’s lots of ways to be creative in winter but when the snow lays it creates the biggest blank canvas there is. A little food colouring in some water makes great ‘snow paint’. It can be sprinkled or splashed onto crisp white snow or you can make it extra fun by filling water pistols and letting your kids spray their visions onto the snowy canvas.
2. Build a Snowman
It’s just not something you can do at any other time of the year (thankfully!) Be creative – how about a snow dog? a snow horse? a snow house? Let the kids come up with the ideas, let them name their snowman and own the process. Got lots of snow? Go big!
Super-slidey fun for all the family. Choose your slope wisely but sliding down the side of a snowy hill is fantastic fun and can challenge kid’s ideas about what they can and can’t do. The sense of excitement and achievement they’ll feel at the bottom will keep them climbing back up time and time again.
4. Roast Marshmallows by a Fire
Nothing quite warms the cockles like sitting by a fire, wrapped up in blankets and roasting marshmallows! Kids love it and it instills a sense of adventure in them. Trust us, they’ll remember evenings like this and be excited tell all their friends at school and nursery.
5. Snow sculpting
Snow is a brilliant material for sculpting, that’s why snowmen are so popular, but it’s also great for creating smaller masterpieces. Using tools and moulds, the same way you would at the beach when building a sand castle, is great fun and very effective. Think of anything that would act as a mould even your hand can create a detailed sculpture. Have a go and see how creative you can get. Use idea number 1 (Snow Painting) to add colour to your creations.
6. Make Snow-Angels
Wrap up warm and roll around in the snow – what other shapes can you make? As adults, we’re often keen to stay inside and warm when it’s cold outside, but a snowy garden or park can be magical for children. Let them roll around in the snow, just have them wrapped up warm and be ready with a hot drink when you’re done.
7. Winter Woodland Bingo
Create a scavenger hunt sheet and head out into the woods and see what you can find…. A pine cone? A robin? What else? There’s lots still to see in the woods over winter, in fact without so much foliage on the trees, you can often see more. This is a great activity to help earn about wildlife while having a good walk in the fresh air.
8. Feed the Birds
The birds welcome any extra food at this time of year and setting up a bird feeding station at home is a lovely way to learn about the birds that visit the garden as well as teaching the kids about caring for animals and the environment.
9. Animal Tracking in the Snow
As much fun as it is making footprints in the snow we aren’t the only ones who leave a print. The woodland floor or even in your back garden if the perfect place to hone your tracking skills. The children will be amazed at the number of print they’ll find if they look closely enough. Help the children follow and photograph the prints then you can try to identify the animals that left them. Imagine what the animals might have been doing and let their imaginations run wild with the stories they create.
10. Snowball Fights
It’s been the classic snow activity of children for centuries. There are few things to do in the snow that are more fun! The secret to a good snowball fight is having good quality gloves that keep little hands warm and dry and keeping a good distance for throwing, meaning no one get a ‘stinger’.
Snowball fights have had some bad-press in recent times, with many schools banning them from their playgrounds all together. Activities like these always carry some risk and no one wants to see their children get hurt, but don’t underestimate the benefits of such activities; physical movement, co-ordination, strategy, negotiation skills, mathematics (trajectory vs force), peer agreement and challenge. There is a multitude of learning and fun experiences to be had during a snowball fight so get out and enjoy the snow – it doesn’t tend to hang around for long!
Anyone hearing about outdoor nurseries for the first time would be forgiven for questioning why open one in Scotland? It’s cold, wet, windy and dreich, and that’s just between 8am and 9am! Spain, fair enough, the Caribbean, sure, but Scotland? Well the reality is we actually have quite a temperate climate, it might deviate a little but on the whole it’s pretty predictable and benign. The current outdoor nursery model, or Nature Kindergarten, actually originates form the nordic countries who share a very similar climate to ours, if not slightly colder in the winter and they manage…
However, during our more extreme weather conditions there’s an absolutely justified concern from parents; whether it’s ok to have children outdoors all day? As a parent your natural instinct is to keep your child sheltered and protected from the elements, we think they won’t be able to cope for long periods outside so the thought of all day in the woods, in freezing temperatures, seems a bit counter-intuitive. As parents ourselves we share this instinct. Our own children, who love being outside, will wilt in the freezing conditions if they are left just standing around just like any other.
So, there are some important factors we’d like to share to reassure you and hopefully ease those concerns…
It’s an absolutely legitimate concern to be worried about the impacts of extreme cold, wet and windy conditions and one that we as professionals, and parents ourselves, take very seriously. There are things we need to make happen in order to ensure the children stay cozy and happy. We do however, whole-heartedly believe that the benefits of having the children outdoors, experiencing and learning from their natural environment, far outweighs the efforts required to keep them happy and protected from the harsher winter conditions.
If you have any questions about our approach and how we intend to manage in the winter months please browse our website and feel free to get in touch via our Contact Us page. Alternatively you can message us directly at our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/fossoplayoutdoornursery/