For over thirty-five years there has been a pre-school group at Mill Grove. In the early years it was called a pre-school playgroup, and then as the influence of government policy made its presence felt it was re-named a pre-school nursery.
Until recently it has been based in the largest room in our community: a hall that has an indoor badminton court, a kitchenette, stage, lobby for storage, and toilets. And it regularly uses a dining room and lounge for particular classes (French, for example) or particular groups (say the older ones making birthday cards, or having a story). Because Mill Grove is blessed with such extensive grounds the children have always had the opportunity to play outside. And that it how things were until earlier this year: the base was inside, with regular forays outside.
The change came about when the leader of the nursery visited an Outdoor Nursery in West London. And during that trip the light came on. What I want to do in this article is to account for and describe the significance of the change that is now taking place in our own group.
So let’s get it straight: from the start the children in the Mill Grove nursery played outside: they had ball games and a variety of activities on the playground; they scrambled on a climbing frame, and swung on a tyre hanging from a pear tree, they had an outdoor play area, an allotment, and they made dens. A year ago, a canopy was erected to provide some respite from the elements. You might wonder therefore what difference an Outdoor Pre-School nursery would make. After all: surely all the constituent elements were already there?
This is why it may not be easy to describe the change. But I’ll have a go. Perhaps you could say that there was a shift of base from inside to outside. Until the change, it was obvious to all that the nursery was located in the hall: going outside was rather like playtime at school when the children leave the school building for a brief period before returning to their form rooms. Now outside began to become a base too. It might not be obvious to the casual observer except that more time was being spent outside, but on more careful inspection the change was enormous.
Instead of visits to the playground or garden, the nursery began to make its base in the orchard. What did this involve and mean? It became normal to be there for much of the day: so more equipment and chairs began to appear. The allotment was completely transformed, with raised vegetable and flower beds and some imaginative stepping stones around them. A tub of flowers was placed at the corner of the allotment, and ideas began to multiply.
More ‘indoor-outdoor space’ is needed (if you understand what I mean); and there is a plan for a circular wooden seat (or table, if you sit on the ground) around the pear tree in the middle of the orchard.
Perhaps the best way of putting it is that the orchard is now beginning to feel like home, rather than a place visited occasionally as one might go out for a specific game or activity. And when you are at home, it is no longer a case of deciding what to do: for you are also content to be. It is critically important to understand that this is as true of the staff as it is of the children. Home is equally home to the children and the parents.
One effect of this is that the relationships between the children and the adults have begun to change: instead of the adults organising activities for the children, they were sometimes engaged in their own activities and conversations while the children played contentedly together, or alone. (This is one of the aspects of group dynamics that I have noticed again and again: children pick up the vibes, and when adults are happy and content in each others’ company, this rubs off on the children. Sadly the converse is also true, but that is a different matter.)
Alongside, or possibly as part of this, the distinction between work and play, or if you like, between learning and play, became rather blurred at times. In part of the allotment patch the children dug holes and simply messed around, while in the other part of the patch, where the vegetables were, they also played, notably by hopping and jumping on the stepping stones, or by watering the vegetables.
And, in case it is so obvious that it is overlooked, the relationship between everyone in the nursery and the natural world was coming on in leaps and bounds: sky, clouds, sunshine, rain, hail; buds, leaves, blossom and fruit; the place of the compost heap in the cycle of nature; the seasons; insects; birdsong….
What was transparently obvious to the observer was that that the orchard was now becoming a creative space in which a sense of belonging and community was growing. And as this happened, it became apparent that this was a good place to tell stories, to have circles and discussions. Water play became more common: no problems with spilling any on the floor, and there is a water butt for a readily available supply!
In short the nursery had discovered what educational philosophers like Froebel had described many, many years before: that the perfect setting for play is a kindergarten (literally a children’s garden), and that play in a kindergarten is the best context for, and way of, learning.
The idea of indoor schools and classrooms came relatively late in human history, and is probably associated with factories and production lines that mirrored in the lives of children the industrialisation of adult labour. Sadly we have not only been stuck with them ever since, but have been keen on exporting them worldwide!
I recall a head teacher telling me some years ago that once you got into outdoor education it set in process a whole raft of changes, that you could never predict. It was a far more significant catalyst than he had realised. And I have found that to be a correct assessment.
While spending time alongside the children and adults in the orchard, and quietly observing them from nearby while cutting the grass or hedges, at times it really does seem to me like the re-creation of the Garden of Eden. It is a wonderfully appropriate and safe space where everything and everyone seems content, and where everyone and everything is growing…and learning.
We’ll have to see about what happens when the cherries, apples, and pears ripen, and whether anyone is tempted to eat them inappropriately. Meanwhile as far as I can see there is not much risk of a snake spoiling the harmony!