I’ve never been able to avoid playing in dirt with my kids, nor have I ever wanted to. From the youngest age the girls would pick up small stones from the ground or carry sticks. I would walk the dogs at the local park and my daughter would gravitate towards a dirt patch and spend the whole time absorbed with the dusty dry mud. At other times, she would stop at every mole hill in the meadow, exploring it with her fingers.
As for muddy puddles – regardless of footwear they are just too tempting to resist.
I was very lucky to find a preschool for my youngest that embraces mud play.
If you can’t enjoy getting dirty when you are a child then when can you?
Mud play isn’t just fun, it is also great for children’s health and development. Check out my article in Parentmap to find out more.
We consider ourselves very lucky to live in an area where there are lots of great parks. Last week saw the grand opening of Big Rock Park, so we took a trip to see what it was like.
I liked that it didn’t have the same old playground equipment. The slide was built into a hill, with a natural climb up to it and the zip wire was low enough for young children to climb on independently. There were also a number of climbing posts made from tree stumps and plentiful building blocks crafted from branches.
They have really tried hard to maintain this as a nature park. The fences are all crafted from rough cut wood and they are still cultivating the meadow around the slide complete with little peep holes. In collaboration with STEM High School, Big Rock Park will design an environmental education programme and promote renewable technology.
Beyond the playground you can head down to the nature trails. On the way admire the giant nest built by local families last year.
At Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands centre, in England, the playground (wellyboot land) had giant bouncy eggs. This nest is crying out for some of those.
As you head into the trails you have a number of paths available, all well signposted. The trails aren’t very long, so perfect for little legs to explore.
Leading towards the trail is another little guest.
Where would Big Rock Park be without a big rock?
This was easily the main attraction. The trails circle around the rock and lead back to this wonderful natural climbing area.
We loved the new park and will be heading back soon with the older children, who were sad that they missed it.
Some children hate bugs, they think they are disgusting or scary. That’s why I love our annual preschool bug hunt in the woods. The children look for bugs, find out about them, collect them in bug jars and bring them back to observe in a terrarium for a few weeks.
In our front garden we have a wildflower border. As we pass it each day we look out for bees, ladybirds and butterflies. When we found aphids on the lupins, we hoped they would attract ladybirds.
“Why can’t we spray them?” my daughter asked. She had been learning about aphids at school.
“If we spray them”, I explained, it will disrupt the ecosystem, “the ladybirds won’t come and ladybirds are good food for birds. If we kill off all the bugs we will have fewer birds and small mammals in the garden.”
They don’t like every bug – they are a little afraid of spiders, think mosquitoes are a nuisance and my youngest is a little unsure about worms but they don’t see that as a reason to kill them. We know the worms in our compost bin turn our scraps into compost for the garden , spiders can be left alone if they live outside and they are good because they eat flies and even mosquitoes provide food for bats and birds. This is a useful resource for explaining to children why bugs are good.
There are two kinds of bug we don’t collect on the bug hunt.
Termites because they will eat our preschool. The children know that termites are important for breaking down old wood from fallen trees but they need to stay in the woods.
2. Slugs because they will eat all the produce we have planted. There is plenty of food for them in the woods.
There were other bugs to collect.
Lots of worms and millipedes.
and evidence of caterpillars munching leaves.
We looked up
We saw evidence of how the bugs break down an old tree log so that it can go back into the soil.
It gets smaller every year, we used to be able to fit inside.
Sometimes it is useful to add a focus to a walk and those tiny bugs can easily be forgotten, so next time you walk with your kids, turn over some logs and stones and see what you can find.
On our walk to school every day, my daughter loves to stop and look at leaves and flowers, to take a short cut through the woods or to save worms stranded on the path. Often there isn’t enough time to stop and share her observations and wonders. It is important therefore, that I make time to walk with her when we aren’t constrained by time.
Last week, when I was out running, we spotted ducklings on the local pond. I decided to take a walk and see what other babies we could find.
Our first observation was a deep, vibrating sound, a little like a honking goose. The sound followed us but we couldn’t see anything. We thought perhaps it was a type of frog or maybe a bug.
We sat on the bank and watched the ducks come in and out of the water.
As we carried on around the pond, we came across a family of geese.
We watched them until they swam away. Passing a smaller pond,we decided to rest there a while, watching the birds and dragonflies. We noticed ladybirds on the lupins. Looking closer, we could see the leaves and stems were covered in aphids. On the centre of one leaf was a pair of ladybirds, who proceeded to fight, just like in the ‘Bad Tempered Ladybird’ by Eric Carle.
As we sat watching the ladybirds, the geese came swooping across the sky and landed in the pond with a splash.
The spring baby theme has continued. We found a salamander with its eggs in a friends back garden, a newt in the drain and a tiny frog in our worm composter.
The birds are building a nest in our bird box and we expect to hear the babies soon.
We noticed that the frog spawn has gone from the storm water pond and if you look closely you can see tiny tadpoles swimming.
To top it all off, the horse at preschool finally gave birth to a foal.
However simple, the wildlife we see around us every day, is a constant source of wonder. I hope my children will always see the world this way.
This photograph depicts what all childhood should be; full of the magic and excitement of the unexplored. It reminds me of the magical tales of Enid Blyton that inspired me to pretend to run away to the woods, when I was a child. My friends and I would sometimes pack a picnic or a bag of sweets and sit deep in the trees, listening to the streams and waiting for magic to happen.
This time of the year my garden is covered in a blanket of leaves. The girls enjoy helping to rake them up but it is a never-ending task. When leaves are plentiful there are many activities that you could take advantage of. Here are a few of our favourites.
Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert is illustrated with photocopies of leaves that have been arranged to make pictures. We studied the way Ehlert uses coloured paper to create a layered background and leaves and natural materials for the main body of the picture.
We created our own pictures, starting with the background and adding leaves. The leaves work better if they are pressed beforehand using a flower press or a heavy book. Preserve them by laminating before the leaves dry out.
Young children enjoy printing with leaves or painting on larger leaves. You could also try painting with different types of leaves or dipping the stalks into paint to make marks. Dried leaves crumbled into paint could also make an interesting texture.
Leaves are perfect for investigating colour mixing. Give each child a leaf and ask them to try to mix the matching colour. Younger children could paint the colour onto their leaf, print it on paper or paint around the outline, older children may like to try an observational painting of their leaf. Small square canvases or watercolour paper would make them extra special.
Sometimes young children find this difficult so experiment with different colours and materials, like crayon, pencil, chalk, pastels or charcoal to decide which makes the most effective rubbing.
Leaf Mosaics, Patterns and Sculptures
Use leaves to create mosaic patterns and pictures. These could be individual or large group projects.
The girls collected leaves on a camping trip and used them to thread onto sticks to create clothes for their stick people.
Leaves make interesting imprints in clay or they can be used as a template to cut around. Clay leaves make great bowls, tiles or mobiles.
Sensory Play and Loose Parts
Collect leaves and put them in a sensory bin – investigate what happens to them over time. Add interesting objects hidden amongst the leaves or toy woodland animals and bugs for small world play.
If you have leaves outside how do the children use them as loose parts?
My children built a bonfire……
Buried their feet….
and added them to a potion.
Use them as a Filler
Last Halloween we made spiders to hang on the bushes outside. The bodies were made from black bags stuffed full with leaves. You could also use leaves to stuff scarecrows or guys for bonfire night.
Over a period of time we collected interesting leaves and laminated them. They looked great on the window and I challenged the girls to find out which trees they belonged to. I think they would also make an eye-catching mobile. This year we are using the laminated leaves to see if they can find matching leaves in the neighbourhood. Laminated leaves could be used for all kind of things. We have used them as gift tags, to play matching pairs and they look great on the light table.
If you collect leaves gradually from the same tree or bush as they change colour you can make a leaf rainbow.
Before you decide to rake all the leaves away, take a look at this face, I think it says it all.
Regular readers will remember that when I moved to the US, I struggled to find a preschool that I was entirely happy with. I became so disillusioned that I decided to home preschool for a year. I’d lost faith of ever finding a preschool that valued play, independence and individuality above academics and rigid schedules until a friend told me of a preschool situated on a farm. The preschool shared my belief that children learn best by doing things that have relevance in their lives through exploring, discovering and creating.
The school is so popular that it was a whole year before I had a chance to visit and see the school for myself. Children were busy pulling apart sunflower heads on the covered deck area whist others moved freely between the different activities indoors and outdoors. The teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for both the children and the setting was evident immediately and a bubble of excitement rose up within me. Our name was put on the waiting list for Sept 2015 but before Christmas a place became available in the co-op class so finally my youngest daughter had the chance to attend. This was perfect as I also had the chance to be involved in this wonderful experience as a parent helper.
There was little doubt in my mind that this was the perfect preschool for my outdoor loving daughter. My expectations were high. I have been fortunate to teach at a highly acclaimed nursery in the UK and to visit the best preschools in my local authority as an advisory teacher. My experience of this school has surpassed all my expectations, I couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect preschool for my daughter and I am only sad that my older daughters didn’t have a chance to go there. After she started, it just seemed to get better. Regularly she would come home covered from head to toe in mud. To some parents this would be horrific but to me it meant she had the freedom to be herself and have fun.
Being a part of the co-op class means that I get to help out once a month. This is the most exciting part for me as I get to join in. I love the covered deck area which enables the children to play outdoors all year. The children explore the whole farm for the 2nd part of the session, mud, water, animals, climbing and balancing. They are actively encouraged to take risks.
What makes it so perfect?
1. Children are individuals
Small classes and the dedication and experience of the teacher, mean that she understands each child as an individual. My daughter who is uncomfortable speaking in a group or to unfamiliar adults is given time to think about what she wants to say, often being presented with a question at the start of a session and returning for a response later. The child who hates to get his hands dirty is offered alternative tools and all the materials are open-ended so that children can use them as they see fit.
2.Children are competent
Children are always encouraged to try things for themselves, even when they ask for help they are first encouraged to try. The children are trusted to use adult tools for woodworking and tinkering, peeling vegetables and cooking. The teacher shows them how to use the tools safely and responsibly and thereon in they are trusted with them. The children cook their own green eggs and ham on the tiny stove, they dig with metal shovels, they observe candle flames and peel carrots with a peeler. Outside they are permitted to climb trees, feed the animals, hold guinea pigs and dig in the mud. The children are trusted to handle precious materials like birds eggs, chicks and nests.
This tinker table is always available. I regularly see children sawing pieces of wood placed in the clamps, hammering nails or taking apart electronics with a screwdriver. In the nursery I taught at we had a tool bench with real tools but we weren’t confident enough to leave it out all of the time. I have never seen a child have an accident or do anything dangerous with the tools.
3. The Preschool fosters understanding and respect for nature.
Many of the activities involve the natural rhythms of the farm, collecting the produce, understanding the cycles of the plants and learning about the animals and creatures they find.
After the first few sessions, my daughter told me they had unicorns at preschool but that it was too small to have grown a horn yet. A preschool with unicorns? Could it get anymore magical?
4. Children’s thoughts and opinions are important
Each session the children are asked a question and the answers are recorded for parents to read on the wall outside. The children listen to each others responses and discuss them with respect. The children’s choices are respected as they are presented with a number of activities to choose from at leisure. They also have opportunities to choose the songs they will sing and are confident at asking for things. The children are offered a snack, they choose when and if they would like to eat it .
5. They have fun.
Best of all, I feel that my daughter experiences something here that she would never have the chance to experience elsewhere. I feel so fortunate to have found this preschool and that my daughter has one more year there. When our time is over I will be so sad but I hope I can remember her teacher’s words of wisdom.
Look I think someone has been building fairy houses in the trees!
Do you believe in fairies? On a quiet walk around Beaver Lake Park, we discovered that they had taken up residence. Had the fairies crafted their own houses or had someone else built them to entice them in? Either option was equally magical to a 3-year-old. Having recently finished our own fairy garden, she was desperate to build a house herself and ran to fetch her sister. We carefully tiptoed around the trees, discovering at least a dozen fairy houses and rooms.
It took a while to find the perfect tree to build in, untouched but with interesting levels and holes.
Meanwhile on another tree, her sister was building a bridge to reach from one tree stump to the other. We searched for the right sized piece of wood.
They set to work making tables and benches, carefully scouring the area for the perfect materials.
They really wanted to stay but the night was drawing in and mummy was slowly being eaten alive by mosquitos. Every little girl knows that fairies come out at dusk and are afraid of humans. We needed to leave the woods quickly to give the fairies a chance to discover their new home. I wonder what type of fairy will choose to rest there?