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.
A few weeks ago I went for a walk to the park with my daughter. She likes to climb to the top of the climbing frame and play pirates. The game involves roaming the edges of the park for interesting treasures and on this day, she discovered big rocks. She proceeded to pick them up and roll them down the bank, watching them crash at the bottom. The only other child at the park was a little younger than my daughter and after observing her for a while, she found her own rock. She used all of her efforts to lift the rock and proudly show it to her mum. At which point, she was greeted with a look of horror and her mum quickly took the rock away and ushered her to ‘more suitable’ pursuits.
This kind of reaction is very familiar. When my children were toddlers, other parents would often ask me if my children were okay when they climbed a ladder and slid down the longest slide, as I observed from a distance. I have never been a parent to shadow my child’s every move and rarely feel the need to step in.
It is always refreshing to find a parent who shares my attitude. On a recent trip to the park with a friend, I was so happy to find someone who not only didn’t bat an eyelid when my eldest started paddling barefooted in the cold wet mud but actively encouraged the others to join in. When the children threw rocks on the ground to see if they would break , she gave them advice on how to do it safely, rather than stopping them because it was too dangerous.
You are my kind of mum friend because you let all these experiences happen.
And when you let these things happen, with a little bit of support they will have the courage to jump.
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.
I’m so pleased that my eldest (almost 7) has finally started to play in the street with her friends. It is well known that if you ask adults about the most memorable and enjoyable times from their childhood they will almost always involve being out of doors, with friends and with no adults around. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t play out in the street, I certainly have clear memories of being 3 years old and doing so. When we moved from the city to a cul-de-sac before we had children, I hoped that we would find somewhere that our children could play in relative safety from traffic.
This has come at an opportune moment as I have just finished reading ‘Beware Dangerism’ by Gever Tulley, which discusses the irrational fears that we have about our children’s safety and how this makes them less able to deal with risks and challenges. Gever runs a school called Tinkering School which encourages children to build and take things apart using real tools. This reminded me of photographs that a colleague of mine shared on her return from visiting forest schools in Denmark. I saw pictures of under 5’s using sharp knives with great skill to whittle sticks. She talked of how one of the schools had been on the coast and the children were sent off without adult supervision onto the beach, with the only rule that they were to go no further than the edge of the water. They were called back hours later by a bell. This approach reminds me of the hours that I used to spend in the woods near our house as a child. We used to often pretend we had run away – the idea of being independent was always a thrill.
I’m sure that I am often looked upon as a bad mother. On holiday last summer another parent looked horrified as my 18 month old stood waiting to go down a big slide. I watched as her child looked worried about going down the smaller one and an adult stayed carefully by her side. I looked at the other parent and said ‘She’ll be fine , she does it all the time with her sister’ as she launched herself down the slide smiling and laughing. I often see parents holding their children on reins as they attempt to climb in playgrounds, as if they are afraid to let them try anything on their own. I once had an argument with a lady in a charity shop because I was letting my daughter touch china pots whilst I was next to her supervising. The lady very crossly asked her to stop and I asked her how my child was expected to learn to be careful with things if she wasn’t allowed to touch them under adult supervision. I want my children to try things with confidence and not to grow up cautious and timid, I never underestimate what they can do as long as they have clear safety rules.
Lenore Skenazy has a great blog that talks about kids and risk taking many daft restrictions on children