Forest playground is a natural start

24th April 2009 at 01:00
For some very young children, the first five years of their life are traumatic, but a pioneering outdoor project provides a curative learning environment

Their red spotted woollen hats are like toadstools in old-fashioned storybooks. It's not long since some of these toddlers started walking, but this afternoon they're bustling through their woodland playground, pink-faced in cosy snowsuits.

The children are between 16 months and four years old and have travelled just a few miles from a centre in Aberdeen to the countryside on the outskirts of the city. In this idyllic setting, they look like busy little elves hurrying in and out between the trees. But their lives so far have been no fairy tale. These children come from families where there has been substance misuse and most are on the child protection register.

In the sprawling grounds of this Rudolf Steiner school, they're taking part in a pioneering Nature Nurture project - where Waldorf education and outdoor learning bring a sense of calm and healing. For a couple of hours every Tuesday, these eight children enjoy the peace of the forest at Camphill School in the suburbs of Aberdeen. "We can't change their lives, but hopefully we can make them a little bit stronger and a little more resilient to meet the things that are coming towards them," says Terri Harrison, one of the project organisers who has taught at Camphill for almost 20 years.

Aberdeen City Council is funding a series of these Nature Nurture group visits to Camphill. Nurture projects were highlighted as a key to early intervention and this is one strand of the council's response to Getting It Right for Every Child.

A second Nature Nurture group of older pre-school children come here on Wednesdays from Marchburn Nursery in Northfield, one of the oil capital's less affluent communities. They come to escape the city and build their confidence before they start school after the summer.

They don't have the same issues at home as the younger children or problems with delayed development, but they're pushing themselves further every week with new experiences in the fresh air. Both groups seem to thrive in this forest playground and they're outside rain, snow or shine.

"What we do with this very young group on a Tuesday is therapeutic intervention," says Mrs Harrison. "What we give to the older group on Wednesday is different. It's a wonderful experience which opens up the world to them and gives them the opportunity to explore and play in nature, which is going to be fantastic for their learning."

Since its launch in 1940, Camphill has used its extensive grounds as a setting for curative education for children with special needs. Now, this expertise and over 100 acres of space is being offered as a venue for Forest School education to local schools, along with continuing professional development courses to train more teachers to use the outdoors for learning and therapy.

Last year, in the first phase of this pilot, some pupils who needed extra support came here from nearby Culter Primary, and a younger group came from the centre which visits on Tuesdays. Aberdeen City Council's internal evaluations showed very positive outcomes for children who took part.

Just a few weeks into these latest sessions, Mrs Harrison is stunned by the impact on the children, particularly the youngest group from the centre. She is a member of the management team at Camphill (there is no head) and teaches 11-year-olds who are all on the autistic spectrum.

"We were convinced that this was going to help them, but what we hadn't expected was that the effect would be so immediate. When they first arrived, they came off the minibus and they were really pale and very wobbly on their feet. There was hardly any speech at all, some of them were barely babbling," says Mrs Harrison, at the Camphill kindergarten the children use to change into snowsuits and wellies supplied for outings.

"Their play was very limited, they were immature at it. We were shocked to see children so withdrawn and traumatised," she says.

On the first two visits, the younger group of children played in the garden outside the kindergarten - playing in puddles the first rainy day, then outside on sledges when snow fell a week later. "By the third week, we felt they were ready to go out into the forest. They were gaining enough confidence in themselves and building up enough stamina to take that little walk to the forest," says Mrs Harrison.

She works alongside her husband Daniel, and the third member of this project team - Kahren Ehlen. The children's helpers and teachers come with them and sometimes parents come too. "You learn most of the things you need for the rest of your life by the time you are four-and-a-half, including how to socially relate," says Ms Ehlen, who's worked in curative education for more than 30 years. "The highest learning rate is then, before you go to school."

Each child is accompanied by an adult and everyone holds hands and sings as they head out to the woodland - a song signals each activity, bringing familiarity to the routines and encouraging a sense of belonging. "Come children let us go, put on your wellie boots. It's time to move along so put on your wellies," they sing, as the group prepares to wind its way up to the woods. In the early visits these children were subdued during songs, but within a couple of weeks, most find their voices.

They wear matching waterproof snowsuits, gloves, boots and hats and carry small wicker baskets. "They always take their baskets because most of them are at the stage in their learning where they like to collect and carry things," says Terri.

"By collecting and carrying, they are starting to stop and look around them. For the first time for many, they are starting to see things like leaves and sticks, lichen and moss and flowers."

One of the key objectives on these excursions is to give the children confidence. "Every time somebody does anything, we celebrate it," says Mrs Harrison. "If they find something, everybody is interested in what they have found and we talk about it and we cheer and applaud each other."

The children respond well to this and are encouraged to explore more, to try new things - to climb onto logs and jump off tree stumps, gather new treasures. For children as young as 16 months, who are still learning to walk, small hurdles are major milestones.

There is an atmosphere of happy calm on these excursions and the woodland is dotted with playthings. There are musical instruments like bells and drums, suspended on wooden frames, and a canvas windbreak is strung between the trees, creating a sheltered picnic spot where they sit on moss-covered tree stumps for their snack.

The following day, nursery teacher Heather Smith and her colleagues bring the Wednesday group of three and four-year-olds from Marchburn Nursery to Camphill. Crunching through the woodland with a small child by the hand, Mrs Smith explains why going outside is so important. "The area we teach in at Northfield is very urban and most of the children live in flats, so there's limited outdoor space to play in, apart from one park. So it's great for them to come here and see farmland and trees," she says. "One of the children was crying and crying when we were leaving on the bus last week - he didn't want to go home.

"The parents have commented on how they see a completely different perspective to their children. They (the parents) have been a lot more relaxed - we've had snow, it's been wet and windy - but they have seen how independent the children are and how they manage to negotiate their own safety."

Mums and dads who come along have been supportive and appreciated how much enjoyoment children derive, playing out among the leaves and logs. "They have realised how all the bits and pieces around us are free - it's nature. It's not something you have to go to a centre and pay for - it's there, its our environment," says Ms Smith.

Small step for toddlers, giant step for life

It seems a simple wander in the woods, but children's development is being closely monitored and every activity is planned to promote confidence and learning.

Parents or teachers fill out extensive assessment questionnaires about each child before they begin the block of eight woodland visits. "That gives us an indication of what we need to focus on with each child," says teacher Terri Harrison.

"So we set out learning intentions and learning experiences that we want the children to have for the first three sessions. We have an observation sheet, which we fill at the end of every session, referring to these key areas."

After three weeks, the information is reviewed and evaluated and new objectives are set to keep children progressing. "We base it loosely on Waldorf education, which is a holistic approach. We look at development on every level - the child's physical and emotional well-being as well as cognitive development," she says.

"The other thing we do with this age group is work very strongly with imitation, through which children learn best. When we teach something, we model it and the child observes and follows along. But in the early years, play is the most important work a child does, as far as Waldorf education is concerned."

Camphill plans to offer Forest Schools to children over five after the summer holidays, using a programme based on a combination of Forest School principles, Waldorf education and A Curriculum for Excellence. Camphill also wants to offer CPD courses to other professionals on the use of outdoor spaces therapeutically and educationally.

"Every child can benefit from working outdoors and learning and playing outdoors," says Mrs Harrison.

After these two groups, another 50 children will arrive for Nature Nurture sessions funded by Aberdeen City Council. "This project is part of Aberdeen City Council's policy approach to supporting families and improving outcomes for vulnerable children, many of them looked-after children," said a spokesperson. "We are excited and commited to working with Camphill Families Support Projects to deliver this intitiative."

The council is also rolling out a series of nurture groups within city schools to support children in P1 and P2.

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