“I think people are realising more and more that children are starting to miss out on things that everyone enjoyed,” said Helen Mark, taking a break from overseeing youngsters’ playtime as the manager of Sheffield’s only fully outdoors nursery.
“As children, people that are adults now enjoyed playing in parks, climbing trees, paddling in the river and going out and having fun for free. That connection is being lost because children are spending too much time on ‘processed’ play, like play centres, or things that cost a lot of money, like the cinema or bowling.”
The Woodland Kindergarten was set up by childminder Dami Kendrick in 2014, initially at Gillfield Woods in Totley, and then from last year at Lynwood Gardens Nature Reserve in Broomhall, an area of mature woodland and open glades tucked away behind the Francis Newton pub.
There are no classrooms - every weekday up to 20 children aged two to six take part in activities solely in the fresh air. Everything they do relates to the outdoors - meals are cooked on an open fire, rustling up anything from nettle crisps to lentil dahl, and the children also forage for fruit.
The kindergarten places a strong emphasis on respecting the environment, leading a healthy lifestyle and picking up skills that can be used as a grown-up in everyday life.
Helen explained that the concept of the ‘forest school’ spread from Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany - she was one of the first 13 people in the UK to be trained in ‘skogsmulle’, a Swedish practice which uses stories about a fictional woodland creature to inspire children’s imaginations.
At Lynwood Gardens, the children decide for themselves what they will do on any given day.
“If children are enjoying learning and able to facilitate it themselves and do things they’re interested in, they are going to learn more,” said Helen.
“Every day is completely different.”
As a starting point, the youngsters are asked to make drawings of their suggested activities in a large book, she added.
“It ends up as a massive mind map of different things. For example, we noticed the children were very interested in the wildflowers that started to grow in the garden, so we sat down with them and wrote down some ideas about what they would like to do.
“Some of those were making clay imprints - pressing leaves into them - and we made bread with some of the herbs and wildflowers growing on the site, and dandelion and nettle tea.
“They’re learning skills about how to express themselves verbally and how to hold a conversation and talk to each other.”
Rather than the traditional nursery ‘home corner’ there’s a mud kitchen - a messier version of make-believe cooking - and two fire areas: a traditional forest fire circle, for cooking marshmallows, snacks on sticks, and popcorn (“You can sit and watch it, it’s quite visual”) and a brick-built barbecue area.
“They’re learning about rules and boundaries - they might learn what kind of sticks can go on the fire and how to put the fire out, and obviously about risks as well,” Helen said.
When logs are delivered, children help to unload them from the van, and they use saws - real ones, not child-friendly versions - to saw the wood.
However, in the Woodland Kindergarten’s view, this is not dangerous.
“They’re using them for a purpose - not doing endless activities that have no meaning,” said Helen.
“They’re not tracing shapes on paper, or doing activity sheets. There’s no benefit there - they can’t transfer that learning and use it in a different way.”
Rain doesn’t stop play, either.
“We have a teepee - we always say so long as we’ve got shelter we can take anything the weather throws at us. If it’s windy we’ll make them run around with scarves and ribbons, and in rain they can jump in muddy puddles. We do a lot of listening to the sounds the weather makes. So many learning experiences, all from different weather!”
Visits are often arranged to Weston Park Museum, the Botanical Gardens and Broomhill Library, as well as further afield to Padley Gorge and Forge Dam. The children go to the Sunnybank care home in Broomhall to help the residents, and parents can get involved in camping trips to Bakewell.
Older children, up to the age of eight, can attend the kindergarten’s holiday club.
“In Sheffield we’re in such easy reach of some lovely places to go to, like the green spaces we have available, and we’re so close to the Peak District,” Helen continued.
“A lot of families here are outdoorsy.They don’t just enjoy it in their spare time, quite often they have some involvement in it for their jobs and professions.
“We’re the only fully outdoors nursery in Sheffield. There are others all over the country, and quite a lot in Scotland. There are more popping up all the time – it’s becoming more and more popular.”
Helen, aged 26, is one of eight staff at the kindergarten. Mum to five-year-old son Ajay, who attended the nursery himself before he started school, she has been in nurseries for all of her working life, and undertook ‘forest school training’ at the suggestion of a university tutor.
“We’ve all got different backgrounds. I haven’t really looked back since starting here. Dami was looking for staff when I was introduced to her. I thought it was exactly what I was interested in. Everything is through play.”
Allowing children to make choices and decisions at a young age gives them the skills to make ‘possibly huge, life-changing decisions’ in adulthood, Helen believes.
“We need to re-wild our children and make them have a love and understanding of nature. If, every generation, we keep losing it, there’s going to be no-one to look after it anymore. Without the countryside there wouldn’t be the city.”
n Visit www.sheffieldwoodlandkindergarten.org for details.