Urban mud patch with play potential

As the summer holidays progress apace and a new school term appears on the horizon, Helen Babbs from London Wildlife Trust explores a growing trend for learning outside the classroom and natural play.

Natural play at East Res 1Just over a year ago, London Wildlife Trust took on the management of what was essentially a patch of mud sitting in the middle of an estate in particularly urban feeling bit of Hackney in east London.  It wasn’t just any old patch of mud though, this patch had potential.  It sat sandwiched between a reservoir, a river and several tower blocks.  It had wildlife potential and people potential, especially young people potential.  It was to be the East Reservoir Community Garden, and there was a lot of work to be done.

Over the last twelve months the mud patch with potential has been transformed into a thriving community garden, where local people from all different backgrounds come to share their skills and learn new ones.  It’s an especially important place for people who don’t have instant or easy access to green space.  The site has just been awarded a Green Pennant Award for being a high quality community open space, an incredible achievement in such a short space of time.  Making the garden a fun place for children to both learn about nature and play in it was a top priority and has shaped how the site has developed.

Kids versus nature

There is a worrying and increasing divide between young people and the natural world, especially but not exclusively in urban areas.  Children have much to distract them and keep them indoors, exciting technological advances and online social networks demand a lot of their time.  And parents and carers are more cautious than ever about the world outside their four walls, stressed by stories in the media and under pressure from other parents not to let their kids play out on their own.

But this tendency to stay inside means that young people are seriously missing out and so environmental educators are making it their mission to reconnect young people with nature.  It’s something that seems more important than ever in an era of climate change and where new scientists are becoming a much rarer breed.

A manifesto for natural learning

Natural play at East Res 2The idea of learning outside the classroom has gained significant ground, and the importance of natural play and environmental education is starting to be appreciated by government, teachers and parents.  A class that involves getting out of the school building is invariably popular with both kids and teachers, and lessons learned seem much more relevant when the young person experiences them in a direct, hands-on way.

The ‘Manifesto for Learning Outside the Classroom’, published by the then Department for Education and Skills, states that the use of places other than classrooms for teaching and learning often leads to “the most memorable learning experiences, helping us to make sense of the world around us by making links between feelings and learning.”

“These experiences stay with us into adulthood and affect our behaviour, lifestyle and work. They influence our values and the decisions we make. They allow us to transfer learning experienced outside to the classroom and vice versa.”

Memorable adventures on offer to UK kids include a boat trail on the Broads run by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, or how about exploring Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s Romano round house? Children can discover how their ancestors lived off the land growing food and herbal remedies, and they even get try their hands at dyeing using plant dyes.

Best bird hide, ever!

Returning to Hackney, the most exciting natural play project at the new East Reservoir Community Garden has been the creation of a hybrid bird hide play structure.  Tucked away in a leafy corner, and balanced on long stilts, it’s a combination of an adventure playground structure and a traditional bird hide.  It’s loved by young people and adults alike, and works as a perfect venue for both work and play.  The play value of the hide is high – underneath is flexible space for den building, a hammock will be installed soon and children can climb onto different levels.

East Res July 09 (5)The hide looks out over the stunning East Reservoir – a peaceful expanse of water that is incredibly popular with water birds, not least because of the beautiful and huge reed bed that surrounds it.  From the hide, you can look out over the water and spot all kinds of bird life as well as admire the London skyline in the distance, the ‘gherkin’ a tiny space ship on the horizon.

The community garden also has living willow structures, a tunnel to run through and a willow igloo for quiet play space.  Children of all abilities, from many different cultures and backgrounds, now attend education sessions in the garden, and are experiencing nature first hand, close to their homes and schools. After school clubs, play schemes and inter-generational volunteering sessions are encouraging local children to take ownership of their local environment.

Urban vegetable skill swapping

It’s not just about young people either.  Adults benefit from learning outside the classroom and natural play too.  Local residents of all ages come to the garden in Hackney and share all kinds of skills with each other, from building techniques and translation, to wildlife identification and cookery.

A vegetable shaped example is the Turkish Ladies’ Gardening Club that meets at the site once a week and has filled a section of the garden with delicious fruit and veg.  They’ve recently combined forces with a Healthy Spaces Club and, starting next year, they’ll be taking their skills out of the garden and into the local estates with an ‘adopt a grow bag’ scheme.  Natural learning really can take place anywhere and can be made relevant to anyone, even the most urban of city slicker in the most built up area.

Let a little play into your life

August means ‘Playday’, an annual event that promotes children’s right to play.  Each year ‘Playday’ has a campaign theme and this year it’s ‘Make time! The campaign is calling for everyone – from parents, carers and teachers, to policy makers and planners – to make time for play. See www.playday.org.uk for more info and events.

Find out more (environmental education resources)

Learning Outside the Classroom – www.lotc.org.uk

Field Studies Council – www.field-studies-council.org

SEEd – www.se-ed.org.uk

London Play – www.londonplay.org.uk

LEEF – www.leef.org.uk

This article appears in the September issue of Kitchen Garden magazine

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