Monthly Archives: October 2013

+++ PLAY HAUS +++

As well as researching the waldkindergarten movement ,my time in Berlin was spent researching play spaces and child friendly cities, and Berlin is certainly the latter.  Over 50% of the city is open green space and there is a play or sports ground on nearly every corner.  Another huge factor is how accessible the city is – walkable, bike-friendly and excellent public transport.  I loved Berlin for its perfect balance of order and chaos, it still has that ‘German efficiency’ but the stringency (which would drive me nuts – i.e Switzerland!) is tempered by art, openness a definite playfulness and more diversity than most European cities.

I lost most of my photos from the trip recently (still learning the backup lesson hard) but here are some pics I took around the theme of ‘play houses’…they serve as inspiration for what we can do in the cityscape to create more playful, liveable spaces.

This was my favourite find, an afterschool club in the Grunewald on the outskirts of  west Berlin. As the land is owned by the city the parents of the cooperative built a temporary structure, an amazing gypsy-esque play wagon, complete with an inside (completely odourless) compost toilet.


 wagon int.

Most of the fun structures I found were in the huge 4,000sqm adventure playground of Kolle 37 in now trendy Prenzlauer Berg – were children have the opportunity to build their own huts, make fire, work in the garden, watch and work with animals or just play.  The building yard looks straight out of the set of Mad Max.


teepee Kolle

Hideaway tee-pee, away from adults prying eyes

mud hut

This was a nice surprise, a hint of the Transkei in east Berlin!  Made by children and playworkers a few years ago.

Kolle37 a

The lovely green design of the clubhouse at Kolle 37


This is a kindergarten in Kreuzberg, I loved the mural, a nice break from Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh et al.

Am gleisdrieck

Finally, the barest essential playhouse.

This was taken in the nature playground at the fairly new Park Am Gleisdreieck (“triangle of rails).  I loved this park because of its history and its future.  A local told me that the rails once carried the trains taking people to the concentration camps.  After WW2 it became a deserted natural enclave in the middle of built-up territory, part of Berlin’s ‘no-man’s land’.  After reunification of the city its central location was highly prized but it was only after 2006, that the State of Berlin accepted the proposal of converting Gleisdreieck into a large urban park.

The problematic, decades-long disconnectedness imposed by the enclave now presented an opportunity for joining various parts of the city…all within a framework of many uses, tempos and social realities. It was necessary to stimulate the development of sixteen new hectares of productive neighbourhoods that would be capable of integrating different generations and social strata around a model of the sustainable city and in harmony with nature. The need to adapt these goals to preserving the pre-existing railway heritage also appeared following intense discussion with local proprietors and residents.

The rails are still there running right through the park, a monument to a troubling history that is best not forgotten nor celebrated.  New life has sprung up around it, on the southern side of the meadow is a big sunny terrace with benches complete with footrests. To the east a forest of maples, oaks, birches and lemon trees and a couple of large metal frames holding two swings.  The edges of the park are finished with a collection of distinctive spaces, a conventional and nature playground, nursery, sports fields, concave surfaces for skateboards, stages for tango dancing and community gardens.

I just thought it was commendable for a city (which already has so many parks) to decide to use such a large, prime central site to develop such a liveable, breathable, child-friendly, human-friendly space, rather than go for the obvious retail/mixed use space that is becoming the feature of urban regeneration/gentrification globally.

Well done Berlin!  I miss you.



In my last post I wrote about why (I think) children need more nature in their lives and some ideas on how we can do that.  One of those ideas was bring nature into the preschool day and curriculum.  I spent 2 months in Berlin last year researching the waldkindergarten (wald = forest) movement and visited 4 of them across the city.  The approach is that children spend half of the school day in a natural setting, in all weathers, and engage in free play with limited equipment and all the ‘loose parts’ the environment has to offer.  Waldkindergärtens still only make up a small percentage of early learning settings in Germany, around 700 out of a total of 25,335 kindergartens but the number is rapidly rising year on year and the approach is gaining popularity worldwide.  Whilst the concept to many sounds experimental, alternative and ‘hippyish’, it’s premise connects with the roots of early learning as envisaged by Froebel ‘the grandfather’ of early childhood education who coined the term kindergarten.  Froebel was determined that children spend as much time as possible in contact with nature.  Whilst many schools adopted the name kindergarten their inclusion of the natural world in the learning programme slowly diminished as urbanisation set in.  Froebel’s idea was reinvented in Denmark in the 1950s and spread throughout the country and Scandinavia where around 10% of schools follow this approach.

“One of the reasons the nurseries are so popular in Germany is that the natural world is such an essential part of life. Parks and gardens are treasured in German cities, and the countryside beyond is quickly accessible….More than just getting children out into the fresh air, the initiative is infused with a social and environmental ethos that runs strongly through Germany as a whole. This is a country, after all, where green issues are not just for show – the Green party has been a party of government, not only influencing policies but implementing them, too. It is no surprise that many forest kindergartens are vastly oversubscribed.”

WurzelKinder Forest School-9

Research is slowly emerging to back up anecdotal claims that Waldkindergarten methods are good for children. One study from the University of Heidelberg compared the performance of children from 50 forest kindergartens and standard kindergartens in their first year at school. The results of the study were almost exclusively positive.  In various categories, from ‘cognitive tasks’ and ‘social behaviour’, to ‘creativity’ and ‘physical ability’, graduates of Waldkindergarten clearly outperformed their peers and the study noted that children from Waldkindergarten possessed a clear advantage.  The study also revealed that the waldkindergarten children were more robust and that ‘A surprising outcome was that girls especially profited from having attended a Waldkindergarten. The teachers gave them higher credit for being tougher and physically more self-confident than other girls.’

Here is a rundown of an average day in one of the waldkindergarterns I visited.  This waldkindergarten was situated in the north-west of Berlin and caters for 50 children in three groups:  Toddler group (1-2.5 years); Group 1 (2.5 – 3.5 yrs); Group 2 (3.5–5 yrs).   There are 10 staff members (adult: child ratio of 5:1) of which 2 are male.   The toddler group only ventures out of the school garden to the forest once or twice a week but the other groups visit every morning.  On my visit I was placed with Group 1 of which half the children were completely new to the school and the forest routine.

Children are dropped off at the circle in the park adjoining the kindergarten.  There is a sandpit, see-saw and plenty of space to run around while everyone gathers.  Once parents leave circle time begins.  The group is supervised by two teachers and one leads the circle time, which is devoted to getting to know each other, singing and a short story.

WurzelKinder Forest School-2

The wagon is packed before circle time with all the equipment needed for the morning session.  Water for washing hands, rope, swings, cutting/sawing equipment, rugs, books and pencils and paper, teachers file, first aid kit, tissues, rubbish bags etc.  After circle time, we walk to the nearby forest – the outdoor classroom – which takes about 15 mins with the little people.   This is a leisurely walk, lots of conversation along the way. We spot spider webs, orange slugs and of course the most fascinating for the kids – hunde kaka (dog poo)!

WurzelKinder Forest School-5

When we get to ‘base camp’ everyone congregates in a circle with log seating and the children unpack their lunchboxes and share what they have with everyone, so it’s not just individual packed lunches which I thought was nice.  A little song of thanks is sung before eating, and the teachers enjoy some tea.  As it’s the start of a new year and the group is new they will come here every day for the first 3 months and then start exploring beyond the camp.  One adult might take the more confident/older children out on little explorations beyond the camp if the children wish to explore further.

After snack time the equipment is brought out of the wagon and the children are free at any time to get what they need from the buggy.  Various play areas are set up – there is digging equipment, buckets; some mini-hacksaws and potato peelers for woodwork; ropes are left in a pile, some soon to become dog leads (with logs as dogs), others are hung up as swings… There is also a blanket laid out with books and drawing stuff, one teacher sits here and reads to a couple of children, while the other teacher fills in a file.   When children ask for help they are assisted but the play is very much led by them, and they seem to rarely ask for assistance.  Apart from making the tools available it seems the adult’s role is to safeguard and facilitate an experience, answer questions and mediate any disputes when they arise.  Some minor arguments occur, as they said it’s generally always “ein Stick, zwei Kinder“…so follows the eternal mantra in kindergarten – share!  Generally the children are left to sort out their own issues and there is very little, ‘no…’ and “don’t do that” to be heard.

these kids were playing 'bus' and the child standing was the bus conductor collecting fares from the passengers

these kids were playing ‘bus’ and the child standing was the bus conductor collecting fares from the passengers

The feeling of breathing space was really significant.  When you’re in a room with 20+ kids there are points in the day when you really feel it and it can be overwhelming for children and adults – the noise, the running around- here everyone had enough space to do what they needed to do.

After 2 hours in the forest we packed up and headed back to the kindergarten for a cooked lunch.  After lunch the children have a nap and then get on with more free play at the kindergarten until home time from 3-5pm.  For the older children, 4-5 years, the afternoon sessions are more structured and geared towards literacy and numeracy.

There are of course differences between Germany and South Africa; fauna and flora, climate, risks as well as in culture.  The purpose of visiting these schools was so I could learn experientially about this approach in order to understand better how to adapt it to local conditions.  There are also examples we can draw from that might better suit our environment such as the Australian bush schools, and beach schools from coastal America.  We see this as getting back to a mode of learning that was inherit in African societies when people had a greater connection with their land.  All learning was based in a nature and from that flowed a deep respect for the environment and wildlife.

Our approach at the Hummingbird and in our outreach work is to try and re-establish this lost connection by developing natural playgrounds or outdoor classrooms and taking children out to natural settings at least once a week.  We want to instil this connection not just to enhance learning outcomes but also so children learn the deep interconnection they have with nature so they can move on in life with the understanding that our natural environment must be cherished and protected.  It helps to build a sustainable society that is respectful and appreciative of nature.  We feel that the disconnection the majority of people in this country have with their land, due to historical circumstance, is best remedied through this kind of early intervention approach.

Why our children need nature

One of the central features of our approach to early learning at the Hummingbird Children’s Centre is using nature as a central learning resource.  In general if you ask someone to picture a place where they feel really happy or at peace it is connecting with other people and/or in a natural setting.  Through urbanisation we are losing this connection with nature and the effects on our emotional and physical health are worrying.  What I find most concerning is the growing perception of the outdoors as an unsafe place to play and a growing isolation and fear of nature as we become more preoccupied with electronic media and live overscheduled lives.  There is however a huge movement globally to reconnect children (and adults) with nature and to provide opportunities for healthy risk-taking that climbing trees, playing in mud, swimming in natural water etc provide.   We need to find our place in this movement and explore our unique history with nature in this country.  Forced removals and the way people became divorced from their ancestral lands has impacted on their relationship with nature.  We need to talk seriously about how we can re-instil in children a proud heritage of environmental custodianship and an awareness of our interconnection and dependence on nature that was so strong and central to the way of life in pre-colonial times.


Source: Facebook (unknown)

When I was working in Cape Town last year I met with teachers who were planning an ‘outdoor classroom’ for a group of local schools.  The plans consisted of building concrete pathways through a little area of marshland, building a log circle and putting up various information boards on local wildlife and flora and fauna. And that was it.  Where I thought is the fun in that?  Granted I work with a younger age group where play is paramount but I found it hard to see how that would get tech-obsessed school kids turned onto nature.  I remember those kind of field trips well, 1 or 2 hours walking around with a clipboard, checklist… can you identify this plant, how many legs does a pond-skater have etc.  I also vividly remember a school camp where we had the whole day on our own to build a bridge across a stream with the materials available in the surrounding woods.  Now that was fun – trial and error, team work, lots of mud, someone fell into the stream testing the bridges strength.  Good times!  Memorable.  Character building. Experiential.

The first kind of approach which I find most common now in mainstream environmental education comes from the idea that nature is something outside of us, over there, that must be tamed, categorised and monitored.  I am more inclined to see that we are nature and that learning from nature means spending time in it, getting down and dirty, mucking about or just ‘being’ and observing natures ways.   Both approaches have their place, yes we do need clipboards and checklists in life but the latter kind of experience, for me, formed a lasting positive connection with nature and the lessons stayed with me for life.  I don’t remember how many legs a pond-skater has but I learnt the importance of learning from mistakes, of collaboration and that nature always provides and we must do all we can to protect itAnd I know how to build a bridge should the need ever arise.   For me an outdoor classroom is a place to explore and experiment with natural open-ended materials and should foster sensory, experiential and inquiry-based learning.  So it is about how as practitioners we engage with that space and the boundaries and opportunities we create for children in a natural setting.   We can choose to view nature as a zoo – look, but don’t touch or feed the animals, or, we can choose to loosen the reigns a little and literally let nature take its course – which is to feel, experiment and most probably get burnt.  That is the way I believe we truly learn.

Soon after the Cape Town excursion I read ‘Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louv (activist, author and the most prominent voice in the ‘back to nature’ movement who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’) which validated some of my assumptions about current practice in environmental education.

“Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.  As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”


Free range kids in Mpondoland, Eastern Cape, 1996 – Source:

His book is a meticulously researched analysis of how we came to ‘nature deficit disorder’ but is also filled with solutions to support why nature is so important in our children’s lives.  He says:

“At the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies. As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.  Reducing that deficit—healing the broken bond between our young and nature—is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it. The health of the earth is at stake as well.

My first formal teaching job in 2008 was as an assistant at a school in Poplar, east London.  We were very fortunate to have a small wild garden with a pond, a rarity in inner city London, and in most schools globally actually.  It was fenced off from the rest of the playground, wild and overgrown and very out of place in contrast to the asphalt playground, the towering grey council housing blocks and Canary Wharf in the background.  For the first 2 months of working there no-one ever set foot in that garden.  My job was to assist a four year boy (who I will call Leo), who had been through some trauma in an abusive domestic environment.  He had become disruptive in class –more withdrawn, daily temper tantrums and was becoming more and more violent towards staff and the other children.  This is one of the quirks of the British educational system – placing the most vulnerable children with the least trained, experienced (and lowest paid) members of staff.  I worked on instinct which is all I had at the time.

The garden became a very important tool for me during that year.  After one of Leo’s rages which at the beginning of my placement happened a few times a day, I felt like we needed to breathe, let off steam and get out of the classroom so I asked if I could take him to the garden.  “Yes fine, but be careful” said one of the teachers.  So we went and walked around, letting off the steam and then Leo came to the pond which was semi-frozen.  There he found a fish encased in the top layer of ice.  I was quickly instructed to find a stick so we could rescue the fish.  He hacked away at the ice feverishly and then scooped the fish up, and there it lay in his hands – “Miss, it’s dead!” – beyond salvation.    We gave the fish a proper burial, Leo said a prayer.  We talked about death and life and it was a turning point in my all too brief journey with Leo.  After that it was a challenge to keep him in the classroom, all he wanted was to be in the garden and to find more dead fish.  So the garden became a reward and a sanctuary all at once and we started to see a huge shift in his behavior, concentration and participation levels.  Soon he began recounting the garden adventures to his classmates, they would peer over the fence while we had our garden time and they also wanted garden time.  I started feeling the resentment of the teachers.  Garden time meant being out in the cold and possibly getting dirty and it didn’t fit in with the Early Years Foundation Stage lesson plans.  But in our time there we covered all if not more of the EYFS requirements – we learnt about colours, numbers, shapes, patterns, seasons, time, animals, plants, we told stories….and we talked about life and death.  How lucky they were for an inner city school to have this space, it was depressing to see it so underutilised.

That job (which I fell into by ‘accident’) and that garden set me on a wildly different career path than I had imagined for myself.  Come to think of it my first voluntary job (of choice) aged 16 was in a nursery in west London and I loved it, but I knew then, as I know now, that there is absolutely no money or prestige in early childhood education.  Around the time I started working in Poplar the influential voices around me were veering me in the direction of higher education (only slightly more money and prestige) but there is nothing that brings more joy or meaning to my life than being in a garden and watching children learn.  It was through my own experiential learning that I came to the conclusion that we need to put nature at the heart of our early learning approaches.    Returning to South Africa and furthering my work in ECD I am always shocked at how little time children spend outdoors during the school day and how sparse some of the outdoor environments are.  Given the favorable climate we have and that people flock to this country to marvel at our beautiful landscapes and wildlife, I wonder why we overlook this in our day to day lives.

Every school should have a wild garden, or outdoor classroom, that is the very least we can do to bridge this nature disconnect we are facing.  I witnessed in a short pace of time how effective a tool the outdoors was, therapeutically and educationally.  My wish when I retire in 30 years’ time is that every family/child from age 3 has access to an affordable, quality preschool education and that we root that education in a nature-based approach.  High hopes.  So idealism aside, here’s maybe a few ways how:

  • Rethinking nature in the curriculum – being in nature not just learning through books, internet or audio-visual resources
  • Creating ‘adventure playgrounds’/‘wild zones’ in local parks – these are places where children and adults can co-create a new form of public space that is dedicated to creativity and play in nature.   They differ from parks and play areas because they offer opportunities to interact with the environment rather than leaving it untouched. They are outdoor laboratories of creativity with open-ended possibilities for self-designed play, creativity, learning, and socializing.
  • More funding for term-time and holiday nature camps for children in urban settings that do not get to spend holidays outside of the city.

As Richard Louv rightly suggests, “how the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes—our daily lives”.  If we are to create a sustainable world, cities, livelihoods and so on we need to start with our young and that means allowing them to develop an intimate contact with nature.

If your vision is for a year plant wheat, if you vision is for a decade plant trees, and if your vision is for a lifetime plant people

African Proverb

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Pop Up and Play Jozi holiday club

We’ve been doing adhoc Pop Up & Play sessions since I last wrote about it in March and after a session in August at David Webster Park, Troyeville we were invited by City of Johannesburg Community Development and Region F Sport and Recreation to run the school holiday club at the end of September.  We were really pleased and grateful for the invitation from local government to provide this space and experience for children.  They are greatly needed in communities where parents are under pressure to provide appropriate care for children because they cannot afford extra holiday care.  Our model also helps reclaim spaces in the city that were planned for children’s use but have been taken over by adults and used for anti-social activities such as drug abuse and prostitution.  We need to ensure an adult presence in these spaces but a presence that does not seek to control and regiment children’s play.


We had around 45 kids passing through over the week with 30 or so ‘regulars’.  Our sessions ran from 10am-2pm, staffed by myself, Siphokaze and Linda – our playworkers in training who did a fantastic job.  The idea behind these sessions is to provide a safe space and the resources for children to engage in child-directed play.  During the week we made kites (the old fashioned way), masks, swords, wands, read stories, painted,  played drums, walked the slackline and on the last day were moved and entertained by the amazing children’s dance and drama team from Buzz.


My main observation of the week is that the kids initially came with the expectation that this was another version of school or aftercare, ready for command and instruction.   We laid out materials and assumed the children would just get on and play but I initially found, too often for my liking, that I was asked ‘what should I paint?’, ‘what should I make?’, even ‘how must we play with this…”.  The kids in the group were of primary school age, older than the 2-6 cohort I usually work with.  I wondered whether the schooling environment had made them lose their innate playfulness and creativity, or whether the presence of us adults changed the way they played as they assumed some kind of pressure to perform, to be correct or felt that they were being assessed.


I soon realised our main task was letting them realise they have all the ideas and they are free to explore them, that they have the capacity and ability and just needed the confidence, encouragement and freedom to explore that.  While I spend a lot of time advocating for and explaining ‘child-directed’ play to adults it was a surprise to have to ‘explain’ (through play) the approach to children themselves.


It also took days for the children to stop asking if they could please go to the toilet, if they could go and wash their hands and to stop calling me Ma’am and Miss.  I know this was both an ingrained habit and a show of respect and I appreciated it but in a play-based environment I would like to be seen as an adult and their equal.  This is an interesting topic and one of contention for many in a culture that really holds onto the ‘respect your elders’ mantra.  I totally agree with respecting your elders, naturally, but that respect must come from a place of mutual understanding and not one of fear and blind obedience.


A week later I came across a wonderful (lengthy!) blog post by the wonderful Teacher Tom called “Why I Teach the Way I Do’ (which is inspiration for a million blog posts to come).  His ideas around  democracy, freedom and obedience in the learning environment really resonated and articulated my feelings around these issues.  I’ve pulled out and paraphrased some excerpts below:

“I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. … We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed…..we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.”

“Our society has collectively, through our Constitution, cast its lot with Locke, and in this view if we are still born needing our fellow humans, and specifically our parents, it does not mean that they are our superiors. Indeed they are more experienced and physically capable, but it doesn’t follow that we are subservient to them: we are born in a state of equality and freedom and we need our fellow humans. It is a challenging idea for some, this idea that adults can keep children safe and prepare them for citizenship without authoritarian tools because, quite obviously, the influence of Hobbes is still with us. It’s impossible for some to understand how a child can grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen without the constant anticipation of the carrot and fear of the stick.”

“Our job, then, is not to “tell” children or “instruct” children, but rather to keep them safe and informed as they explore their world through play, learning as they go everything they need to know, including values and morals.  Some still insist, however, that for their own good we must “train” children to obey our parental commands, to react without question to our words: “Stop!” “Come here!” “Sit there!” much in the way one trains a dog. (I’m sorry that this metaphor offends people, but I stand by its aptness.) If we are preparing children to take jobs in the military or a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top, then perhaps we would be doing them a favor.  This, however, is emphatically not the world for which I’m preparing children. The habits of blind obedience, of trained reactions to the commands of others, flies in the face of our democratic experiment: they are a danger both to the child and ultimately to the rest of us who count on our fellow citizens to be equal and free. Obedience is not a democratic value.”

“Being child-directed is about creating a physical and intellectual space in which children “tell you” when they are ready to expand their experiences; not commanding them, not drilling them, not testing them, but simply narrating, filling their world with facts.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,