Out with the new, in with the old? By Andrea Turner

2nd May 2017

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My heart gladdens to see that parents are getting to grips with the tremendously positive impact of decluttering children’s play areas, giving children breathing space and swapping plastic toys for natural open-ended resources. There’s a revolution going on don’t you know? They’re scrapping their plastic sandpit shells and turtles (you know the ones) and tiny plastic picnic tables and everything! Dark, dank, unused sections of gardens everywhere are being transformed into wonderfully messy and exciting play areas and I’m. just. loving it. But that’s hardly surprising when outdoor nurseries are becoming ever so popular. New ones are springing up all over the place, even in my own little corner of the world, and I really do hope they’re not just a fad, that they’re going to change the childcare landscape forever. Unsurprisingly, this movement has got us parents reminiscing about the good old days and our own rose-tinted childhoods. Parents like me who spent all day, every day out in the garden or my Grandad’s garden-come-allotment-come-workshop-come-scrapyard or even better – out in the street with the big kids. When all we had to play with was a football, elastic bands, a tow rope, empty tin cans, two tennis balls, a pair of laddered tights and maybe a bag of marbles. If I’m totally honest though, if the internet had been around when I was a kid, my parents definitely would have had trouble tearing me away from it.

Well anyway, we replaced our “plastic fantastic” a long, long time ago and the setting immediately felt so much simpler and much more relaxing. We even banished the labelled plastic storage boxes. We really did. And it was totally liberating. Who needs plastic fruit & vegetables, plastic pots & pans, plastic spanners and screwdrivers? How weird are they anyway, really? Bananas aren’t 3 inch long pieces of hollow plastic with no taste or smell. Plastic kettles give no clue as to how heavy a real kettle is when empty or full. Screwdrivers don’t bend when you put pressure on them. How the heck are kids supposed to make sense of the world around them when we don’t even let them experiment with the real stuff? I look back now and think about how differently I’d do things for my own son if I could turn back the clock. I think about how much he’d have loved that stuff from Evergreen Outdoor Education and I can’t help but think I’ve deprived him in some way. How the children I work with today are benefitting from my understanding of child development while he had to make do with parents blindly buying whatever rubbish we saw advertised on TV because we thought that’s what kids liked. Well, everybody else’s kids had them didn’t they? And I must admit, he did love that plastic kitchen and all the accessories and he does love cooking to this day but I bet he’d have loved a big chunky wooden outdoor kitchen even better, where he could rustle up lunch from mud, twigs and leaves rather than 5 stuck-together crinkle chips, plastic fish fingers {albeit quite realistic looking and about as appetising as real life gluten free ones) and 20-odd garden peas that come as one piece. Crikey, we could even have made it taller over the years and added extensions and shelves and cupboards and stuff. It could have grown with him. Yeah, I definitely deprived the poor kid.

But after all these years of going all-out Steineresque we do still get the odd parent saying “so where are all your toys?” even after they’ve just observed the children busy collaborating as they construct a huge doll’s house from various lengths of decking, using corks as people, branch slices for tables and chairs, shells for plates and pebbles for stairs. Even after they’ve just remarked on how they too used to love banging pans and mixing bowls with ladles while dinner was being cooked and threading old curtain rings onto paper towel holders because it’s the simple stuff right? That all that kitchen equipment was just so much more appealing because dragging it out of kitchen cupboards was all a bit naughty and they’d be expecting “hey, get your hands off that right now!” aaaany time now. They’d actually even say how charming it is to see children playing like that again. And even after they’ve just watched the children snipping grass with scissors to make dinosaur spaghetti and mixing mud with pea gravel to make the meatballs and sauce. And still they want to know where the toys are? Oi vey.

And then there’s those die-hard practitioners who still think a setting is not stimulating enough without jigsaw patterned carpets, primary coloured furniture, posters and stickers all over the walls and windows and things dangling from the ceiling. I’ve even seen a setting where numbers and letters on commercial ‘leaf’ shapes have been stuck onto windows as a display, completely obstructing the view of hey, guess what, the real leaves on the real trees right outside in their own grounds. I’ve visited settings that are within beautiful extensive wooded grounds and meadows and yet children’s play is restricted to a fenced off, multi-coloured, rubber surfaced section full of toys. Or woodland settings where they’ve dug up plants and completely removed undergrowth, mulch, whole trees, logs and fallen branches and replaced the entire landscape with that same multi-coloured, rubberised eco-friendly surface and commercial wooden balancing beams that come from FSC certified forests or from post-consumer waste (the irony of it though huh?) and “doesn’t it all look so much brighter and prettier now?” Erm…  I’d once been so envious of their amazing grounds. Still, they bagged themselves that outstanding grade they always did deserve but were criticised for not making best use of their outdoor space and local amenities. I’m sure the futility of it all wasn’t lost on them but at that time I guess they just never imagined in a million years that an OFSTED Inspector would ever grade a setting without running water, flushing toilets and electricity as outstanding. It actually makes our mud kitchens, potting sheds, creation stations and engineering workbenches all seem a bit… well… a bit lame doesn’t it? And there was me thinking we were being kinda progressive.

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