Unlocking the benefits of nature for early years’ children

Jacqui McDermid and Jo Gordon from LEAP in Lambeth, describe how the Natural Thinkers programme is supporting teachers and practitioners in connecting children with nature. As Communication and Language Strand Leads, they have seen first-hand the benefits it has had on LEAP children.

This blog was originally published on the The National Lottery Community Fund website for the A Better Start programme.

Since joining the Lambeth Early Action Partnership (LEAP), we have adapted the programme to meet the needs of our youngest children. Through reviewing our methods, and listening to both parents and practitioners, we have made the programme more accessible and improved its outcomes.

We are giving parents the tools to encourage experiences that support children’s connection to nature. We hope that the parents who engage with us will grow their own appreciation of nature and pass it onto their children.

The main obstacles

Most of the parents we have worked with want to engage with nature but have been unsure how to do this. When you take them outside, they begin to see the value it has on their own wellbeing, as well as that of their children.

We have had no problem in persuading them of the benefits. The main obstacle has been getting them outside consistently throughout the year – not just when the weather is nice and sunny!

For example, our weekly nature events at a Lambeth estate were well-attended until we left the parents to organise the group independently. Subsequently, engagement dropped off to a level that became unsustainable.

If you have a community member who is a keen advocate for the outdoors, it can work very well. However, if you don’t, then finding a leader within the community can be difficult. Many of our parents explained that having young children meant they often didn’t have time to maintain an outdoor area or lead a group. They would though still like to attend group sessions.

Natural Thinker’s Stay and Play sessions

This insight led to us training our children’s centre staff to run stay and play sessions within the centres. Each centre has run weekly outdoor sessions, encouraging new natural experiences and activities that can be done at home or in the park.

The premise is that parents adopt our ideas, which require limited resources, and do them at home in their own time. We are very mindful to share activities that can still work with little or restricted space available (like a balcony). We also encourage them to go for walks and connect with the natural environment more.

The groups had been working well before the pandemic.

It has not been possible for parents to come to sessions on a regular basis due to the various lockdowns. But when they have been able to attend, parents have been very positive in their feedback:

“Being able to come back to the group has been a life saver for me. It is so nice to have somewhere to bring them so they can run around and play. When they are stuck at home, they are hard work. They love coming to play in the garden and see other children.”

“I can’t believe what an amazing session this was – we found toads! My child was so excited – first time for both of us.”

“We grew callaloo and Lindia showed us how to cook it. I took some home and make wraps using callaloo like spinach.”

Developing seasonal nature packs

Parents have also requested ideas on how to get their children outdoors. In response we have developed nature packs and distributed them to parents at home.

We have since developed seasonal packs aimed at young children, but with ideas that would suit older children too. We want it to be a family approach. We have received some wonderful feedback, including:

“My boys loved the activities. As my eldest (7) was off from school he helped the little ones (23 months and 8 months old) and they thoroughly enjoyed it. They were really engaged. Thank you so much.”

“We were so grateful for them and enjoyed everything in there.”

“I thought the pack was great!”

Next steps

The programme has been inspiring parents to come up with their own outdoors ideas. We’ll be using them as we continue to adapt our nature packs.

Now that lockdown restrictions are easing, we hope to incorporate the packs into face-to-face sessions. We want to continue to engage parents to get outside, enjoy nature with their children and enhance their wellbeing.

For more information go to the Natural Thinkers website - https://www.naturalthinkers.co.uk/

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