Two years ago Luci Alderslowe looked around her and saw there was nothing which met the needs of her one year old child.
As a recent graduate from the Centre of Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde, she understood how people should live as part of the environment around them, not separate and locked away in their homes.
The Ecopsycology part of her course left a particularly lasting impression. It instilled into her a deep understanding of how establishing a true interdependence between a person and the natural environment would bring health and fulfilment.
All she wanted was to be able to take her one year old son a group where he could become immersed in the rhythms of nature at an early age. All she found was dusty rooms full of plastic toys and women talking about car seats.
So, taking the courage of her convictions in both hands, she picked up the telephone and started to call her friends.
Thus was born “Nurture In Nature”, a Glasgow based babies and toddlers group whose aim is very simple: to allow children to learn about life within a natural environment and in an ecologically sensitive way.
They meet once a week (recently increased to twice) at various locations in their area. The day’s agenda is set entirely by the children, with only the lightest of touch from parents to ensure nothing dangerous happens.
This gives children the opportunity to explore the natural world at their own pace, exploring what is important to them and understanding everything to the fullness of their ability.
In addition, there are no constraints in terms of an adult-imposed curriculum or pre defined activities and no artificial toys are allowed.
This gives the children an unparalleled opportunity to connect directly with the environment leading to a far better connection to the ecological system than any other form of engagement.
The group has been running for two years now. A core of four parents have been attending for all this time with a variety of others taking part whenever they can. There have rarely been more than ten families attending at any one time.
In the meantime, Luci herself has had another child and so now has both a one year old and a three year old to look after. She finds the difference between the outlook of the two remarkable: “I never realised how different activities are required for babies and toddlers!” she says.
The group is unlikely to get any bigger in size. They’re happy as a bunch of friends who enjoy spending time outside with each other, allowing their children to learn to respect their environment at the earliest age.
This is why they take no money nor do they advertise. To do either of these could imply they are an organised form of childcare, which in turn may attract regulatory interest and possibly intervention.
That would go against the group’s ethos of allowing the children access to the natural world with as little interference as possible.
In the meantime, those parents who have joined have found out about the group through word of mouth. Often they’re disaffected with traditional babies and toddler groups and are looking for something more natural and less artificial for their children.
“Nurture In Nature” represents an altogether different and very refreshing way of approaching the need for babies, toddlers and their parents to meet and interact.
Luci’s only regret is that she’s not managed to make the group’s leadership more co-operative in style. Organising each and every one of the sessions has been a pleasure, but it also undermines the group’s communal aspect.
To try and rectify this she’s bought a mobile telephone for the group. This can be used as a single point of contact, making it easier to pass on responsibility for organising the next day as easy as passing on a mobile phone.
The Organisation of a “Nurture In Nature” day
The location of the next day is usually agreed upon at the previous one, with two critical factors being taken into account:
Firstly, the location has to be easily accessible by public transport. Apart from any environmental concern, not all the group members drive, and there should be no exclusion on the basis of transportation.
Secondly, if one member of the group is likely to be busier than usual that day the group try and meet close to him or her. This is to try and ensure that their children can participate in the activities as much as possible.
However, not all the members of the group go to all the meetings. This means the organizer has to phone around beforehand and inform those who were absent where the next meeting will be.
This can take some time, as Luci explains: “We’re all friends but because they haven’t seen me for a week or so often they will want to chat on the phone for half an hour or so! I don’t mind at all, but it means I have to put aside time to do the phoning around”.
The day will start when the first person turns up at the location. Because there’re no fixed activities they just get on with whatever the children are interested in.
Then, as more and more parents and children turn up, activities change and flow around what holds the children’s interest.
The key is to keep everything spontaneous and allow the children to set the agenda. So one moment you may be examining a plant in the smallest detail, the next you may be dancing and singing a song.
Officially the group only meets from 10-12am. However many of their days go over lunchtime and into the afternoon. When this is likely to happen sandwiches, fruit and drinks are brought along.
Because the group operates among friends some parents come and go during the day, leaving the group to look after their children. This allows some to hold part time jobs while being confident that their children are being nurtured in an ecologically sound way.
There is only one hard and fast rule which applies to all people who attend the group, children and adults alike: No Hitting.
This aside the group is guided by its core purpose to allow children to learn and grow through engaging with the environment. As long as there is no danger to the children, then they’re allowed to do whatever they like.
It is crucial for parents to remember this. If an activity no longer engages the children and they decide to wander off, the parents have to follow the children not call them back.
Often, as the group explores something the parents end up learning alongside their children. As Luci observes: “A lot of parenting is about reconnecting with your childish side”.
This mutual achievement strengthens the bond between parent and child, making each day a wonderful experience of shared exploration, understanding and respect.
Luci Alderslowe is happy to give advice to any parents looking to set up their own outdoors babies and toddlers group. She can be reached on lusialderslowe @@ googlemail DOTDOT com.
Below are some examples of locations out which “Nurture In Nature” frequent:
Rural Parks. A great favourite in Glasgow is Caithkin Braes, a rural area of just under 500 acres to the south east of the city. Here the children can play in the outdoors using the toys nature provides, learning to respect and interact with the environment around them.
Activities have ranged from building Eeyore’s house to one of the adults pretending to be a tree and the children asking permission before taking a twig away to play with.
Sometimes the children like to play in a small burn but this is discouraged in the winter!
Forgaing and doing roly-polys down a hill have also been favourites in these kinds of meeting place. Always, the emphasis has been to open up the children’s understanding of their place within the environment around them.
Allotments. Several of the parents run their own allotments and “Nurture In Nature” often meets there during busy times of the year. While there are obviously chores to be done here, the children are allowed to watch and explore as much as possible.
Highlights have included the excitement at getting some potatoes out of the ground, washing them, wrapping them in foil and then cooking them there and then in a fire.
There was also the surprise at getting one child, normally a bit sniffy about the food on their plate, to enjoy eating nasturtiums. These flowers are naturally sweet due to the high levels of nectar they contain.
Nurture in this environment is all about food and its origins. In particular, the parents try to instil into the children that food comes in all shapes and sizes and that it always tastes better fresh!
This is the only time when manmade instruments are allowed to be part of the children’s play as tools such as forks, trowels and spades are an important part of allotment life.
Away Days. The group will occasionally go further afield for a full day trip. One such trip was to Loch Lomand, for a boat trip on which the children saw a lot of wildlife which they wouldn’t normally see.
Another time the group went away for an overnight camping trip, taking along pets and instruments.
There is one common denominator in all these activities: “The kids are always up for getting dirty!” Luci declares.
Top Ten Tips
• Make sure all children are appropriately dressed. As soon as they can crawl they should have a waterproofs and wellies, otherwise they won’t be able to join in the activities of the other children. “We have a saying,” explains Luci: “ ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing‘!“
• Take it in turns to organise each day. Having a centralised mobile phone with everyone’s numbers can help because the phone gets passed on to whoever is organising the next day. It also means that there is just one phone people need to call if they’re going to be late or need to cancel.
• Do seasonal things, such as forging in the autumn and making daisy chains for the spring equinox. Try and bring nature’s natural rhythm as far as possible into the child’s consciousness.
• Keep changing the locations. There will always be favourites but always going to the same ones will stymie the overall aim of an outdoor group: to allow the children to explore.
• However, always carefully consider your locations. They should be reachable by public transport and should enable all the children to participate in the group for at least some of the time.
• Always be spontaneous. A lot of childhood behaviour is unlearnt by adults who then get embarrassed by the idea of singing or dancing in public. If it helps to engage your children with the environment, then do it!
• Make sure you keep your group among friends and informal. As soon as you start gathering money or advertising services it’s likely you will need to be registered and regulated. This will interfere with the group’s main aim.
• Never bring toys, not even a football.
• Remember the group’s aim is to engage children with their natural environment for their understanding and lifelong wellbeing. Let them set the agenda.
• Always remember that adults can learn as much from the sessions as children. As any parent knows, children are very good at coming up with questions you don’t know the answer to! Continue to engage with their exploration of the World at all times.