Ask Conference - connecting young people and place

University of Reading, Tuesday 1st April 2008

The promotion of better quality environments and more opportunities for children’s outdoor play is a crucial issue for both disabled and non-disabled children in increasingly urbanised societies. We believe that the answers lie in a multi-disciplinary approach. This conference at Reading University and Coombes School in the UK brought together perspectives, skills and experiences of people from a wide range of professional backgrounds from the UK, Japan and Sweden.

The day started with a series of talks from a range of speakers who all work in some way with children and the environment. We kicked off the day with an explanation of the Ask project from Lynsey Robinson. This was an overview of the UK side of the project work, how the project had come about and why there is a real need to do direct consultation with disabled and non-disabled children.

Dr Ko Senda talking about the Ask project. We then heard from Dr. Ko Senda who had flown in from Tokyo to share the Japan side of the Ask project with us. We heard how the work had inspired many of those who had taken part to consider what it is that makes an exciting outdoor experience for children, and how they can improve this at their own sites and through the activities they offer. There were some interesting outcomes from the research, including how many of the children without disabilities had recorded objects and things that they liked, whereas the majority of children with disabilities had focused more on how the places made them feel.

Then it was the turn of Petter Åkerblom from the Department of Urban and Rural Studies at Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet and Movium - Centre for the Urban Environment, in Sweden. Petter has been involved in extensive research in connecting people and the environment. Petter led us through a process-focused approach that tackles the barriers that can prevent people from getting more out of their environments. Petter explained that teachers can be fearful of what might happen in an outdoor class situation where they may have to learn alongside their students. He also talked about one of their campaigns in Sweden, loosely translated as “A Children’s Right to Grazes (Skrubbsår)”, which celebrates a child’s right to play in the outdoor environment.

Then it was time for Dr Jo Elworthy to share all the work that has been happening in and around the Eden Project. We heard about den building in the middle of the pit, "sneaky play" opportunities where small things such as a deliberate gap in a hedge are all that are needed to invite children to play, and how play opportunity is often more about a state of mind rather than expensive plastic play structures. Eden is also starting a Big Lottery supported project that will develop new ways of nature-based play and share its findings with community groups across Cornwall.

The morning was rounded off by an inspiring talk from Susan Humphries. After developing the exemplar school grounds of Coombes School, Susan has a wealth of experience of how to work with children outdoors and ensure they have strong connections with their environment, whilst learning all the things the National Curriculum deems necessary. We heard about how we can improve our own roles as “decoders”: it is important to talk to children and young people about what they are interested in and what they need for a good experience, but it is up to us to translate that information into the necessary solutions. “Teachers give you intellectual adventures from your hair to your toenails”.

In the afternoon we all boarded the coach and headed off for Coombes School. Before we knew it we were in the playground mixed into a circle of children (who Coombes school staff refer to as teachers) having a music lesson. Rhythms were beaten out with sticks of hazel coppiced from the school grounds and the association between rhythm and literacy was explored.

Rhythm and literacy at Coombes school

Each of us was then given an individual tour of the school grounds by a student, leading us by the hand, showing us their favourite places, talking about what sort of activities they did there, and how good it is to be a part of Coombes School. This was a real highlight where we found ourselves being introduced to the school sheep, reflecting around the labyrinth, ducking under branches and rocky outcrops, or jumping into the pile of woodchips! We thanked our tour guides and headed back to the library for the final summation of the day. The room was filled with smiling faces that looked as though they knew exactly what they had to do when they returned to their individual offices.

It’s good for us to remember what it means to be playful and how the connections to nature are so important for our children. The need for children to play outside, to play freely, to indulge in so-called “risky play” (climbing trees for instance) is well documented. This conference proved that there are people doing excellent work making provision for children to do just that. What is less clear is why there isn’t more provision. Coombes School was described in the Ofsted inspection report in 2007 as “an outstanding and inspirational school... It prepares children extremely well for learning and later life.” It has been in existence for years, and yet it still shines like a beacon in a system that seems geared towards mediocrity, due process and the fear of litigation. Many of us were left wondering why, when examples such as Coombes School are so compelling, are there so few other schools willing to fight for our children’s rights to be outdoors and, indeed, many who are actively antagonistic towards the idea of children spending time learning through their environment.

Thank you to all our fantastic speakers, the incredibly welcoming Coombes School and to everyone who participated and made the day a really valuable experience. All of us here at the Sensory Trust felt the day was a huge success and the feedback we have received confirms this.

See also