If you were to ask many of our staff, volunteers, members and supporters about their first experiences of wildlife or wild places, the chances are that they will describe a memory of playing outdoors. Wild play is often the very first step in a lifelong passion for nature. One of our two central aims at the Trust is to inspire people about wildlife and all the evidence suggests that play is a good place to start. The more people we manage to inspire about wildlife, the more people are likely to take action to protect our habitats and species across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Wild play is one of our key tools in nurturing future custodians for nature and securing long term recovery for our threatened wildlife.
National Play Day
Play comes in many forms. It sometimes involves objects or equipment, but often it requires just some space, some time and some imagination. Children will sometimes play with others and sometimes on their own. Sometimes play is loud and boisterous (I expect we can all think of some examples of that) but sometimes play is quiet and thoughtful. In all cases, play consists of activities that are freely chosen and initiated by the child. Play is an essential and enjoyable part of a child’s life and contributes to all areas of their development and their health and wellbeing. Wild places, such as woodlands, beaches and meadows provide lots of opportunities and invitations to play, and here at the Trust, we know our local wild places very well.
The Trust have been leading the way locally in wild play for well over a decade, with our wildlife toddler groups already very popular when I started, back in 2007. There are now a wide variety of projects, events and groups across the two counties and plenty of ways for you and your little ones to get involved. Here are just a few examples.
Wildlife Tots groups currently run in seven locations across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Each tots group is different, because each place is different and one of the beauties of playing outdoors is the ability to explore the unique features of the surroundings.
If you visit Bouldnor Forest on the Isle of Wight on a Thursday morning during term time, you will be greeted by the glorious sounds of children playing in the woodland. The Isle of Wight Wildlife Tots group adheres particularly closely to the principles of Forest School, discussed below. The mud kitchen is very popular with the under 5s who come along each week, as are the opportunities to explore and make things out of natural materials.
Over at Swanwick Lakes near Fareham, the team provide twice monthly Tots session as well as school holiday sessions where older siblings are welcome. Here, as with several of our other Tots locations, there are meadows, woodlands and a pond, allowing children to explore and play in a variety of habitats. At Testwood, our very youngest wildlife fans come along to Natural Babies sessions, where the focus is on sensory play.
Our provision of play opportunities doesn’t end when children go to school. Play is central to our planning and delivery of Forest School. Forest School involves small groups of children coming out to a woodland setting for at least 6 (usually more) repeated visits and taking part in activities to benefit all areas of their development, particularly their self-confidence and self-esteem. Building the sessions around child motivated play gives the participants control over their Forest School journey, allowing them to follow their interests and play to their own strengths. In this way, the focus on play maximises the benefits of Forest School for those who take part. Forest School programmes take place right across the two counties with a variety of ages groups, including adults.
Of course you don’t need to attend an event or a Forest School programme to play in nature. Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust looks after over 50 nature reserves where you are welcome to come and explore and play without a member of staff. Maybe you could build a pebble tower on the beach, make a holiday home for your favourite cuddly toy in the woods, bake a magnificent mud pie, or even concoct a smelly magic potion. If you need an excuse to get out and play in nature, why not make National Play Day the excuse. Perhaps it will be the start of wild and wonderful new adventure.
Find out more about Forest School and the work of the Education and Engagement team.