About us Our Blog Promoting physical and emotional health through nature play Daniela, Senior practitioner from Acorn’s Sharnbrook nursery based in Bedfordshire, has been an advocate of nature play from the onset of her early years journey with Acorn. Learning about Acorn’s values and ethos, Daniela adapted the environment in her room to bring a woodland feel for the children and staff. Daniela was soon known to others as the ‘log lady’ as she was always on the prowl for new additions for their woodland themed room. Fortunately for Daniela, their nursery is based within a science park, surrounded by beautiful scenery and wildlife. The warm relationship between the nursery and groundsmen ensured that Daniela would never run short with supplies of logs. Bringing the natural beauty from outside into the setting not only provides a natural environment to promote positive mental health and wellbeing but helps the children to develop a natural appreciation and healthy relationship with the natural world which are key attributes to Acorn’s ethos, practice, and forms parts of our relational pedagogy. These environments provide the perfect ambiance to continue learning about natural curiosities found outside, such as insects and butterflies, which were the intent for the provocations set out below. In addition to exploring the natural wonders of our world, Daniela is aware of the physical benefits from being outside and, like all Acorn settings, operates a free flow system, to allow children the autonomy to go outside and be physically active all day. Over the years, there have been growing concerns arising from the increased use of screen time and fewer opportunities for children to be free to play in natures playground where the ability to form personal relationships can flourish, and how this can lead to what some describe as a ‘nature deficit disorder’. Prior to Covid-19, Ofsted had already reported on the need for more opportunities for children to be physically challenged in early years settings and has become a feature of discussion in many publications, including Nursery World, where it references comments that children need to ‘take more safe risks’ and to consider the growing cases of child obesity (The Nursery World 2018). This is something Daniela was mindful of particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, as children had restricted access to play areas outside of the family home, some of which were at more of a disadvantage as they had no access to outside space at all. With all these considerations in mind, at the beginning of 2021, Daniela was pleased to have been offered an opportunity to complete a level 4 PANCo qualification. The role of a Physical Activity and Nutrition Coordinator (PANCo) is one that takes the lead in the setting to ensure children have the best start in life, putting health and wellbeing firmly at the heart by adopting a wellbeing-in-action intervention to promote positive nutrition, physical activity and help prevent obesity in early years (panco.org.uk 2017). As part of the PANCo qualification, Daniela had to complete a research project and decided to focus hers on the importance of being outdoors, and how natural learning opportunities within a Forest School session, had a positive impact on children’s wellbeing and involvement. When children attend an Acorn setting, they usually begin Forest School sessions when they are three years old (Oaks group) as they would normally travel on an Acorn minibus to a local wood or forest. Fortunately for the children who attend the Sharnbrook setting, the nursery has plenty of local wooded areas on site, just a short walk from the nursery. This has enabled the toddler group (Squirrels) to attend a weekly ‘woodland adventure’, which is what they call their slightly adapted Forest School sessions. Daniela worked in close partnership with the parents to ensure they were fully informed about what information would be collated prior to, and throughout the 6-week research period. Daniela used Ferre Leavers wellbeing and involvement scales, which is a tool used to assess children’s wellbeing and involvement on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being extremely low to 5 being extremely high, to collect quantitative data through two-minute snapshot observations. Qualitative data was also collected in the form of observations as the children explored the natural world and activities provided. The observations had to be collected over a six-week period in order to obtain a true reflection of the benefits as, Daniela described in her writing that, “The Forest school approach is not a one-off visit to the local woods; it refers to a consistent and long-term process, where children are exposed to the natural world to experience different learning opportunities considering the child’s abilities and interests” (Gonzalez 2021). The case study followed and documented the interactions of two children, one was 29 months and had been in the setting for two months and another was 30 months and had recently join the setting. Understandably, the child new to the setting had to settle into the new environments, so initially was scoring low for wellbeing and involvement. However, this quickly moved up to higher levels as the regular and frequent visits help them to settle in, as interests in potion making and painting were identified and therefore provided in, what Daniela described to be as, the optimal learning environment. The child who had been at the setting longer had had documented consistently higher levels of wellbeing and involvement and observation detailing great confidence and autonomy when exploring the natural environment and activities provided emphasises the value of such experiences. Daniela concluded that following her research study, extensive literature review and findings, that high quality, consistent, regular visits to the forest school plays a fundamental role for children to learn about the world and develop confidence, autonomy and physical, emotional and mental health. Following this study, Daniela has since created a ‘Growing Healthy’ newsletter aimed at parents and staff, to help them to understand the importance of a healthy and active lifestyle, with initiatives of how to instil this at home and in the nursery setting. This study has highlighted the significance of the role of the PANCo and the need for such role to be adopted by at least one member of staff in all Acorn settings, to become a champion for ensuring children have the healthiest start in life, both at home and in the setting. References: Nursery World (2018) https://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/article/ofsted-says-settings-are-not-physical-enough (accessed 31/1/22) Panco (2017) https://www.panco.org.uk/the-programme (accessed 31/1/22) Daniela Gonzalez (2021) How does the enabling environment of forest school approach support children’ wellbeing and involvement?