The echo of children’s voices grows louder as they arrive in the woods. Squeals of excitement break the still air causing birds to flap up through the trees. Looks of wonder and apprehension of the unknown linger on faces, as they hike up the track, laden with bulging bags containing waterproofs, boots and packed lunches. They have arrived at The Woodland Play Centre, a scheme in Somerset that enables children to experience outdoor spaces in an informal, unique and playful way, whilst nurturing a healthy understanding and respect for the natural world.
Louise Kennedy set up the woodland playscheme in Crowcombe, Somerset in 1999. “I feel very strongly that children, young people and adults need opportunities to nurture a healthy respect for our environment by playing with the elements,” she explains. Louise is an environmental playworker specialising in working in the outdoors with a varied age range and ability of children with a focus on child-centred, hands-on learning. She has loved being outdoors since she was a girl. “As a child I was always happier playing outdoors, I have very fond memories of playing with the natural elements – especially water! My parents have often wondered what they did to my brother and I as children, as we both work in the outdoor industry! I think we were given the freedom to play outdoors with few restrictions, plus our parents and grandparents love the outdoors and have a sense of adventure.”
A fascination in how green spaces affect human beings led Louise to Denmark to study and research nature’s effect on children’s play. “I am totally inspired by nature and how it stimulates and provides a vast array of play possibilities and spring boards. I love its beauty and the fact it is never the same. My research motivated me to support children in creating their own spaces to play,” she says.
“I hear all too often from children in the woods that they will get told off if they get their hands or best clothes dirty – dirt is good and it comes out in the wash!”
Space to explore
Recent studies have shown that children have a smaller geographical space to play in than they did 50 years ago as traffic and buildings have had a large impact on where children can play out. This is something that Louise is keen to change. Today she leads inspirational workshops for teachers on ways to encourage adults in making wild outdoor spaces available for children to play. She also participates in her local community in West Somerset, running the youth club for young people living in the area. When she’s not working she can be found exploring the valleys and moorland on the Quantocks and Exmoor with her dogs. At the centre, open moorland, woodland and streams all provide an environment to stimulate a child’s senses. Louise believes that going back to nature is an essential antidote for modern childhood. “Within our current climate, it is of great importance to raise awareness of environmental issues and impacts,” she explains. Ecological impact is considered in everything that Louise does at the Woodland Centre and in fact this year sees the opening of the new Thunderbox compost toilet system which can be moved around, meaning that the group can be flexible as to where they set up camp each day.
As well as educational days for schools, the team offers magical parties set in the woods and a playscheme that runs during the school holidays. Within these projects there are opportunities to build dens, explore, cook over a campfire, get close to nature, play freely in wild spaces, create environmental art and participate in a variety of ‘wild’ activities, as well as to contemplate, listen and be thoughtful nestled deep in the Quantock Hills. The holiday playschemes start at the end of July and continue throughout the summer for young people aged eight to 14 years old. The aim is to provide an outdoor environment where children can explore, climb, get wet, muddy and dirty, look for bugs and learn about and feel the natural elements. A varied programme of activities is provided, from making natural musical instruments to animal tracking. Do you think your child would enjoy a birthday party in the woods, sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows? Parties continue to be a raging success at the Woodland Play Centre – some children opt for a themed party like survival or nature detectives, others choose a selection of activities such as environmental art and den building. And adults needn’t miss out. Louise also runs Woodland Adventure Days for adults and teenagers for participants to learn a range of bushcraft and survival skills. Gather a group of friends and go wild in the woods for a day.
If you are looking for ways to engage your child in the natural world, Louise has the following advice; “From personal experience I would encourage parents to share their child’s curiosity for nature, to be inquisitive and remember their own childhood experiences of playing outdoors (good and bad!). In our adult play training courses we often start by trying to recapture our own memories and find that these are often doing something exciting away from adult intervention. Whilst it is important to care for and keep your children safe, it is also vital they are not denied some magical and risky experiences. I hear all too often from children in the woods that they will get told off if they get their hands or best clothes dirty – dirt is good and it comes out in the wash! So another top tip is to wear old clothes so it doesn’t matter if they get dirty or rip. Allow children to lead their own explorations and take you, as the adult, on an adventure. Make time to explore; walk to school through a park, field or next to hedgerows or at the weekends visit a local nature reserve or park. Don’t let your child be the last child in the woods.”
Visit woodlandplaycentre.com for more information, or contact 07775 941353.