Cultural Capital is a new terminology within the Early Years Inspection Framework (2019) that asks settings to demonstrate how the setting’s curriculum develops strong foundations that will lead to future success. But how is cultural capital applicable within a nature-based context? What are the skills and knowledge that your setting will implement that will prepare children for what comes next? In asking us to consider sociocultural perspectives, we need to remind ourselves of the theorists who support this approach. John Dewey, Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky provided us with theoretical underpinnings that support our practice so that we facilitate children’s ability to negotiate, collaborate and develop higher-order processing skills that enable them to solve problems for themselves.
Activities that promote risk and challenge enable the practitioner to become the MKO (More Knowledgable Other) and gain a deeper understanding of what children can’t do, and what they can do with support. In these instances, providing children with the emotional literacy skills to enable them to understand their feelings, and by providing tailored support, pushes them to challenge themselves and to foster that belief that they can do things. These situations support the development of executive functions, specifically their inhibitory control and support children to select an appropriate behavioural response that will allow them to complete their goals. Many children when they start have already fostered the belief that they can’t do a variety of things. It may be that an activity is too difficult, or it may be as simple as not hanging their lunch bag up when asked. It will then be for the skillful practitioner to find an appropriate way to support the challenge. We believe the ability to support children to regulate their emotions and provide them with emotional literacy skills, is fundamental to high emotional intelligence and higher levels of wellbeing. It also enables them to develop the skills to solve their own problems.
My hypothesis for my dissertation last year was to ask the question about the difference that I saw in the girls that attended my setting, in comparison to the girls that came to me from school settings. There was a difference, however, initially, I wasn’t able to determine what that was. I also thought that the woodland was gender-neutral as there was nothing within it to suggest that it was feminine or masculine.
Our setting has no gender-specific toys or resources and children are encouraged to leave toys at home. We removed as many societal and cultural influences that would enable children to gravitate towards anything that reinforced gender stereotypes, and we introduced a uniform (Purple & Green) to try to ensure that children couldn’t seek gender cues from clothing. Staff were then supported with gender equity practices so that any stereotypical language was challenged. We had one girl state she couldn’t do something because she wasn’t strong and that only men could do strong things. It was important to challenge this assumption and we worked with her by providing activities that demonstrated how the word ‘strong’ could be used in different contexts. Furthermore, we have recently taken on a male employee and one of the girls mentioned that he couldn’t do an activity with her, only girl staff could. So again we felt it important that they develop a relationship and he support her with tasks. We have been led to believe that when children enter nursery settings, and girls gravitate towards the home corner and boys gravitate towards the construction, that this is acceptable because it is biologically driven. Therefore, it is very rarely challenged.
Children seek gender cues from a very early age. Girls are expected to behave well, engage in more sedentary, creative elements of play and boys are expected to prefer more boisterous games and rough and tumble. So environments and practice support this assumption. Yet when the environment has been carefully planned to ensure that when they are searching for cues to support their gender identity, these cues are limited. We wanted to know what happens to children’s attitudes and dispositions when the environment had been carefully planned to remove certain stereotypes.
With regards to my hypothesis, one thing I hadn’t taken into consideration is that when a three-year-old steps into the woodland for the first time they do so with a dominant discourse already in place and they will play in stereotypical ways. However, over the course of a term, we start to see the girls adopt a more masculine approach to their play. They will participate with the boys in their rough and tumble games, climb and run around and have developed “strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness”.
For the boys, we support the development of their emotional literacy skills and their ability to be able to express their emotions. Historically, emotions have been seen as a sign of weakness and gendered attitudes to emotions are still commonplace. Statements like ‘man up’ or ‘boys don’t cry’ are used to ensure an element of manliness is upheld, yet this forbidding men to express their emotions is one of the main reasons that the male suicide rate is so high in the western world. We have a responsibility as early years professionals to challenge gender stereotypes and to ensure that boys know that expressing all emotions is a human thing not what is considered to be a feminine thing. By looking at many stereotypical variables within the setting, we tried to remove the gender cues that children search for in the hopes that it would develop a stronger sense of identity and to not conform to stereotypical norms. By the end of the academic year, children are leaving us with a balance of feminine (gentleness, empathy, humility, and sensitivity) and masculine (strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness) discourses. These traits were what had been identified within my research between the girls who attended the nature-based setting and the girls who hadn’t. So in looking ahead at the future skills we want children to have, creating a culture within our setting that supports children to develop balanced gender discourses, is something that we feel very strongly about.
In addition to supporting wellbeing and gender equality, we have also done extensive training to support children with Special Educational Needs and Disability. The environment is perfectly set up to support the physical development of children, and for those children who present with Sensory Processing Disorder’s the environment can be used as a strategy to support their needs. There are not many visual distractions and the sounds are natural, although a windy wet day can present challenges with the noise it makes through the canopy and with the trees moving around and the rain wetting the skin. The stimulation of sight, sound, and touch can trigger a sensory overload and cause distress to a child. Furthermore, the slackline and the hammocks are a continuous provision to support children’s vestibular and proprioception sense, and the environment itself supports tactile development. It is our knowledge that enables us to tailor the experience to a child’s needs. If children are seeking proprioception, but their behavioural response is to push children for no reason, it may be that they have an unmet sensory need and are seeking feedback from the action of pushing. We have found that by placing a weighted backpack on the child can meet this need and the pushing reduces.
The environment is ever-changing. The weather brings new experiences and language that you cannot get inside. A few weeks ago, it was a very windy day, so we explored the different language that could be used to describe the day. Terminology like blustery, blowy and gusts were observed as we lay on our backs and waited for the wind to sweep through the trees, anticipating when a gust was about to move through the woodland. At the back of the site, one of the trees would creak as the wind blew through, and one child commented that the gray clouds and the creaking sound made it feel really creepy. We observed how the branches swayed from side to side and we noticed that the windier it became, it would make a howling sound. As the wind had knocked a few twigs from the canopy, we went on a hunt to find them throughout the forest. This led us to a dead tree that I pulled down. We talked about the differences with the bark of the dead tree in comparison to the ones that are alive. The children noticed that mushrooms were growing on the dead tree and that the bark was peeling off. I then explained the functions of the mushrooms in breaking down the composition of the tree. That eventually, the bark would mulch down and feed the earth and provide nutrients that would allow seeds to grow. The children then helped carry a portion of it to the fire circle where we cut it up for firewood.
As we now move into Spring, we have emphasised to the children the importance of respecting the natural environment and observing the new growth. I had noticed that an area the children were using had bluebells and daffodils pushing through the soil, so we used it as an opportunity to cordon the area off so that the children could observe the growth week after week. We then walked all around our woodland looking for signs of new life and remembering to be careful when we were playing. Empathy is not only an important skill to use with each other but one that is very much needed to be instilled in these small minds about the world in which we live. I feel that the lack of outdoor opportunities that children have had over the past 20 years has led to a generation that has no interest in it at all. With climate change being on the agenda, it is vital that children are taught to see the intricacies that unfold within nature so that they begin to realise that we are very much a part of it, not separate.
Our awe and wonder moments come each day when we recognise something new within the environment. When the rain creates puddles in the mud for the children to explore, or when they are observing the changes that take place when wood or leaves burns on the fire, when we observe the changes over a few weeks of new life coming through. We ensure that we support children to immerse themselves in the experience and provide them with an array of language to describe it. To further support a new perspective on things that broadens their thinking. The uniqueness of the experience is something that children may not necessarily get at home and is the cultural capital that we provide within our setting.
Our curriculum is centered around the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will hopefully develop strong foundations both physically and mentally. The N2N Approach underpins the EYFS and center’s around mental health, gender equality and special educational needs and disability.
If you want to know more about how to support children outdoors then a copy of The N2N Approach is available to buy either as an ebook (buy here) or a hard copy is available to buy also- please email firstname.lastname@example.org to place an order.