A Day at the Secret Garden

(Reproduced with kind permission of Cathy Bache, founder of the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery, Monimail, Fife; which is the first fully outdoor kindergarten in the UK).

The morning begins with the rolling in of the children, a number walking or cycling from Monimail and Collessie. Parent power helps a few on the back of bikes, a number of families car share from further afield.

Between the months of October and March it’s rare to be able to be without waterproofs – Scottish autumn/winter weather is cold and damp and to prevent the children from enduring soggy clothes and spirit they come suitably dressed with layers and waterproof dungarees and jackets.  Parents are slowly sourcing a greater range of ‘good gear’ that offers the protection needed for the great outdoors.

About a third of the children stay for a full day, 7 hours, the remainder come for 3 hours, morning or afternoon.

The sessions begin with the child’s own routine: some head straight for the hens’ nesting box to be delighted by the gifts the hens leave in the form of beautiful brown eggs, sometimes still warm, and the gift is returned with food and water. Others have a favourite ‘starting’ place all of their own that they tune in with, watching the world, the children, the changes in the garden.

A sandpit with ‘tools’ provides construction and creating potions, pies, a cake for the porridge monster, large blocks allow for developing scenes for role-play, a tree house acts as a refuge, a look out and a sense of place with reunited friends.

If there has been rain there is water in buckets, containers, wheelbarrows. If the rain has been heavy there is the attraction of the emergence of a natural spring that rushes down the lane pouring down a drain in the road. Here dams are built, water collected, transported, spilled and stirred. Patterns and flow are watched, waterways manipulated as if by the gods. Free expression in the rain as it pours down the face, trickles through fingers, jumped on, mud splattering the boots, jackets – and if you lean far enough down – even faces.

On the dry days? There’s no water!

Each day is greeted, met, experienced for what it offers: windy, sunshine, low clouds, drizzle, each day a new day a different day, a day to be encountered in exactly the same manner as the day before using all the senses, yet no 2 days are the same.

The walks we take may be the same path but the conditions encountered unique in that moment. ‘Look what I’ve found!’ goes the cry. New fungi, fungi that are decaying: measuring time from week to week with the decay. Buds appearing, grass growing, leaves reaching to the sky, storms blowing, branches lying, wind coming from the west so we hide out over in the east of the woods, wind whirling and squealing all around so we head for the dip, and as the day meanders on we can lift cold spirits with a fire. Collecting time, and as we search for wood what else is found? A new adventure, a scrambling and climbing, a forgetting of the foraging, and dragging the sticks to build and make shelters, some of which withstand the buffeting of the week and we can return to, some a perfect woodpile by the next visit.

Then there’s the favourite places: the tree with the hole, a visit to the farm to watch the changing work in the barn and the year turning for the farmer, a rush to the park meeting residents of the village, the library van, ‘I love libraries’, a longer walk to touch in with the energy of the orchard and woods at Monimail.

And what of the tree with the hole? Large enough for 3 children to clamber into the heart of the tree, strong branches rising up perfect for climbing, playing at being birds on their nests, or taking a journey on a rocket, a train a jumbo jet.

And how do we get there? We follow the leader, self designated ‘I’ll lead you to the tree with the hole’, goes the cry and off he marches confidently through the scrub of blackthorn bush heading up the hill to the woods, confident of his place in this world and his ability to find his way in it.

What of the child that has another great idea of what to do? We can’t all have our own way all the time. The children understand that decisions are sometimes made that they don’t really want to go along with but, ‘hey, next week we may follow you’, and in the meantime each child can create their own adventure, discover their own mystery. The pace is slow and gentle, plenty of time to watch, think, wonder at what’s going on and from this process questions may emerge that can be verbalised and other questions remain in the quietness of the mind, slowly turning.

As we sit together sharing our picnic we can reflect where we’ve come from, where we want to go, shall we stay here a bit longer? If we’re still and quiet squirrels may be watched, the buzzard may swoop to greet us with a mewing cry, rustles in the wood could be deer, rabbits fleeing from the melee. Fun is had with the food, sharing, tasting, and passing.

We pack up and continue with our big task of creating a home, or begin a circuitous way back to The Secret Garden: new climbs, running, falling, rolling down the slope, ‘Look what I’ve found’      ‘Let’s find the puff balls’     ‘There’s more ladybirds than last week’,      ‘Wait for me’,     ‘STOP, STOP, STOP’,     ‘Ready, steady, go’,  ‘I  want to go this way’,          ‘We’ll meet you at the end of the lane’.

Freedom and space: free to walk at what speed you like, free to stop where you like, free to hide, climb, run, scream how you like, free to be still, quiet, rest when you like. And so much space: open along the lane, cramped amongst the hiding, comfort places, woodland space, garden space, sight of fields and fields and fields off in the distance and what’s that beyond? A road, a tower, a quarry, a story in the mind, a place too far to reach but close enough to know.

The only certainty of the day is that we’ll be outside: close to the earth, air, fire and water, watching the seasons slowly drift by, using our ability to look, listen, touch, hear and taste as the day goes by. A full encounter with nature, the environment at its most simple yet so very complex in that simplicity.

Then we all bound back. If it’s time to go home for lunch there may be moments snatched on the trampoline before ‘mummy time’. If it’s too wet we can trundle the wheelbarrows in the garden, climb in the tree house, stories old and new. If it’s late afternoon in winter and already dark, the squeals and cries and dancing in the torchlight creates its own fairytale to greet mummies; ’Ahh, I want to stay longer, will we have the torches next week?’

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