New outdoor learning garden created by Project Nurture

Toddlers at Hopscotch Preschool in Ferndown, Dorset, can now enjoy much needed outdoor play and learning in their new garden.

The new garden sees multiple elements including a sandpit, outdoor music instruments, and a storytelling wood, cohesively designed and integrated into the heathland backdrop behind. 

The garden was collaboration between Christchurch and East Dorset Council and Project Nurture, with funding from Natural England. Project Nurture provided design and project management skills. The garden was built on a budget of £25,000.

Project Nurture founder Hannah Hobbs, who designed and project-managed the garden, said: "It’s such an exciting and amazing opportunity to do something really positive for these children; I’m really delighted to have been asked to design this garden." 

Recently founded by Hobbs, the charitable organisation is "dedicated to utilising the power of the natural environment for the good of society, whether through design, research, specialist consultancy, teaching, or provision of natural environments for society.  

She said: "We believe in the power of the natural environment to promote, transform and enrich people and society. We use the natural environment to bring peace, healing, inspiration and hope."

The trustee board includes a senior lecturer in mental health at Bournemouth University, and the founder of High Mead Farm.

Hopscotch Preschool is a social enterprise providing childcare and community services to the Heatherlands area of Ferndown. The 2010 government Indices of Multiple Deprivation identified the area as one of the top five most deprived areas of Dorset, and as such a lot of work has gone into helping the residents to access better services and employment opportunities. The residents themselves have also been a driving force behind this turnaround. It appears that all this good work is paying off, as in the most recent IMD report this area no longer features in the top five, although it is an area that still requires support to sustain this change.

An asset to the area is the SSSI protected lowland heathland surrounding the estate, and this is one of the reasons why a learning garden at the preschool was first muted. 

Hobbs said: "The opportunity for children and adults to enjoy and take great comfort in this amazing heathland surrounding was something we all really wanted to capitalise on and demonstrate to children.

"I really wanted the children to be able to use the garden no matter what lesson they had or what their particular interest was. I really tried to demonstrate to the children that no matter your hobby, with a little bit of thought, you can still be outside enjoying the fresh air and natural beauty around."

A variety of different areas and elements within the garden provide the basis for learning and play in line with the Early Years Foundation Stage standards set by the government. The consideration of these standards was critical to the design if the garden was to be the most effective and useful. An art corner, with blackboards provides an area for art and creative expression. Outdoor drums and xylophone provide the basis of an outdoor music corner. Natural balance beams and logs give children the opportunity to develop balance and physical prowess. A large sandpit and carved sand lizard for creative and physical play. A silver birch ‘wood’ provides shade for the storytelling circle. Children can explore colour and light using the wood and acrylic sculptures, and the wobble bridge over the pebble pool entices the children to practice balance, mathematics, physics and engineering. All this is designed provide opportunities to learn and play together, while at the same time subtly teaching the children about the surrounding heathland environment and the important and protected wildlife that it is home to.

Hobbs added: "I was also really keen to be as creative as possible with the planting, whilst keeping to native heathland plants. There are a variety of cultivars of Erica and Calluna vulgaris (heath and heather), Betula utilis and Betula utilis var. jacmontii (silver birch), and cultivars of Cytissus scoparius (broom).  Some interesting but lesser known heathland plants also included are Sedum acre (stonecrop), Lotus corniculatus (birdsfoot trefoil) and Betula nana (dwarf birch), and Vaccinium vitis idaea ‘Koralle Group’, with cranberry like fruits (cowberry). And even the grass is a specialist mix of low growing acid loving species."

Manager and founder of Hopscotch Pre-school Lorraine Clark said:"We are delighted with our new nature garden. It allows the children to explore their natural environment whilst learning how to care for local plants and wildlife. They requested a bridge, which they love as it wobbled, can learn to balance on the log obstacle course and use the musical instruments to explore sounds." 

Project Nurture, in partnership with Bournemouth University, is now undertaking research between staff, parents and other community partners. The research is evaluating the effectiveness of the garden on topics including classroom behaviour and understanding of the natural environment. Preliminary results are very encouraging; with parents agreeing that the garden has offered a springboard for learning and stimulated children’s curiosity. Children’s awareness of the natural environment is increasing also, state parents. Wider benefits are also becoming apparent, with parents reporting that the garden is making a positive contribution to the wider community and makes parents feel good about the Preschool itself.

"We all really want this garden, and future gardens, to be as effective as possible, and by undertaking research and producing qualitative and quantitative data we can really understand where any positive change has occurred, and what we might be able to improve going forward. I think it’s also important that we prove the value of our work in gardens too, we all know that getting outdoors is vital to our health and wellbeing, but without hard data sometimes getting the funding to create these space is tricky."

Matt Reeks of Christchurch and East Dorset Councils, said: "We are absolutely delighted with the result of Hannah’s and Project Nurture’s creative and innovate approach to the design of the educational resource at Hopscotch – Hannah has created something unique, it is a beautiful area which will provide countless opportunities for children to enjoy, learn about and respect the rare heathland habitat whilst at the same time being hard wearing and requiring little maintenance. The commitment, hard work and imagination that Project Nurture has put into this project has been phenomenal and has resulted in something unique."


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