Engineering – the missing Area of Learning

'A' swinging from the tree swing she made herself

Last spring a nearby school invited me to run a play session at an ‘inclusive play day’ they hosted for local families.  The intention was to get families playing together, whatever their ages, abilities or interests.  It was a great success, with ‘play stations’ located all around the site at which a variety of indoor and outdoor activities were taking place, from face painting to model making.

I ran a den building session in the school grounds, using my own den building resources and borrowing a couple of extra boxes of kit from Learning through Landscapes, the national school grounds charity.  One box does really well for up to 8 or 10 children, but with a larger group, more choice and variety is essential and the den building boxes are treasure troves of odd stuff including free and found resources.  You certainly won’t find anything like this in a ‘bought’ set of den building kit equipment.  See the PLL Den Building resource for an idea of what’s in our den boxes.

Love this - utterly child initiatied and how lovely that they'd thought about a welcome mat! Or were they more concerned about mucky wellies in their pristine den?

As with all den building sessions, there was a great deal of creativity on display, a plethora of complex and descriptive language and excellent use of quirky materials, but the imagination and energy of this little girl, A, in particular really struck me.She’s certainly no older than 4 in these pics, and yet her tenacity and fine motor skills showed a highly developed sense of purpose.  She worked collaboratively with the older children around her (one of whom was her sister), persuading them to undertake the tasks that were genuinely beyond her – although in fact, there actually weren’t many of those.  A had a really good go at tying the knots for her swing in the branches of the tree – and managed to do one herself.  Took me ages to untie it later…

This future engineer was also the first to try out the swing she’d built – fearless?  Or just very confident in her own abilities?  Perhaps a bit of both, and I think that’s great to see in a young girl.

I think A may have been with a friendship group as well as her sister; at any rate, this small group worked well together, collaborating, communicating and sharing ideas generously.  They created and decorated a very sturdy den as well as the tree swing in their ‘garden’ area, and made the ‘Welcome’ sign at the start of this article, using scavenged twigs.  The den stood up to being played in for around half an hour and could be dismantled and rearranged without collapsing.  It encompassed shelter and privacy along with places to observe without being observed, which is pretty much everything you’d ask from a decent den.

Practising knot tying. As the person who took all the dens down at the end of the session I can testify to A's success on this task.

When I contacted A’s mum for permission to write this piece and use the pics (thank you A’s mum!) she said she was intrigued by the story and the pics because they represented something of a role reversal – her elder daughter is usually the tomboy, with A taking less of a lead in shared play.  On this occasion however, there was no doubt who was boss and A was very clear and determined about what she wanted to achieve, how she was going to achieve it and who would help!

In my experience, this is one of the things ‘outdoors’ does; children and adult behave differently outdoors.

They physically and mentally feel freer when not constrained by walls, chairs and desks.  Experimentation seems exciting and children show real tenacity when problem solving in ‘real life’ situations.  Open ended resources can be used in new and big and innovative ways and mess is positively encouraged… or at least, it is in my sessions!

Young children thrive and their minds and bodies develop best when they have free access to stimulating outdoor environments for learning through play and real experiences - from the Shared Vision and Values for Outdoor Play in the Early Years

I adore the featured pic of our future architect (or hey, landscape architect, even better!) swinging on her creation, celebrating her achievement and using her brain and her body to fly through the air.

This is why I love den building…


3 comments on “Engineering – the missing Area of Learning

  1. Hey Julie – great post & the pics really make it. I agree that sometimes the quieter children really come out of themselves when outdoors. (BTW, your opening paragraph is appearing twice in the post) Site is looking fab, Kierna

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