My year in the Nature Zone

Welcome to the Nature Zone sign with wildflower meadow in foreground

As soon as I spent my first afternoon in the Nature Zone at Wordsworth Primary School on 24 September 2020, I was hooked. What an amazing place! It was set up by the children in 2014 under the guidance of Steve, the outdoor learning tutor. (He’s also a film-maker and has shared a series of videos here ). The school is in an area of Southampton called Shirley where many of the pupils live in flats. The Nature Zone gives these children regular time in nature through various activities, including the forest school sessions that I’ve been part of.

This selfie from May captures how I felt being in the NZ. Every week I felt a sense of ‘aaah, that’s better’ as soon as I arrived (yes, even when it was raining heavily and I’d cycled across the city in a very strange waterproof outfit!). For a few hours I was transported to another world. There’s a pond, a woodland and a wildflower meadow; bird boxes, bee and bug hotels, and a wormery. But what makes it special is the added ingredient of the excitement and laughter of children climbing the tree, bug hunting, pond dipping and generally feeling free in the outdoors, their sense of confidence and achievement when they make it onto the lower branch of the tree, or fish out a newt, then another one, and another – the pond is brimming with them! But more on that pond dipping later…

Steve has a great name for young voices. It’s that long vowel. As we were setting up and the children were nearby in the playground at lunchtime, I’d often hear cries of “Steeeeve”. My name doesn’t have the same sound, but they soon learned it and came up with suggestions for my Nature Zone name. The idea is to choose an animal or plant that begins with the same sound as your name. Giraffe was the first name I was given. As I settled in I thought it would be good to choose something local that the children might see in the area, like jackdaw. But then I realised it wasn’t about me, it was about what the kids might connect with, because it was exciting, or maybe had a link to their heritage, so we had dragon, anaconda, snow leopard, tiger and jaguar and of course we also had newt.

The pond was a source of great excitement. For me it was a chance to learn more about the wildlife as until then I was much better at identifying land creatures – but I soon found out about dragonfly nymphs, pond skaters and newts. Naturally the kids wanted to hold the newts, something I felt uneasy about at first. This was one of my early chats with Steve during our post-session reflection. We discussed what Patrick Barkham had said in his 2020 book Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature about children’s need to touch, stroke and hold things to feel a real connection with them. Given how much I enjoyed holding newts and toads myself, I could see the appeal. So I learned to relax about it … more or less!

I’m still working on how to shift some kids’ focus from the number of newts caught (“I’ve got 10!” “I caught 12!”) to the newts themselves. Engaging with nature is part of what forest school is about, so in winter I came up with a ‘natural treasure hunt’. Even when there isn’t much to catch in the pond or from the leaf litter, there are still interesting things to be found. Things that are often overlooked but worth, I think, spending a bit of time with. Feathers (why do I find more pigeon feathers than any other type?), snail shells (what happened to the snail?), sticks (are they all the same?) and leaves (how many different shapes are there?). Instead of the usual photo ID sheet, I used the real objects, laid on a card with labels, and the children went off with bug pots to see what they could collect. The Year 1 group really got into this!

Nature Zone sessions help children to build confidence and resilience as they try new things, such as making dens or climbing trees. Some kids are fearless and agile, so I’d ask them to coach the others on the best way up the tree. Then that nervous child would get up there, and beam and say “I’ve never climbed a tree before”. These activities also help them develop physical dexterity and strength, as do woodworking sessions, from making name badges at the start to reindeer for Christmas. With supervision, children use bow saws, loppers, and hand drills, tools they’ve probably never used before.

The Nature Zone also has an outdoor classroom, something I was very grateful for on the day we made the reindeer. You can see from the puddle that it was more of a rain-deer kind of day (sorry!). Most of the time, the children didn’t worry about the weather, but if was cold then the fire we had for the final session was very popular. In truth though, even if it’s summer the fire draws gasps as they arrive. Eating pizza cooked over a real fire, then toasting your own marshmallow, is hard to beat. Steve and I got our teamwork down to a fine art for these sessions, him on the fire, me on the catering table, helped as ever by one of the teaching assistants.

Grandmother oak with the fire circle in the background

I feel incredibly luck to have spent my Thursday afternoons here with Steve. His enthusiasm, resourcefulness and commitment are really inspiring. The grandmother oak above is for me a symbol of this, of why the Nature Zone works so well. That and Steve’s stories, which are legendary! But even Steve can’t make it work on his own. Without the wonderful Wordsworth pupils, it also wouldn’t have been half so much fun. Things can’t stay the same forever though, so Steve and I have worked our last session together, and the Year 3 group created this amazing book of thanks.

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