Outdoor Learning: Noticing Nature

Not surprisingly for a nature-lover, one of my favourite parts of working in outdoor learning at Youth Options was when young people showed an interest in the natural world around them. Sometimes this was in the forest school area, and other times it was out on a walk around Itchen Valley Country Park, where we were based. The place I visited most often, with both groups and individuals, was the woodland behind the Little Owls pre-school. One particular person also loved this place, and visibly relaxed when we got there. It is a very calming space thanks to all those trees and the fact no-one else much seemed to go there. This particular person relaxed so much that they suggested a game of hide and seek! They won, but I like to blame my bright blue uniform, which made it quite hard to hide!

Being here also gave us a chance to use our senses. We crushed western red cedar leaves to see if they really do smell of pineapple, listened out for woodpeckers, watched for deer on the woodland edges, and felt the crunch of snail shells when we accidentally walked over a song thrush anvil! On a path into the woods we found a long-tailed tit nest, and touched the soft lining of feathers. Further along the path in this photo, we found the fungus called King Alfred’s Cakes.

The first time I realised that this person was interested in wildlife was when we were in our area back in January, and they spotted a fox walking through, roughly in the centre of this picture. What a magical moment! This was the first time I’d seen a fox so close. After that we kept a an eye and ear out for other creatures, one time spotting a woodlouse shedding its skin and another time watching a jay. We also did a bit of pond dipping, finding several newts and dragonfly nymphs.

As well as the individual I’ve written about above, there was one group that particularly enjoyed going on nature walks, and we also had some special encounters. One afternoon on our way to the nature reserve, we startled a deer in a hedge, and it sprang out past us at speed, giving us quite an adrenalin rush! When we got to the reserve, it was warm and sunny. I was at the back of the group chatting to one individual when I spotted a grass snake – the first time I’d ever seen one – and excitedly shouted ‘snake!’ The others in the group had missed it, and I think a couple of them were quite annoyed! Needless to say, I didn’t get a photo of either, but we did spot these grazing cows on the same day, another highlight. At other times we found Scarlet Elf Cup mushrooms in the woods, and froglets sprang out of some long grass on our walk there.

This is the Devil’s Coach Horse beetle, introduced to me by my nature-loving colleague Tom. It was generally fairly easy to find under our log stumps around the fire circle, and quite a hit even with people that weren’t very interested in nature. This is because it raises its tail like a scorpion when it feels threatened – such as when a human reveals its hiding place!

I think my enthusiasm for everyday nature rubbed off on some of the young people I worked with, as one excitedly showed me when they found a jay feather (and I gritted my teeth, wishing I’d spotted it first!!) Another time, at holiday club, we sat eating our lunch watching this queen bee burrowing into the ground, and discussed why she was doing it.

Ok, this isn’t a ‘nature’ photo, but when this sign appeared on a fence – which, let’s be honest, does look like a gate! – it amused me so much I kept showing it to everyone. I’ve included it here because it still makes me smile, and reminds me how much fun I had working with Youth Options at Itchen Valley Country Park. It’s a wonderful setting, with countless opportunities for discovering nature and having fun.

I can’t share pictures of the young people I worked with, so instead I’m ending on this one with my colleagues. Our post-holiday club social was to take part in axe throwing at Go Ape! in the park, and I was invited even though I’d left my job the previous week. I wasn’t very good at it, but we had fun and all got a certificate. The best thing about that day though was that as I arrived to lock up my bike, I bumped into the young person I’ve written about at the start of this blog, out on a visit to the park with his school. That really made my day! So I just want to say a huge thank you to everyone I worked with, especially the young people. Many happy memories were made and I learned a lot, but most of all I had fun.

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