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Growing number of nurseries ditching plastic toys for sticks and mud

Article By: Sue Learner, News Editor

An increasing number of nurseries are ditching colourful, plastic toys and going down the route of offering children natural resources to play with such as sand, water and sticks that don’t constrict play or direct it in any way.

Acorn Childcare

This decision to spurn plastic toys started on a minor scale with heuristic play, a term coined by Elinor Goldschmeid in the 1980s. Heuristic play describes the activity of children when they are given real objects to play with instead of toys. Advocates of heuristic play claim it stimulates all the senses.

Many nurseries have adopted heuristic play by creating a treasure basket full of objects from the real world made of material other than plastic. However other nurseries are now going all the way and getting rid of plastic toys altogether.

Tops Day Nurseries, a chain of around 15 nurseries in the south of England, follows the ethos of Elizabeth Jarman, who trains nurseries and schools in developing good learning environments.

The more toys do, the less a child does

Ms Jarman believes “the more toys do, the less the child does. The more the child does, and plays and engages, the more their brain develops and the more potential they will have as they grow up.”

With this mind, the nursery chain is gradually phasing out its bright, plastic toys and instead encouraging children to play with natural objects such as sand, mud, sticks and stones.

Karen Thurlow, marketing manager of Tops Day Nurseries says: “There are fundamental reasons why it’s good for our children to get muddy, wet and explore with sticks and stones, and why it’s good for children to play under tables and stand while they paint. It’s also the reason why we are getting rid of our bright plastic toys and furniture and reducing clutter.

“This means ensuring we have open ended resources available all the time, such as natural objects, tubes, rolls, bricks, planks, textured materials, wheels, water, sand, mud, sticks, shells, gourds, stones, flowers, pestles and mortars, bowls, funnels, logs, blocks, boxes and crates.”

Tops Day Nurseries

Tops Day Nurseries has also found that children at its nurseries find it easier to focus and are calmer after spending time with nature. Consequently, says Ms Thurlow, “we bring nature inside too, and encourage children to be outside amongst nature as much as possible, even in the rain.

“We plan activities with this in mind, such as letting them go bare foot, letting them explore in the mud kitchen, and having an outside tap.”

Outdoor learning is central to the ethos of Acorn Childcare, a group of nine nurseries in Milton Keynes and the Northampton area.

Its founder, Zoe Raven is determined to get children out playing in the natural environment as she says “children today often see the world through TV and computer screens and car windows. It is so easy to put them in front of computer screens”.

“It is very physical when they are doing outdoor learning and they are out in the fresh air. They learn about science and the effects of the weather. They build dens and they are allowed to get dirty.”

There is a very clear understanding across the nursery sites at Acorn Childcare that the preference is for high quality toys and equipment made of natural materials.

Good practitioner worth more than expensive toys

Ms Raven says: “We don’t like plastic toys and we try not to have the kind of toys that children have at home. We love everything in the community playthings range, and materials which have open-ended play potential. We also like role play resources which are realistic (not multi-coloured plastic cups and saucers).”

However she believes: “It’s how you use materials and equipment, rather than what you have, that makes all the difference. A skilful practitioner is worth more than any amount of expensive toys and sometimes less is more!”

Similarly Sharston Nursery in Wythenshaw, Manchester believes children thrive on imagination and open-ended play.

A spokeswoman for the nursery says: “As a result, our Sharston Nursery provides children with a range of natural objects such as, pebbles, seashells, fir cones and cardboard boxes as we believe this enhances children’s natural curiosity.

“Children have an impulse to touch, fill, dump and gather objects and as such, heuristic play is a way of offering children a range of natural objects to explore freely.”

It has also decorated the nursery in neutral tones as it believes bright primary colours can lead to children becoming over stimulated and displaying negative behaviour.

Children spend all day climbing trees and playing with sticks

Beyond the Walls Outdoor Nursery, one of just a handful of outdoor nurseries in the UK, has gone even further still and has no toys, plastic or wooden and no computers for the children to use.

Beyond the Walls Outdoor Nursery

At the nursery set within Roddlesworth Woods, in Tockholes in Lancashire, the children spend all day in the woods climbing trees and playing with sticks.

If they need the toilet, there is a ‘bog in bag’ and a potty and if they need an afternoon nap they can curl up in a sleeping bag in a tent or in the warmer months in a hammock.

Lead practitioner, Naomi Suggett, who believes this is the best way for children to use their imagination and be creative says: “There are rope swings, trees to climb and streams where they can go fishing with nets. We do have activities for them to do but mostly we like them to lead their own play and use their imagination. They will do things like sit on a branch and pretend it’s a motorbike.

“Through the changing of the seasons we embrace each new challenge with a determination to fully and wholeheartedly take advantage of all that nature provides; in spring, the fascination of a spider web wet with dew, sun breaking through the canopy of the trees in summer, the crunch of fallen golden autumnal leaves and the enchanting beauty of a cold crisp winter’s day, hunting for hidden treasure.”


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Timotay Play

Timotay Play

11 Jun 2014 3:56 PM

Great article. We definitely agree that open-ended play and role play stimulate and encourages more (physical) play. We have been designing our playgrounds with this in mind for years now and teachers always comment how much more physically active children are after taking away the standard "plastic" and "colorful" play items and replacing them with natural play structures of natural resources. This is especially beneficial for children attending schools in inner cities.

Eric Fairman

Eric Fairman

07 Jun 2014 8:59 PM

Impressive! However, this has been practiced in the UK for decades by the Steiner-Waldorf early years/kindergarten programmes, dating back to the mid-1930s!!!! So what's new???

Boogie Mites UK Ltd

Boogie Mites UK Ltd

06 Jun 2014 4:46 PM

Imaginative play is so important for young children, and especially being in the outdoors. There are so many lovely sounds in the natural world that can be used as a springboard for all sorts of activities - from storytelling and conversations to music-making. Boogie Mites fully advocates using 'real' objects to make music, and we also discuss heuristic play in our Baby Boogie course, aimed for parents and children from birth to crawlers. Take a look at it here