At Flinders University Childcare Centre we are very lucky to have so many trees, some of which may predate the existence of the centre. Not everyone I know gets to work with rosellas, lorikeets, kookaburras, magpies, koalas, cockatoos and butterflies to name some of the “friends” who make as much (or more) use of the trees as we do. But apart from bringing in colourful and interesting additions to our program trees also do so much more work than that to define and frame our outdoor environment.
Outdoor environments are about affordances- about what potential for play and movement is allowed or even suggested by the space, layout and materials available to the children. Much research has shown that children and adults sometimes view affordances differently. One example is considering the baby’s world-view where a bump or unevenness in a path that an adult would not even really notice becomes an interesting challenge to explore. Natural environments are full of these sort of affordances, that no one has had to plan- slight inclines up or downward, lines that are not quite straight, leaves that change colour or die away depending on the time of year, stones that grow exciting mosses or lichens.
Trees bring in many affordances for play. The placement of a tree may be a boundary “you can run up to the tree”, “the truck goes around the tree”, “the goals are between the tree and the fence”. They tree might dictate movement by providing an interruption for a clear, straight, run. Trees provide natural shade, leaves, gumnuts, seeds, blossoms, feathers bark for play. I have seen children at the centre find little hollows in tree branches where water pools and these shallow puddles invite potion making, cooking or simply exploring. Lower trees might be adopted for climbing (and dozens of play scenarios that come out of that) or as a place to crawl under and make a house or hide away. Roots of trees may make the ground uneven for the sort of movement that is important to children’s physical development. This is probably why as a community we are very attached to our trees; this and the beauty of the skyline with trees, the relief of breathing in the fragrance of them, the joy we can share with children at watching blue sky through branches woven together or hearing a kookaburra laugh when it is almost time to go home.
The educator who is lucky enough to be working with a wealth of trees- big, older eucalypts and smaller Geraldton-wax bushes, glory vines and citrus trees and every shape and type of tree- needs to think about what materials to make available to help children make the most of the affordances provided by the tree. Do we put out cushions, sheets and pegs for cubby building or quiet enjoyment of the outdoors? Is it a day for soccer balls and the goalie needs to defend the space between two trees? Do the children want baskets or containers to collect gumnuts that can then migrate to the cubby-house to serve as food or money or go inside to become part of our art or mandala making or turn into numeracy investigations- sorting, counting, grouping, sharing. For older children will ropes and planks enrich their climbing into building their own large, whole-body experiences? Are there so many leaves the children want to bury themselves in piles of them, or need wheelbarrows to shift them around?
The fun is always that there isn’t one right answer to “how do we use the tree” which I prefer to recast as “how do we let the tree suggest and affect our activities”? The answers emerge with the children’s ideas, the integrity of the space itself, the desire to always think creatively and look differently at the familiar. I may think that I know how to use an outdoor space and then another educator will do something so inspired (but obvious once you’ve seen it) that my boundaries of “knowing” will shift. The children also bring in thinking that we are not expecting. How does a cardboard box relate to a tree? How do our toy animals get brought into close conversation with a branch or a leaf or a fork in a branch? Can we tape a sign to a tree? Can we tape other things? When these questions arise I have to stop and think through the issue with them, we have to decide together whether we can or can’t do whatever it was they have thought of. This gives rise to questions of boundary- why is it that this is ok and that isn’t? What can I do instead? Complex dialogues may arise which on the surface is about a child pushing a boundary, but really is about constructing knowledge and ways of being in the world- about deciding how to know a tree and what to know about it. Hopefully this all leads to a deeper understanding of the parts that make up our environment than merely “how much will it bear”.
Watching children make the connections between tree as environment, tree as play-partner, tree as alluded to in familiar texts, tree as subject of art, tree as resource, tree as territory, tree as challenge I return to a feeling of joy and privilege at being able to work this way. Whether a baby is picking up a gumnut and wondering whether to put it in his mouth, a three year old is finding dew sparkling on leaves and wondering if this has anything to do with fairies, or a five year old is astride a branch that is her “rocket ship”- we are surrounded by something infinitely more enriching than the taken-for-granted beauty we may associate with a tree. We work and move, eat and rest among these trees that challenge, provoke, provide for and teach us.