An ABC of Learning Naturally: Discovery, Everyone and Flexibility

Natural learning is all about following natural curiosity, learning by experiencing, connecting with nature and valuing a creative approach. At the centre of the natural learning ethos lies the importance of caring for yourself, for each other and for the world around us. Find the A, B and C here.


D is for Discovery
Leave out an item to be discovered to prompt natural curiosity– a map, a photograph, an old camera, a broken item that can be taken apart or fixed, a poem, a picture of a bug, a piece of sport equipment, some fabric squares… any object can spark some interest and take you into a new conversation or creation. Great items that may be unfamiliar to children (borrowed or picked up second hand) like a typewriter, pasta maker or slide projector, left out to be discovered set the creative cogs turning.


E is for Everyone
Having an audience is an important motivator so get others involved: family, friends and neighbours. Share learning you have done together, telephoning, asking others to set challenges and reporting back the next day, send a photo postcard by email or snail mail, put a poster in your window or on your gate. Taking part in events and awards – OPAL science data collections, Blue Peter badge applications, poetry competitions, National days – provide their own motivation and audience. Writing a letter to your favourite author or a postcard to a friend overseas can provide exciting replies.

F is for Flexibility
Some kind of routine is important, but with flexibility for when an unexpected turn is taken, learning goes off in a new direction, the weather changes or a plan goes pear-shaped. Times to eat, sleep, relax, walk and tidy up give structure and a daily music time to sing or listen to a song and reading time on a comfy chair punctuate the day. Timetables can help if you like coloured felt tips, but can give an unrealistic sense of how much can be achieved in one day. Let the learning provide the pace, which will be different for everyone and allows more of the important, unplanned learning to seep in.

Next time: Games, Happy, Individual
Louise has taught in classrooms of all shapes and sizes, as a primary school teacher, forest school leader and trainer, outdoor learning consultant and researcher. She writes resources and stories for outdoor and woodland learning adventures using the natural learning ethos.

An ABC of Learning Naturally: Active, Balanced and Creative

Natural learning is all about following natural curiosity, learning by experiencing, connecting with nature and valuing a creative approach. At the centre of the natural learning ethos lies the importance of caring for yourself, for each other and for the world around us.

Being an active learner means getting fully involved, physically moving around to explore and having a reason to want to find out more. Activity aids memory, while sedentary learning encourages the mind to wander off elsewhere. Jump up out of the chair, head outside, make, explore and find out something new.
Sharing time between different areas of learning  provides balance. Physical activity, cognitive brain work and free creative time are equally important and compliment each other.  Some learning will fall into one group and others will overlap. Getting balance in the day can be as simple as allocating an hour to each area.

Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes; from engineering problem-solving to colourful artistic creations. Being creative in your thinking is the greatest skill, and the best opportunity for later success. Finding a different solution, a new use for an object, an answer no-one had thought of – that’s creativity hard at work and a sure sign of a happy, healthy mind developing new connections.

97-256Give a reason to find out information by turning a worksheet into a treasure trail, hanging cards on trees and under stones instead of on a page. Write morse code messages on leaves to be found around an outdoor space.
97-256Works of wonder can take all day and combine active, balanced and creative learning using skills of design, problem-solving, making and communicating ideas. The brief can be really simple; make the longest marble run, make a box with a surprise inside, perform a puppet show, build a den for two, make a hat, cook for an indoor picnic, turn an old piece of clothing into something new.
97-256Go off on an interesting tangent when a new exciting idea is suggested or an unplanned creation pops in the mind.

Next time: Discovery, Everybody, Flexibility

Louise has taught in classrooms of all shapes and sizes, as a primary school teacher, forest school leader and trainer, outdoor learning consultant and researcher. She writes resources and stories for outdoor and woodland learning adventures using the natural learning ethos.

Bony Tony


Making life-size skeletons, inside or out, gives plenty of opportunity to use scientific language about the human body, use books and on-line resources to name bones, get active finding objects and materials to use, and get creative with ideas to represent different parts of the body. We made these outside using sticks and other natural materials, but they can be inside with items from around the house.

Starting off as a science and maths activity (human body, measuring) this later opens up  history (making deductions from evidence and using research) and language work (storytelling, speaking and listening) and Da Vinci inspired artwork and maths investigation.

Did you know…? Human adults have 206 bones in their body, but babies are born with more. Some bones fuse together as the babies grow. 

Choose one person to be a Bony Tony ‘template’. Using a tape measure, record the length of the major bones of your ‘template’. Measure and cut sticks to the correct lengths.  Use these to create your skeleton. You may need to place down some outdoor mats or sheets to allow sticks to be seen clearly.

Set challenges with ‘prizes’ to complete the skeleton. Challenge everyone to find nine 3-letter words that are a part of the body. (There is a list of nine at the end of this post.)

Give anagrams of the words if everyone gets stuck. The three-letter anagrams can be hidden on cards around the outdoor space to get everyone moving around. Each correct word wins some help, like the skeleton and xrays below, or wins time to research in books or on the computer

Did you know….? More than half the bones in your body are found in your hands and feet, with 27 in each hand and 26 in each foot.


Did you know…? Thirty-three bones in the human spinal column surround and protect the spinal cord. 

Making the spine can be done with pieces of macaroni or penne pasta threaded onto a string, or if you have access to an elder tree in need of  a trim, make elder beads. Use secateurs to cut some small branches into 2 cm lengths and a tent peg to push out the soft centre in elder to create beads. Teaching children to use simple tools safely opens up a range of activities and helps them to develop the ability to work safely and take responsibility.

bony tonyA shoe lace makes a good spinal cord; easy to thread through the thirty-three beads, tied at the top and bottom to keep the spine secure.

Did you know…? In the human spine there are seven vertebrae in the neck, twelve vertebrae attached to the ribs and five in the lower back. In addition, there are five fused vertebrae form the sacrum, and four the coccyx.

When the main skeleton is complete check how close it is to the total 206 bones in the human body.

Did you know…? The smallest bones in the human body are in the ear. There are three in each ear, and the smallest is the ‘stapes’.


Consistent body proportions are found in most people.

Did you know…? The length of a person’s foot is about equal to the length of his or her forearm. The distance between your fingertips (when your arms are outstretched) is approximately the same as your height.

Check if your Bony Tony follows these proportions too. Find out more about historical observations of body proportions by studying Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1487), created in response to the theories of ancient Roman architect Vitruvius.


“For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it.” Vitruvius



Become archeologists and introduce a history investigation by adding some items belonging to Bony Tony which will give clues to who he might be.  For example a coin, a piece of jewellery or a tool. Ask the children to use the found items to create and agree upon their Bony Tony’s identity and story; who is he?, when did he live?, where is he from?, what did he do? Take photographs and share your stories.


Three-letter body parts:
Hip, jaw, rib, eye, ear, leg, arm, lip, toe.
Decide if you want to add tum and bum to make eleven 3-letter words in total.




Wild garlic toast

Wild garlic toast: Delicious wild garlic leaves are gathered, rinsed and snipped, mixed with butter and spread onto bread, ready for toasting over the fire. A delicious speedy snack.


Check you are collecting wild garlic, and not lily of the valley, by smelling the distinctive garlicy leaves. Lily of the valley has similar looking leaves but is poisonous, so be sure. To forage sustainably, take leaves from different plants, leaving plenty for the plants to continue to grow healthily. Seeds can be bought to start your own crop, which grows easily and spreads happily.

Ingredients: wild garlic leaves, butter or margarine, bread.

Tools and utensils: bowl and fork for mixing, scissors for snipping, knife for spreading, toasting rack or campfire grill.

  1. Gently rinse the leaves to remove any dirt or little creatures.
  2. Cut the wild garlic leaves into small pieces.
  3. Mix with the butter or margarine in a mixing bowl.
  4. Cook toast on the campfire.
  5. Spread on the wild garlic butter and heat through.
  6. Enjoy your tasty snack.

Dandelion Days

It’s easy to ignore dandelions as just weeds, but they are also one of the most versatile teaching tools found in the garden. From making jars of delicious dandelion to understanding life cycles and writing poetry; all much more fun than weeding!


Dandelion honey: The dandelion is one of nature’s great survivors and is so much more than just a weed.  Its name comes from the French – “dent de lion“, meaning lion’s tooth, as the leaves are deeply serrated – a wonderfully bold and brave name. Dandelions have many uses – they have traditionally medicinal uses. Young leaves can be eaten in salads and stir-fries and are rich in vitamins and minerals. The flower heads can be used to make dandelion wine, while the bitter root can be dried to make a substitute for coffee.

Tastiest of all though is dandelion honey. Make sure you only pick dandelions for edible use in an area that is free from toxins, and leave some flower heads for the bees to make their own honey.

honey-352205_640Simply soak two cups of dandelion flowers in two cups of water over night. Strain to remove all the flower heads, and squeeze all the liquid from the petal pulp. Boil the flower water with the same weight in sugar. (Use the fact that 1ml of water weighs 1g to work out how much sugar you need.) When the sugar has dissolved keep mixing until it thickens, heating for longer depending on how runny you would like your honey. Transfer to a sterilised jar and allow to cool. Delicious on campfire toast.

Dandelion journey:  Dandelions move through their life cycle so quickly that they offer instant investigations, with simultaneous stages of growth often visible from bud to seed. A patch of un-mown and untended garden will almost always be home to a dandelion or two. Make and label observational drawings or take a series of “time-lapse” photos to chart the life cycle.

dandelion-5064638_640Dandelion dispersal: Dandelions seeds are blown by the wind, each seed has its own individual parachute. Wind is one of the main methods of seed dispersal and one of the most interesting to create a scientific investigation around, linking to forces in science, as well as plants. Can you make a parachute for items heavier than seeds, try out different designs, time how long they take to land and describe why the times are different?

BBC science clip – lifecycle of a dandelion:

Dandelion maths: Dandelions offer a great opportunity to work with really big numbers, scale, and measure in context. One dandelion plant can produce around 2,000 wind-dispersed seeds. Each individual seed head can produce around 50 to 170 seeds, each capable of becoming a new plant. The seeds are carried on the wind and can travel relatively long distances. Estimate the number of dandelions in your garden and calculate the potential number of dandelion flowers they could produce.

Blow a dandelion seed head, watch where the seeds go then measure the distance to where the farthest one lands.  Why might this distance change?

Dandelion poetry: Children often call the seed heads dandelion clocks, telling the time by the number of puffs it takes to remove all the seeds and disperse them in the wind, one o’clock, two o’clock…  a lovely way to reinforce the language of time. Challenge children to invent a dandelion clock rhyme or a dandelion clock shape poem with the words blowing off the page.


Home Orienteering

Making your own orienteering kit uses simple materials from around the house. Challenges can then be set up in any space – along a familiar walk, around the garden or all over the house. You just need a prepared map of the space you are setting up the challenges in.

When you have created the map, a whole collection of orienteering challenges can be set and enjoyed. Take a look at Muddy Maps for map-making activities 

Orienteering activities can include facts and challenges on any topic, from times tables to tree names, code breaking to historical facts, and the retelling of stories from place to place. Leave a question, clue or activity at each marker to be solved. When everyone has completed the challenges, check through to find out how everyone got on – did they find all the markers? did they solve evry question or clue? which was the trickiest?

Marking the maps where clues and questions will be found give opportunity to talk about direction and distance. A used plastic bottle half-filled with sand and numbered with a card makes a good marker for inside or out. They are reusable time and time again for any orienteering challenge. Numbered cards or coloured crayons can be attached, and questions and clues added and changed by tying them on.

When orienteering gets going everyone will want to join in, and anyone can set up the challenge with new questions and the markers placed in new positions, or a whole new map being created. Hours of active learning and multiple skills in one activity.


Muddy Maps

Using journey sticks on a familiar walk is the starting point for the most valuable experience to understand and create maps, which opens up a whole world of adventure and exciting learning opportunity. Getting familiar with your local green spaces is perfect for develop mapping skills, and provides children with an understanding of their local environment and a connection with the nature around them.

It is not the map that should make sense of the land, but the land
that will make a map for us. *

Start with your daily walk, following the Native American tradition of using journey sticks to mark the way.IMG_5063

Did you know…? The journey stick acted as a memory aid for travellers to find their way across harsh and rugged landscapes. Use your stick to create a vertical map, with items placed in order from top to bottom, each item giving a reminder of a turning or landmark on the journey. Journey sticks are also used to represent ‘chapters’ of a spoken story, each item a cue to direct the tale as it unfolds.

Carry a stick each, short or long, found or ‘borrowed’ from a broom or other household use. Attach treasures along the way, marking the stages of your journeying. At each stage of the journey stop, take a long deep breath, look around, listen, and share what you notice. Use all your senses to take in what’s around you.

He was all quietness. We had been all bustle.*

Look around to find a natural item to collect and attach on your stick; a leaf from a nearby tree, a blade of grass as you cross the field. The nimble fingered can tie these on with a length of string wound around the stick and knotted at intervals to secure the treasure.  For easier attaching, place a few elastic bands around the stick and tuck each treasure under the elastic. Add a ribbon or coloured band to personalise. The sticks themselves become works of art, much treasured and photographed to remember them at their prime, and to compare as they change with the curling, wilting and dropping of leaves and grasses over time.

A lucky few found a feather along the way, and others added to their treasures later with a man-made feather, using a piece of wire and two strips of masking tape.


Next time take your journey stick along on your walk, retrace your steps, remembering how the items on your stick relate to the environment around you. Which way do we go from here? Point in the right direction.
Try making your journey backwards, or pointing out the features you pass as you travel along.

Repeat the journey a few days or a week later to find out what has changed and what is the same? Which features are permanent and make good markers for your journey, and which are changeable and could lead to being sent off in the wrong direction. How have the sounds and smells changed? Which parts of the journey have remained strongly in your memory?

Even the best maps deliberately leave off nearly all of the detail in a landscape…don’t make the mistake of thinking that the map tells you all that you can see in your surroundings.*

Create a ‘muddy map’ of your journey outside on the floor, using natural treasures and found objects to represent features from your journey. Sticks can be used for paths, leaves for important trees, stones for buildings in any creative way you wish.  Talk about the map, talking through which parts of your journey are shown. This creates a great deal of insightful chatter about drawing and using maps.

Retrace the journey, using your imagination this time. Maybe you noticed a bird earlier along the way, flying overhead or observing from a tree. Decide which type of bird you are going to be (flying birds please: no penguins or ostriches or this part of won’t get off the ground!) Shake your feathers, unfold your wings and take off, up overhead, above the buildings and trees.

pixabay in Visualise section and not a big map picture in Share section bird-638112__340
Start by thinking about the places you visited on your journey. With eyes closed, talking through your journey, retracing your steps, but this time from above looking down on your pathway. What can you see? What do landmarks look like from above? What can you hear? Follow the journey in your imagination: feeling the weather, hearing the sounds, seeing the tops of the trees and the shapes of the path, the buildings, water, and all the places you passed. Describe the images you can see in your mind and how different features look from a bird’s eye view.

At the end of your journey come down safely to land, shake out your feathers and open your eyes. This imaginative journey is an important stage in understanding a bird’s eye view and how maps are drawn.

Draw your own bird’s eye view map on a big piece of paper, using colours and shared or newly created symbols for your key.



  • Go back on your journey with your map to check the positions of the features you have drawn.
  • Look at different maps and compare them to your own. How are they the same or different?
  • Introduce measurement and scale, and compass direction.
  • Guide others on a journey or set each other orienteering, treasure hunting and clue finding activities. Children who are familiar with a space and able to use a map have endless opportunities for adventures in outdoor and active learning.
  • Create new journey maps and imaginative journeys for story-telling about the places you can’t visit at the moment.

Louise Graham
Dragonfly Wood

*Quotes from Tristan Gooley: The Walker’s Handbook







Treasures and trails

Natural bracelets

Going on a sensory, nature walk to spot little natural treasures can include a little collecting along the way. Create a natural bracelet with a strip of fabric and double sided sticky tape to stick your mini treasures to as you find them. Look out for signs of spring turning to summer, observe the different colours and shades of the same colour around, touching and smelling plants as you wander by. Collect leaves, petals, small flowers, a feather to decorate your bracelet as a memory of your journey.

natural bracelet

Nature’s own trails: You may spot little creatures out on a treasure trail of their own.

Snail and slugs Look for the tell tale silvery trails left by these creatures. How do they generate the slime? Where do the trails lead? What kind of surfaces have the most trails? Why do you think this is? Are there any surfaces slugs and snails don’t seem to like?

We have tried adding broken up egg shells and used coffee to the edges of our seedlings patch to try to stop slugs and snails eating our plants. 

Ants follow their scent trail on their home or to a food source.  Try placing a slice of banana or small piece of apple a short way from their trail, then check back to see how long it takes them to find it. Try placing a large flat leaf or a small piece of paper across the trail. What happens? Does it confuse them? How long does it take them to reinstate their scent trail across it? What happens if you then turn the paper or leaf over?


Look up at the sky day

We’ve spent the weekend remembering to look up at the sky, celebrating the annual awareness day in April, gazing at stars and remembering a favourite campfire song.

We’ve taken a moment to lie back, relax and view the world from a new perspective.
Are the clouds heading in a particular direction, or telling a story with their shapes? How different do they look in changing weather conditions or times of the day.

We’ve viewed the sky from under the branches of a tree, through a cardboard tube and made a frame by placing our fingers together to ‘frame’ the view.
What does it make you think and feel? Does this change depending on the weather?

Not forgetting some night-time star-gazing too, with such bright clear nights and the days short enough to see dark skies before bedtime, it has been perfect for star, planet and meteor-spotting.

The relaxing weekend has reminded us of one of our favourite campfire songs, and started all sorts of conversations about journeys, travel and movement.

Emotions, Holidays, Vacations, Clouds

We’ll go north, we’ll go south,
We’ll go east, we’ll go west
In our green and yellow balloon.

In the sky way up high,
We can float, we can fly
In our green and yellow balloon.

green and yellow notes

This traditional song can be sung as a round or perpetual canon with singers starting at A,B,C or D. Make up a new verse to describe what happens and what can be seen on your own balloon journey.

Enjoy your trip!


Charcoal challenge

Which type of wood makes the best charcoal for drawing? Experiment with using different types of wood; softwoods such as willow, hardwoods such as oak and other plant materials such as grape vine. The simple process of making your own charcoal for crafting and drawing can be used for maths challenges for older children.


INVESTIGATE: Spot and identify twigs from different trees to cut and collect into a tin for burning on the fire. The tin needs a firm fitting lid and a hole made in the top for smoke and gases to escape.

For an added maths challenge, record the length and weight of your twigs to compare with the resulting charcoal later.

OBSERVE and DISCUSS: Place the tin of wooden sticks on the fire, cover with burning embers but with the hole in the tin exposed. You will see smoke coming out of the hole. Keep the fire hot until the smoke and gases stop being released through the hole in the tin. This will take about an hour depending on the size of your fire and tin. Carefully remove the tin and leave to cool.

CREATE:  Use your charcoal to draw and decorate paper, wooden discs or stones. Compare the different materials. Which do you prefer for drawing?

CHALLENGE questions:
Measure your twigs before and after charing to record the changes in length. Alternatively, cut all the twigs from the same tree to the same length, e.g. oak 9cm, willow 12cm. Keep one of each of the twigs out of the tin to compare the length with the charcoal sticks later.
Does the volume and density of wood change after it has been transformed into charcoal?
Do different twigs change at different rates?
How many centimetres of drawing do you estimate 1cm of charcoal will produce?
Which type of wood produces the longest charcoal line?