If like me you would like your child to learn about the natural world, but aren’t sure how to teach them, the Little Green Fingers classes for under fives at the Calthorpe Project are ideal. Every Monday from 11 – 3 babies and children (and accompanying adults) can explore the surprisingly wide world of nature thriving in the Calthorpe’s private under fives’ garden.
I started taking my son when he was a baby. Like many new mothers, I felt trapped indoors by hours it takes to get ready to go out with a baby and I longed for a garden so that I could relax while still getting my much needed daylight and nature hit. On three hours sleep a night and with baby feeding, changing and crying punctuating the day at, let’s face it, ten minute intervals, I was not up to travelling far without falling over. So I had to find gardens and outdoor spaces nearby where we could play safely.
The Calthorpe Project is sensitive to these basic London parental needs. Not only does it provide baby changing facilities, a cafe on site and friendly, qualified staff happy to give advice or share tales of parenting experiences, but it is perfect for meeting other parents and children in the local community. The gardening classes didn’t just get my baby-toddler rolling in mud, splashing with watering cans and cooing at earthworms. It taught him about preparing and eating vegetables, taught him to share and take turns with other children, drew him out of his shyness and celebrated his birthdays with us.
The Little Green Fingers classes are structured, with a different activity and theme each week teaching the children about wildlife, life cycles, plants and food growing. They are based in the under fives’ garden, with plenty of toys, a willow dome and playhouse as well as planters. Children can also fish for newts and toads in the Calthorpe’s pond and plant seeds in the polytunnels. There are plenty of indoor nature-themed arts and crafts throughout the winter months if you don’t like getting cold and wet – children make bug hotels, bird feeders and their own paper bees and butterflies.
My son is always excited to see his old sunhats worn lopsided by the scarecrows he helped to make, which now stand guard in the planters. He likes to think they shoo the birds away from the wild strawberries and tomatoes grown by the children and eaten for their lunches. I have many happy memories of watching toddlers gape in amazement as they help to lift logs and see centipedes, worms, slugs and spiders wriggle or scuttle to safety, of my son’s excitement when he netted a newt in the Calthorpe’s pond and of many lunches cooked by and shared with other children and parents on wintry days.
I asked Ewa Matusiak, the Calthorpe Project’s environmental education tutor, to answer some questions about the classes she runs.
How did you become an environmental education tutor?
Nature always was the passion for me. I have always had a strong interest in nature and the environment. I was brought up in the countryside and I have always enjoyed the outdoors.
I have a master’s degree in environmental biology from the Academy of Nature in Poznan, Poland.
I have been living and working in England for 15 years. For the last 7 years I have been working as a School and Community Gardener for Hammersmith Community Gardens Association and a few years ago I was employed as the environmental coordinator for children at the Calthorpe Project. We run the environmentally friendly activities for children under the age of 5 every Monday from 11 to 1. They involve learning about gardening, healthy cooking, nature habitats and arts and crafts projects.
Do you think it is important for children to understand and interact with the natural environment?
I think it is very important for children to understand the world around them. Children benefit from contact with nature in many ways.
It’s been shown that children who have access to outdoor learning behave better in a classroom set up and have better results and that by experimenting with nature, playing in the rain, making mud pies children learn how to reason things based on their own experience.
Many families who come to the Calthorpe Project live in small spaces without gardens. At the Calthorpe children play around the garden, socialise, meet friends, and improve their speech – they are also on the move a lot so they develop physically.
The majority of children who come to our classes start gardening at around 12 months. Babies and younger toddlers benefit from watching families and older children being involved in gardening activities.
How does Little Green Fingers help children understand where food comes from (and does it encourage them to eat more healthily)?
Through gardening and growing vegetables children increase their self-confidence and learn where their food comes from. They learn how to cook so they introduce healthy habits into their lives at a very early stage.
Children grow vegetables in the garden, then we pick them and prepare them for lunch and eat them together. Seeing how food grows from seed to harvesting, even in small amounts (herbs, courgettes and kale for soups, strawberries and raspberries), encourages children to try different tastes. Eating food they have helped prepare together, while talking about how we grew the food in the garden, gives them a sense of pride in the food and willingness to try it.
Do you think parents and caregivers benefit from the classes too?
Parents benefit from the sessions in a number of ways, socialising with other parents and exchanging experiences, enjoying the feeling of being in a homely outdoor green space. Adults also learn about nature and gardening and can use the experience elsewhere.
Parents often get involved with the community and the project – for example, two parents and a grandmother built a willow dome for the children to play in; parents sometimes take turns to cook food from their home countries with the children and teach them about the food; parents and caregivers also help us to promote the Calthorpe’s activities, making banners and spreading the word; parents sometimes bring their own skills to the drop ins, too: one recently organised a healthy dental session for the children and parents.
The classes run throughout the winter…what do you do when it is cold and wet outside?
It is very important for children to experience different weather conditions. It allows them to understand the world around them better and enable them to satisfy their curiosity about natural environment. We also run indoor arts and craft activities inside like making lavender bags, cooking sessions like making herbal bread and vegetable pastas using products from the garden.
Please tell us one of your favourite memories of teaching at the Calthorpe Project.
My favourite experience was seeing a child first start walking in the under 5’s garden. The family, who lived in a small space, noticed that their child was still not walking at the age of 18 months. In an unhurried learning environment children relax and do things they wouldn’t do normally. The boy started walking in the garden while playing with garden toys. It was a very emotional experience for everyone to witness, especially for the mother, who had thought that her child had some learning difficulties and that that was why he was a slow walker.
Join Little Green Fingers classes every Monday from 11am – 3pm, at The Calthorpe Project, 258-274 Grays Inn Road, WC1X 8LH, £1.50 per child
Rowan is the author of a forthcoming nature blog Wild London Toddler, copywriter for Bloomsbury Beginnings and local mum.