Outdoor learning

Companion Planting thumbnail
The natural world is not equally accessible to us all, and in my outdoor sessions I aim to provide safe spaces in which people can work alongside each other doing real jobs and learning real skills. I have chosen three examples of outdoor work, Companion Planting, Speedwell Nursery School, and Nature Discovery, all of which were based on a Bristol City Council allotment.


In 2015 as part of my work with Speedwell Nursery School and Children’s Centre, I took on a Council allotment to see if I could bring people together to learn about biodivesity aand encourage them to grow some of the food they consume. This project developed into what is now a long standing partnership with Speedwell Friends – local parents who formed a group that aims to promote community cohesion and engagement and provide community activities. Over the last six years I have delivered a number of projects for Speedwell Friends including weekly sessions on the allotment funded by the John James Foundation, seasonal celebrations, and Water Stories a storytelling project (both funded by Wessex Water).

I ran weekly open access sessions for local families, based around gardening and creative practice. Some were born and bred Bristolians, whilst others had recently arrived in the UK – some for employment or as students, and others as refugees or seeking asylum.  We found much to celebrate, including people’s birthdays, Eid, when people got leave to remain in the UK, International Women’s Day, the Spring Equinox and Apple Day. These traditions offered us a sense of meaning, enjoyment and community and didn’t seem to take long to establish, and I wondered if they became embedded particularly fast because people were trying to put down roots in a new place.
Queen of the Willow
There is a way of gardening called ‘companion planting’ where different plants are grown together that are of mutual benefit, and I borrowed this name for our project because I felt that it echoed our ethos of coming together to share skills and celebrate cultural differences in ways that fostered respect and understanding.

We used organic gardening methods and a ‘no dig’ approach, which is sympathetic to soil biology and good for retaining moisture. Crucially however, Companion Planting was not a gardening project; rather it was about social inclusion with gardening and creative practice as the medium. Whilst tending the plot, sharing cups of tea, cooking food on the fire, talking about things that matter, sharing memories, ideas, and ambitions, powerful social bonds were formed.
Participants’ and visitors’ comments
‘I was lucky enough to visit on the day of the Eid Celebration. Adults brought food to share at the mid-morning break and one mum was expertly giving henna patterns to those who wanted it. This project is very inspiring. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of calm, support and care. The children were so involved and independently happy and absorbed. There was an overall atmosphere of well-being and belonging. It will remain with me for a long time. It is an amazing project.’
Pippa Hawkins, Bristol Early Years Outdoor Research Network

“I like this group. I do enjoy. I very, very enjoy. I’m waiting every Thursday to come. Every Thursday I come here. I so enjoy. My son so enjoy and make friends.”

“I didn’t know what was lacking but I knew I needed to find it. Then I found Companion Planting. This changed my life. It helped my head.”

“It has been the strong sense of community spirit and kindness that I have found to be most beneficial. Not to mention the simple reward of tea and a biscuit!”

“We had a great time today. The weather kept turning, we kept dancing.”

“We are more than a group, like becoming a family.”

‘Staff are also passionate about involving parents in their children’s education as well as giving them chances to extend their own learning. A key player in this is the school’s artist in residence. Her tremendous enthusiasm has inspired many children and parents to be very involved in community projects such as making stunning artwork and planting and growing in the school’s allotment.’
Ofsted inspection report: Speedwell Nursery School

NATURE DISCOVERY: working with childminders
Jane Francis (East Bristol Lead Teacher) initiated Nature Discovery in September 2019 and we run it together as part of the East and Central Bristol Childminder Hub. Jane had the idea to offer six seasonally inspired sessions across six terms to promote and encourage outdoor learning – and this has been really well received both by childminders and their children. Since then we have run regular sessions, making whatever adaptions were needed so that we could support childminders to connect with the natural world throughout the pandemic.
Session board
Children need to be active in order to learn and when they are given relaxed time in an outdoor space, their learning can be deeper and create long-lasting and meaningful memories. I think that enjoyment is the key to deep learning – to quote the wise words of Winnie the Pooh “We dint realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.”
Robin puppet

Working in partnership with Speedwell nursery staff, we brought small groups of children to the allotment. We often targeted children with English as an additional language, as well as those who needed some quieter sensory input to support their emotional regulation. The children loved being outside and taking care of the allotment, and were particularly keen on watering plants and picking fruit and vegetables.
Apple mandala
The layout of the allotment is such that the children were able to act quite independently, which led to excellent problem solving, for example how to turn on the tap, steer a wheelbarrow, or carry a full watering can. To find out more about this work with nursery children you can access a report on Bristol Early Years Research.