Wild Minds Podcast

The Wild Minds Podcast
Season 2, Episode 13:
Ecological Identity and Childhood Outdoor Play

Guest: Professor Jan White

Professor Jan White

Professor Jan White is a leading thinker and writer on outdoor play and advocate for high quality outdoor provision for services for children from birth to seven.

She is an honorary Professor of Practice with the University of Wales Trinity St David and strategic director of Early Childhood Outdoors, the National Centre for Outdoor Play, Learning and Wellbeing. With thirty years’ experience in education, she has developed a deep commitment to the consistently powerful effect of the outdoors on young children.

Jan is currently an Early Education Associate, convenor of the Landscapes for Early Childhood national network, and provides training courses, conference keynotes and consultancy for a wide range of early years settings.

In this episode Marina and Jan talk about: 

  • The importance and purpose of childhood and outdoor play
  • How the environment invites us and creates bonding
  • We examine the term ecological identity and why we must protect the final frontier of outdoor play.


Jan White's website:

Outdoors Thinking:
The Certificate In Outdoor Practice

Early Childhood Outdoors:


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Transcribed by AI – sorry for any errors!

Jan White  

Children are movers and be-ers. They live in the world of verbs. They live in a world of doing things and interacting with things, which is where they should be. And if you live in a world of verbs, you grow up knowing your relationship to the world, you know that you are always interaction with it. It is always interacting with you. You are actually part of it and it is part of you.

Marina Robb  

Hello, and welcome to the wild minds podcast for people interested in health, nature-based therapy and learning. We explore cutting edge approaches that help us improve our relationship with ourselves, others and the natural world. My name is Marina Robb. I'm an author, entrepreneur, Forest School outdoor learning and nature-based trainer and consultant, and pioneer in developing green programmes for the health service in the UK.

You're listening to Episode 13, ecological identity and childhood play. My guest today is Professor Jan White, a leading thinker and writer on outdoor play, and an advocate for high quality outdoor provision for services for children from birth to seven. Jan is also an award-winning author, and in addition to numerous other achievements is this strategic director of early childhood outdoors. In this episode, we talk about the importance and purpose of childhood and outdoor play, how the environment invites us and creates bonding, we examine the Term Ecological identity, and why we must protect the final frontier of outdoor play.

Welcome to Wild Minds. I'm really excited today to have Professor Jan white joining me. And I am particularly delighted because I know that although I've spent many years outdoors and with different ages and children, when I speak to you, Jan, I really feel that I'm speaking to someone that's had and had a lot of experience but also spent a lot of time watching and observing children. And when we talked a little while ago, you said that you were an astrologist amongst other things. And I never heard of that term. Would you mind just telling the listeners what that is? And then hopefully we'll get into what what does the nephrologist do among other things?

Jan White  

I love big words. So, you know, words like ethology appealed to me. ethology is the study of behaviour. So it's usually I'm not sure the exact definition of it. But in my experience, it's the study of animal behaviour. It's the way animals behave in their environment. And actually, I studied ecology at masters. And I think I'm a sort of mix of ecology and ethology. So ecology is the study of relationships. Because people might know that ecology comes from the word ‘Oikas’, which means the home. So it's like the study of the entity the creature in their environment, in their habitat, their home. And ethology is the actual study of the behaviour of animals, with each other and with their environment. So I kind of feel like I'm, I've got a foot in each area of study. But really, as you said, I think I'm an observer. Through and through that, that's the real meat of it. I'm also a questioner, I know that as a child, I spent a lot of time in my play. 

Asking why wanting to know how things work and why things are like they are. So all the time, uh, you know, how toddlers why, why, why, why why I'm still like that, which can be a bit exhausting for me and for others. And it's lovely when I meet people who like to do that all that wiring as well. So I'm never quite satisfied with how the idea of the theory that I've got about why things are and I want to know a bit more, but why is it like that? Why is it doing that? 

And I'm really, really fascinated. So how this applies to children is that I'm really fascinated by the interaction between the child and their environment. And that might that's the physical environment, but it's also other children and the adults around them, and all the different more than human beings that are around them. But I think I'm particularly interested in how children have a relationship with the physical world. So as a child, I spent an awful lot of time digging, trying to dig to Australia, digging up clay to make pots with mix, mixing soil and painting with it with the slurry, you know. And I think I know that when I think about it now, and I've been thinking about that childhood play for a really long time, then emphasised by having children of my own, as well as all the experience of watching hundreds and hundreds of children at work at play is that I know for myself, all that interaction with the Earth, made me fall in love with it. 

And I got deeply interested in rocks and soil in particular. And I do see children being very, very interested in rocks and soil. And, and so back to the word ethology, it's really that sort of behaviour between the, the child and everything that's in their environment. And how, what I've come to see is the environment is speaking to the child, and the child can hear that whatever language you might imagine that to be. But basically, you know, you see a child walking down a road, if there's a small wall, but it's got a flat top, you're absolutely compelled to walk on it, aren't you, as a child, if there's a corridor, you're compelled to run, you can't not run in a corridor. 

And I've always said, if schools want children to stop running in the corridor, they need to design the corridor out. And it's the same in supermarkets, you know, supermarket aisles, you just have to run. So all the things like the Kerbstone, yeah, you want to walk on the Kerbstone, you see a gap between two goals, and you want to walk between them. The environment is constantly inviting children. And I think of that as a kind of conversation that the environment is having with the child,

Marina Robb  

there's just already so much in there, I don't want to stop you. But I want to kind of stop you because I could I could I think we could spend this time just unpacking some of what you've even just said, and I'm really aware as a as a practitioner, that so many people and parents basically see children outdoors, or even indoors, and they in particular outdoors, especially when they're following their interests. 

They see it as this idea of just playing. And I'm really interested in how you might persuade or how you might teach people to see what you can see a little bit, maybe not the how maybe they have to spend years to do that, honestly. But there's something so important about that. And I don't know if you've used this word, pedagogical blindness, where we don't really know is I quite like this idea that you don't really see the learning, or the value of what a child might be doing. Like those lovely examples, you've already given me about walking on it? Because I can I think I like to go up on those walls, you know, I still have that feeling to do that.

Jan White  

I still I can, because I've thought about it. When I see a little war like that, I can feel the urge to do it. Yeah, I don't do it. Because I'm a sensible adult. But I am aware of the desire to do it. And I do allow myself to walk between two lamp posts one or two posts when they close together. Because gaps are compelling. We want to go through gaps, there's some kind of threshold there that really pulls us in into ISIS. And I love the fact that children are so alert to those and so drawn by them.

Marina Robb  

But why is it important then from you know, because if you've got this way of observing, because I do see that in people like yourself, who have observed children for so many children for so long, and can actually unpack for those of us that just can't see it. What what's going on and the value of that. So what is the value then of yet a child exploring a puddle or the mud that you said, from an educational point of view? Why should we be interested in protecting that? I mean, I know you're smiling at me because it's in a way it's like Ah, God, don't we know by now?

Jan White  

I think what I want to answer is well When you say what's the educational value? This is This is big, deep stuff. Yeah, well, I think this draws us back to is what's the purpose of education? And when you say what's the value educationally, I guess we immediately think of schooling, and the curriculum. And all the structures that we lived in for 12 years, we've all done it. So we've been completely moulded by the idea that schooling is education. And I would make a very big contrast between schooling and education, schooling, the way we do in Britain, the way we've done schooling for 100 plus years, is just one model of education, isn't it? But because we all live, for so long, tends to be how we understand it. So I would go to the question of what is the purpose of education? And alongside that, I'd say what is the purpose of childhood? Hmm,

Marina Robb  

let's do it, then. What is the purpose of education? Well, let's do it. Because we are you're absolutely right. We're all in a system. And we've all participated in 12 years of, of, of education. In our case, I'm going to make the assumption it was in the UK. Maybe I'm wrong, please correct me if I'm wrong, but And absolutely, as you said, it's, it's a it's a it's a norm, isn't it? We've gone through what wait for us? Well, I like to use the word it's sort of domesticated us didn't it into a particular way of experiencing life it education, teachers telling us, you know, what they know and US regurgitate, regurgitating? I've got a 16 year old, who's just done her first GCSE two days ago, you know, it's full on. So what is the purpose or work? Well, what is the purpose of an education that you think is purposeful?

Jan White  

I think where I'd go back to is all this observing. And remembering I would, I mean, I've said for a long time, I started off saying this as a humorous idea, but I realised I've telling the truth. I've been researching childhood, all my life, I've been researching outdoors, all my life. Since beyond, you know, the age that I can remember younger and younger, as a small child, researching the outdoors researching the world. 

So in those years and years and years of looking, what I've come to and thinking I mean, that's why I'd say it's looking and very deep thinking, very intense thinking, joining things up between what I'm seeing now, with what I've known from other looking, and lots and lots and lots of reading and thinking is I've come to believe that there is a educational pathway that's sort of buried in the child and being expressed being unfolded. 

So what that's made me the way I've looked is that whatever children are doing, if they're doing a lot of it, it must be important. So if children spent a lot of time digging, there must be something very significant going on, that's driving so many children, so much of the time, across decades and decades, and often across cultures across the world. That that that tells me that there's something that matters here. And I, you know, I spend my time trying to work out what is it? How can I understand why this is going on this behaviour, this way of interacting with the world. But the bottom line is, even if I can't understand why it clearly matters, there's something important here. So I would say that it's part of the curriculum that children need to be working with. And so I think of that as their kind of internal curriculum. 

And I think that the internal curriculum that each child has, and we share a lot of what that curriculum is children, you know, childhood has a curriculum, I think, and when I say what's the purpose of childhood, it's to be a child and to work on that inbuilt curriculum that, from my perspective has been designed by evolution over millennia. You know, that we have been crafted to be extremely good learners. Children are phenomenal learners from the minute, I'm sure before they're born, but you know, the minute they arrive in the world, it's very obvious that they are exceptionally good at learning. And that there are mechanisms they're using, in order to learn, we call that play. But you know, this plays a very deep and complex thing. 

And we just, we have a way of describing we know when we see play, and I think that's what what's been exciting. Is there is this deep, internally driven, crafted by evolution curriculum that the child needs to be working on. So for me, paying attention to what children seem to be not just following the interests of each child, but like thinking about what is it that childhood seems to be needing to do. And then trusting that that is the curriculum that children need to have. And therefore, my task is to enable them to have and work on that curriculum. So I think of it as each child having a kind of internal curriculum that needs to be expressed. 

But at the same time, I'm aware that there's a lot of commonality across children, as to the sorts of things that childhood is sort of requiring of them. So I suppose it's just a deep trust that humans know how to learn, and a strange what a hubris that we have, that we, in our culture in Britain, that adults know better, and need to tell children, what they should be learning, it's our job to find out what they need to be learning, and help them to do it. And from there, I believe that we've existed, we've survived on the earth, over our evolutionary story, by doing the things that have helped us survive and thrive. And really, that's as a teacher, that's what I want to help happen. 

So it's quite a different understanding of curriculum than the sort of the mainstream traditional idea that we have from a statutory curricula that we're obliged to work with. I mean, you hope that a lot of those statutory curricula are capturing a lot of the things that are important. I'm not saying they're not good things, I think they're good tools to help you. But the primary driver needs to be, let's really observe what children are desiring to do. And trust that that is been crafted as something, you know, because that's a very, very important behaviour.

Marina Robb  

So then, it gets me thinking then that, if mainstream schooling of early years and perhaps primary and secondary, if that is following, let's say a more external curriculum, you know, that's being given that, so and so needs to do this. So it needs to do that they need to be able to do that. Are, are we then just saying, okay, so by doing that, we are depriving children of this, of expressing and exploring this natural drive this natural inner curriculum that we need to be supporting. And if we don't do that, x, y, z could be a consequence. Is that what you are, I think,

Jan White  

is much more complex than that. The one of the things I'd say, in answer to that is that children are also designed. Again, this is I'm sure, by evolution, to be extremely interested in what adults are interested in. You know, they're very, very, very focused, a toddler will wash the windows with a parent, or, you know, help wash the wheels on the car, or, yeah, want to be with someone who's preparing food, it's something that we, you know, it's again, it's, it's the way we learn about the world is that we have a drive to notice what adults are interested in. 

In fact, we notice what others are interested in, and we're drawn to it, there's a crowd around something, then you know, you go to see what's going on, don't you, we have an urge to seek out what other humans are doing. And we know that that could be important stuff. So we're very interested in it. So I think that, you know, wouldn't kind of dismiss an adult curriculum, because a lot of that is that those are things that adults think are important, but the most thing is that children want to know how to be human. 

So they want to look at other humans in order to learn how to be human. So a formal curriculum can be somewhat divorced from that important work. And I think what's most important is to pay attention to, to try and work out when you're designing a curriculum is to try and work out what matters, what actually matters. In childhood, what foundations I think one of the answers I'd give you is if you are spending time doing something that is not your motivation. I mean, we know that it doesn't really stick. Yeah, if you're not driven to do it. So again, I think it's the adults role is to Find out how to make it motivational for the child.

Marina Robb  

Yeah, well, I just think it's so interesting that I'm, I'm finding what I'm interested in well, and I found what I was interesting, so much interested in so much more as an adult than I did as a child. And I. And I think that that's one of the things that I will tell young people that there is time to discover, you know, because they know, because they've not been given it in often in their experience of education, that there is absolutely time to discover things that you're interested in, I find it quite strange that I've had to wait until higher levels of education for me to start pursuing things that I'm actually interested in, you know, I've had to wait till my mid-20s, to start studying something that I was interested in. And so I really appreciate the possibility of us doing that earlier, as well, you know,

Jan White  

we should spend our life doing what is motivating us? Yeah, we learn most when we're driven to do something, and it's this is so well researched, is so well known. So it's so odd, that we persist with the model of making children do learning that is at that moment, not of interest, not of relevance not of meaning.

Marina Robb  

Well, exactly. And I think the reason why I asked that question earlier was because I know that there are more serious consequences when people are in mainstream school, particularly as they get older, and they're really struggling to engage and be motivated and understand what they're being asked to do. And then in the end, they feel that they are that they're not good enough, and that the environment around them is telling them in all sorts of ways that that the way they are just doesn't match up. 

So I don't necessarily want to go there now. But I do think there are deeper consequences around that. But what I do want to go to is I know that we both share, well, often probably millions of people understand that we do you have a wider crisis out there in terms of our relationship to the natural world. And I know that you have against, well, you spent all of your career helping us to us and curriculums and policyholders to understand the value of outdoor play for young people. And you've talked about this idea of ecological identity and, and the importance of developing that. And I'm, I am particularly interested in that, because my understanding of not of that concept, which I hope you'll talk about in a minute. But the importance of having a meaningful relationship with the more than human the natural world. It really is an important relationship and how we develop that growing up has huge value. And you've just you've coined this idea of ecological identity. And I'd love you to tell me and others a bit more about that, and why how that develops and why that's important.

Jan White  

Okay, well, that could take a week answering that thing.

Marina Robb  

I do ask questions that take a long time. I have a habit of doing that. So we can just touch on it. Yeah.

Jan White  

Well, I think maybe where I'll start is I've been digging in. I mean, yes, I've spent, I suppose my whole career, thinking about this, but recently, really much more. That the way we are bringing our children up from the beginning, separates us from the world. And I was just having this conversation yesterday. I think one of the things we should have be thinking, we should be reflecting on everything we do and having a think about what it's doing. So one of the norms we have with toddlers is that we teach them to name everything.

Marina Robb  

Don't we? Easily labels, labels, labels, yep,

Jan White  

Labels, labels and opposites and things like that, but particularly labels. And we focus on what I would say we focus on nouns. Children are movers and beers. They live in the world of verbs. They live in a world of doing things and interacting with things, which is where they should be. And if you live in a world of verbs, you grow up knowing your relationship to the world. You know that you are always interaction with it. It is always interacting with you. You are actually part of it and it is part of you. And I think that, you know, I'm exploring this idea that as we focus on nouns, nouns being the verb to do with now, meaning they're actually focused on nouns, we're actually a During the world, we're separating the world from us. 

So, baby arrives into the world with no, I don't think and I think most of us feel this with no real concept that they are separate to the rest of the world, separate from their mothers separate from the air they breathe separate from the food they eat, you know, it's very obvious that we're not separate. But I think that what happens is when we're focusing on now, this is one just one small way, amongst many, that in our culture, we are helping children learn that they are a separate thing, we have a big focus on the independence, don't we? It has a really high value to us. And I'd say if you asked earlier, earliest educators what their values were, often the word independence would come up. 

And I liked the word autonomy, because it means I'm in control. But I really would like people to value the word interdependence as well. So that children grew up knowing how related they are, to everything else that's going on. So we know that, you know, within the climate crisis we're in, we know that one of the biggest tasks we've got to do is shift a paradigm from the idea that the world is outside us. And it's there for us to use. And I think we've got an opportunity when we're dealing with babies and toddlers who don't think of the world as outside them, to maintain that sense of not being separate. So being part of, rather than being apart. 

You know, it's interesting how that word works. But I think that's what we do, right from the very early on in, in our culture in the UK, is that we very unconsciously teach our children to feel separate. So as you learn to be independent, which is an important thing about the will, the will in the child has to have a feeling of control, and competence. And as you said, I think schooling does take a lot of that away. domestication is when you remove the well, isn't it. And I love Steiner education, because there's such a big focus on maintaining the will and growing the well. 

And I like an education system that focuses on growing the will of the child. But at the same time, we must be really careful about as children grow into the idea that they've got a separate body. That's a false, that's an illusion, our body is not separate, we breathe every second we eat, we drink, you know. But as we gather this idea that we've got some kind of, we are an entity, we must also help children know that they haven't become a separate part of the world. So I've not liked the term nature connection for quite some time, and never felt it went deep enough. And when I discovered the Term Ecological identity that held much better, what I was thinking about, and what I wanted to do was part of my pedagogical work. And I've recently realised, perhaps the reason I'm not comfortable with nature connection, is, to me anyway, when I look at it, it sort of suggests me, nature, and adjoined between the two. And it sort of suggests a separateness. 

So for me, it's fundamentally troubling to use the term nature connection. Now, I might be being pedantic here. Because you know, for a lot of people just grasping the idea that we need to be connected to nature is very important. And that's the bit of the journey they're on. But because I've been thinking about this a lot longer, you start to sort of trouble this stuff that you've always believed in. And it sort of made sense to me, ah, maybe this is why I found a term nature connection, not deep enough. It's a good term, but it doesn't go far enough. 

And I think the trouble with it is, it doesn't really shift the paradigm of your worldview, how you view yourself in the world, your worldview, and therefore your ethics as in how you live your life, because that's what ethos means. It's the way you live your life. So I think worldview and ethics and how you see the world and how you live your life are the that's the fundamental paradigm shift with so desperately needing. And it's there because babies and toddlers are already there. So we learn from them. I realised this is very few billion, couldn't we learn from children how to be in the world? Rather than taking this idea that oh, well, I've been in the world for a while, in my case, six, seven decades. And I know better than a baby does, how to be in the world. 

Actually, I think we can learn a great deal from the age group and I think this is why perhaps why I'm pulled to this age group. Because I find the way they are in the world is so fascinating, so deeply important. And so much to learn from, I think that's where the possibility of the paradigm shift can come from.

Marina Robb  

Well, I mean, this subject is also of great interest to me and I, and I, I know that we won't be able to do it justice in this shorter time, but I feel very similar in similarly interested in a paradigm shift. And I often think of nature connection in a similar way to you and I often would then say, well, we're looking for a deeper nature connection. And it's interesting, this word deep, actually does come up in lots of ways a deeper consciousness a deeper, what under the surface under the soil kind of idea and, and I've actually been reading again, recently about and this is going to sound totally academic, which it is, is phenomenology. Now I Yeah, exactly. Science is, you know, a very, it's a way of philosophy, I guess, a way of understanding the way the world a real or perspective, or non-ontology, a worldview perspective. And I always hesitate, because I'm not a scientist in this way. And I haven't studied phenomenology. 

But what I thought what it reminded me very much, so we didn't remind me of it, it took me back to reading and studying the whole idea of a subject and an object. The idea that actually, because I think this is what you're talking about, I think this is what we're talking about that we are brought up in a in a paradigm in a worldview, that has subjects and objects, objects that over their subjects are here scientific paradigm, we can look, we can we can investigate the object and we can do it without apparently no interference in our perception, or whatever, all that objects. But what the phenomenologists said does is absolutely that's not the case, of course, not that actually, everything is always influencing everything else, and that you can't possibly investigate something without it influencing you, or you influencing it. 

And I think these roots and you're smiling again, because I think these are the roots of perhaps a Western way of speaking about reality that a lot of non-western cultures obviously don't articulate as an academic way, but they live it they experience a reality like children do, it seems, where they're not this object divide this dualistic way of thinking, is, is not the only way of experiencing life. Right? They're experienced, they're able to kind of drop in and experience life as more of a to and fro between things. 

So I'm very excited by this idea, because it makes sense to me that if we are relational beings, yes, we are individuals we are we have our sense of who we are. But we are also relational. And when we build this relationship, suddenly our world is bigger than the eye, isn't it? And it's into the way which brings me back to your lovely use of the word ecological identity. And maybe it takes time to get there. Hey, I mean, how do we get ecological identity?

Jan White  

Before I try and answer that I just when you were to explain about deep, you know, one of my abiding questions is why do we dig? Why is digging such a common thing? And of course, one of the things that doing lots of digging does is it gives us the metaphor of knowing how to go deeply into something and how to express that idea of digging beneath the surface digging into something we use this language all the time. 

How would we know what that meant if we hadn't dug as a child? And it's very clear, it's very, very clear to me, because I've been I've been expressly studying this, that huge amount of the action we do as children, give us the language that we use throughout her life, and allow us not just to well allow us to encapsulate something big in a single word. You know, a word is a symbol, and that symbol comes from the meaning that you have that goes into that bag that the symbol holds. And if you haven't spent a lot of time digging, you can possibly I noticed when I'm writing I'm always using the word dig deep, profound. 

And surely, I have that word in my head because I spent so much time as a child digging, otherwise, I just wouldn't use the word would I. So, you know, to really just come back to the curriculum that we're working with and the focus on language and vocabulary that we have in England with EY Fs, there's a there's an enormous drive from the government around vocabulary growth. How do you get vocabulary without meaning, and how do you get meaning without action and experience phenomenology, you have to actually do it, to then have the word in a useful way. Otherwise, it's a word that goes in your head and has disappeared. 

You know, like, when I was trying to learn French at school, those words did not stay in my head, because they didn't hold the meaning of the embodied experience that gave them that meaning. And, and the whole raft of experiences that I had to have across many years in order to get that, but going back to ecological identity, okay, so digging is a good way of looking at it. Whilst digging, I am interacting on a very deep level with the stuff of the earth eats being my play partner, I have a drive, whatever is driving me, but I have a drive to dig. 

Now it's expressed in my what we'd call play actions. You know, we'd call it play wouldn't weigh because it was my own motivated playing, and actually, my siblings, so it was, it was a social thing we were digging together. So that was another part of the drive. But I'm experiencing something that's making me want to dig. And the world says, you can dig me. So I go there and play with that person, that entity who has offered to play with me, and who is playing with me in just the right way. So I think the word, the word attachment is really important in ecological identity. 

Because my understanding of attachment is that when a baby has a need, they cry, because they have a need. And the person around them who works out what that cry means, and is able to respond in the right way in the right moment. And I know as a parent, it can take quite a long time to work out what response is often the one you first thought of, and then finally works. But if when that person responds to the baby's need, and the baby calms down, and is now flooded with oxytocin instead of cortisol, that's when the bonding process takes place. 

So when I have a need to dig, might not be cortisol, because it's not fair. It's a exploratory dopamine driven thing, I think, that urge to dig into the earth. But when the earth lets me dig into it, it is responding to my urge my psychological need, which I've expressed as a play drive, and therefore I bonded literally attached to the earth, because it gave me just what I needed just at the right moment in the right way. When I had an urge to climb and be high, the tree in my garden, gave me the response, it became my play partner it played with me. 

And therefore, I grew up with a strong attachment to the earth, to trees, to pathways, you know, because I love to run. So being able to run along being invited to run along the pathway, that sort of thing. And I think I develop this sort of attachment to all these entities around me, that could be my partner and could respond in the right way at the right moment. So the attachment, the bonding or binding process took place over the years of my childhood, you know, it's not a one off, it's got to happen again. 

And again, just as a baby would only come to really trust the person that always was able to respond to them in the right way and gave them you know, gave them oxytocin instead of cortisol. And I think what happened when you're when the environment meets your play needs, you go from a sort of dopamine exploratory drive to again, I think you actually get an oxytocin. And oxytocin is the chemical that you get when you're hugged and stroked. And it makes it's called the common connection chemical and it makes you feel good, it makes you feel safe in the world. So I'm kind of going towards the idea of ecological identity is I identify as being part of the world. not separate from it. It is me. So how could I possibly harm it?

It's my kin. In fact, it's more than my kin. It's me. I extend out into it. I think that and the Thai feel safe in the world. It's not a scary place. It's a safe place for me. It is my home, that eco. And beyond that beautifully. And so importantly for me, it was able to nurture me, it was able to look after me, when I was distressed, I would go to nature, especially trees, to be to be looked after, to be nurtured to be cared for. And so I remember doing my A levels of being very stressed. And I went out into my local woodland just on the road, just a little woodland, and went for a walk. And when I came back, I just felt better. And now when I garden, I just feel better. 

And I now know some of the chemistry of the of the, you know, the psychology of why that works. But I think it was that I'm so grateful for it is that I grew up with this ability to be soothed and cared for by the natural world as if it will, my family. And of course, then that gives me that I think there's a sort of components of ecological identity that can think about what a gift how lucky I am, that that happened to me. And I think it happened to me through my play in childhood with my siblings. And, and I've been so grateful all through my life, because that has been able to I've been able to work, I wouldn't say use nature because I really hate that word. 

Because that's the wrong paradigm. I'm able to go to nature, to be cared for, to be looked after, to peace or to put right and to feel better and able to cope. Another aspect I wanted to mention is during lockdown, yeah, when it was that first lockdown and the weather we had. And I have a lovely garden, which has cared for me for 30 years. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer says, I've realised my garden loves me. It's not just me loving my garden, my garden loves me back, I became so much more aware of how animate the world was, how alive. It is. And, you know, when people actually heard somebody say something as inanimate as a tree, how what? How can you help? Can you imagine that a tree is inanimate. But then that took me on a longer journey. Because I've never seen rocks as inanimate, inanimate. And so my childhood play where I fell in love with rocks and soil. 

And then I studied soil science and geology at for my degree. I think I've always experienced the world as alive, inanimate. And as a counter, could go on for a long time with this answer, as a counter to what you were saying, I totally agree what you're saying about this, the Western scientific paradigm, or the ring, subjects and object. But I studied soil chemistry as part of my soil science degree. And that taught me just how interrelated everything was, and how I live and interact with everything was. 

So actually my science education gave me the worldview that can that can see atoms and molecules moving around. And knowing that everything is in constant exchange, everything is dynamic, everything is vibrant and alive. And that's now I'm really reaping the rewards for that. Because now I can really feel the aliveness of the trees and plants and so on in my garden, not just the birds and things that we would call the life but all the other things like water, what is so obviously alive, isn't it. But what a what a sad situation we have that we see water is just a resource to be used by us. And as we know, at the moment to be heavily polluted by us, abused by us.

So that's what this is why it's so desperate, isn't it to change the paradigm to see saltwater as something beautiful and lovely and special and important to us. Not just important to the planet but important to me personally. And playing with otter. So in my work now, I asked I offered practitioners lots of opportunity to play with water, just them and water and just actually go back to that feeling of just how gorgeous this material is. How it makes you feel how it strokes you when it you know when you put your hands under a tap the water strokes you it caresses you. And it's beautiful the way it catches the light the way it behaves. I was watching little stream the other day in a woodland and all the patterns and movements. just thrilling. Absolutely awesome. So that's what I do love. I'd love to be able to give children a childhood that led to those kinds of capacities. And surely, you need to feel like that in order to really want to look after it.

Marina Robb  

I love that the way you said my play partner. I loved you because it felt It's felt in my life so much how. And I probably say this again, as we do these shows that, you know, I can often feel a cabin fever inside. And I can often feel humans are quite tricky. So this feeling about going outdoors and feeling that there is other relationships out there that can meet my needs. And yes, that could be through play growing up, but it can also be through something other, that isn't human is is very profound. And like you, we really, really feel that it's a child's right to have these experiences. It's a human right to have these experiences. And alongside that, you know, we are we are as you as it was, we're very, we're very well aware, you know, going to be meeting increasing challenges and, and within pollution and climate, all this stuff happening. 

But the last 10 minutes, particularly of you speaking really reminds me of having that as well, having those very special relational moments that actually feel they feel that they have love in it, they feel they have joy in it, they feel they have soothing in that feels they have all sorts of qualities that are also very important, aren't they to have, and this is this is why we were talking about either or, and I loved as well that you said, you know, thank God, you had the scientific training as well that could give you a perception into a world that was infinitely enmeshed as well. That's wonderful. And yet, we also know that we, if we can give this to children and young people, well, then they don't have it's harder to learn when you're older, isn't it? I mean, it just is if you have it growing up, it's easier. 

Jan White  

So the thing is, you can plant the seeds at least Yeah, exactly. I think one of the things that we so urgently need to work on is making sure that at least the seeds are there. Yes. Yeah. I suspect if they're not sown in childhood, how difficult then they would be to find later on. Although we do know, I mean, all of the work that's done on nature therapy now that taking troubled young people and adults into a, a situation where nature can interact with them in the way it's able to, you know, we know how much work that can do. Yeah, but as in all therapeutic processes. It's so much more effective when it happens in the very formative, foundational, we call it the foundation stage in England, in the our curriculum is called the foundation stage. And I think what we should be really looking at very carefully is what is that foundation and that, you know, we've now got the HA the thing that needs Nadeem, so hallway bought in after the cup 26, which I won't be able to help you at that moment.

Jan White  

So there's a strategy for schools around sustainable education, education, sustainability, that was brought in. It's sort of a quick response to the cop that was held that the Conference of the Parties that was held in Glasgow last year. So we have this sort of education wide strategy that's supposedly going to teach children about sustainability and climate change, and so on.

Marina Robb  

Yeah, I thought it was the climate change strategy, which felt very instrumental rather than relational. But yes, do you say yeah,

Jan White  

that's what I'm referring to climate change strategy. But I think it's more than climate change. I think it was supposed to be about sustainability, education as well. But how can you need the seeds to have been grown earlier on for that to actually take hold and be able to really be used. And if you wait till later, it is like learning another language referred to French earlier on, you know, we have this tradition of teaching children French once the sort of language acquisition period is pretty much finished. 

So then we try and learn French in a very deconstructed way. And not very authentic, meaningful way either. Because unless you've lived in France, you don't really have a drive to be able to speak that language. But you know, children acquire language in early childhood because we are designed to learn language. And we have a really strong ability to learn language in early childhood. So you try and do it later. It's very much harder to do and by say, all the sort of therapeutic work that is done with adults, it's very obvious that you feel younger and younger and younger that you can do more work more quickly, you can help people better. 

And so these early years are so very foundational. Yes, they are doing the right thing. So earlier on, in one of your questions, you were sort of saying Is there a loss when we focus on the sort of formal curriculum, and that there is a loss in that it's not so there is the problem that children are being asked to learn stuff that they're not motivated to learn. And that sort of will breaking domestication process. But the other is, you're taking up time, headspace, brain development, Brain Body development, neurological development, that should be directed at the things that are supposed to be being worked on. And going back to my original thing is that's why I trust childhood, that, I believe that it's been very well crafted through and very long period of time. 

To pay attention to what matters at that time. I have a book called Life wired, by David Eagleman, which is about the brain about the plasticity of the brain. And he starts the book by saying the brain is a self-constructing system. The only argument I'd say is it's Brain Body, it's not brain by itself, it's the brain body system. But that the brain reaches out into the world and invites it to shape itself. Suppose through interaction with the world, the brain grows itself in interaction with the world. But he says you can't pay attention to absolutely everything, the brain has to pay attention to what's actually important, what matters at this moment. 

So I trust children's inner motivations. Because it's been crafted over millions, millions of years, really, but you know, certainly hundreds of 1000s of years, to pay attention to what matters at that time. And so our task really is to work out what those things are upon observing and thinking, and then make sure those things can happen. And only one of those things is this relationship, this very profound attachment and comfort with being in the world. And therefore the ability to have to be looked after by that world.

Marina Robb  

Hmm. Gosh, thank you so much. I feel there's just one or two more things that you've spoken to me about is this idea of protecting the final frontier. And I just wonder, first, what you mean by that, but also, you know, are there one or two things that we government's parents, whoever you choose to tell me about, could do to protect this final frontier? And what is it? What is this final frontier?

Jan White  

The final frontier that I'm referring to here is outdoor play. Early Childhood outdoor play specifically. But you know, I believe that all children have a right to play, and have a right to be outdoors and have a right to play in the outdoors. It's certainly for me and my childhood. outdoor play was the formative process. It was the thing I got a lot of outside school especially. And so the frontier is, is that over my educational, my career in education as an educator, which spans 30 years, I've experienced a lot of change in secondary education, then primary education, and then early years education. 

That's been my journey. And each time I've been in those phases, there's been sort of significant change has happened. So when I was in secondary, the GCSEs came in, when I was a primary teacher, the national curriculum came in. And then while I've been in early years, which is 20 years, I've seen a lot of change in terms of the formal structures and policies, expectations, demands and so on that the educational services for those age group are expected to do an awful lot of it is in the last decade has been extremely regressive. 

So I have an anxiety that as we start to understand the outdoors as a learning environment, which did this is my whole career in early years has been to help people understand that the outdoors is a much stronger learning environment than the indoors can ever be. Certainly been my own experience and it's you know, I deeply believe that that the outdoors is a phenomenally strong learning environment. Again, crafted through our evolution, we learn Did you know we lived outdoors, and therefore that's the learning environment that has worked for us. We're designed to work in that environment.

So as we grasp the idea that the outdoors is a place for learning, there's a real danger that it just becomes an indoor paradigm taken out. Right? So it used to be called when I started out, it was called outdoor play. We all we all talked about outdoor play, and then the term outdoor learning came in. And whilst that might have helped people understand it as a place for learning, instead of playtime, you know, 15 minutes running off steam, we've come to understand that the outdoors is a place for learning. Or we learned it actually, because it was known 100 years ago, the original nursery schools understood it. But the Yeah, so as we start to use work with the outdoors, as a learning environment. So noted, I had to change my language there because I try not to say use the outdoors.

Marina Robb  

Yeah, so I understand. Yeah, yeah.

Jan White  

My fear is that the outdoors, becomes school-ified becomes a place where the external adult derived agenda gets imposed upon children. And that, given how important their own learning through play is, if we could really understand just what play is, and why it matters so much that we have to protect this, it feels like what's been happening recently is that the indoors has been influenced by the adult agenda more than it should, once a lot more than it should, that the outdoors is that final place where children are co leaders in their educational journey, where there's a balance of power between adults and children. 

And where the chill Child's Own will is still very strongly respected and understood and worked with. So that's the protective bit is I feel like the final bit is to sort of outdoor play. Yeah, as as learning through play, as a very powerful for place for children to become young become, be and become that that's the place we've got to protect, because it matters so much that children have those experiences. But it feels like the boundary has been sort of pushing across, coming down through education. And now as arrived in the early years is arriving, and that needs resisting. And the place of ultimate resistance is the outdoors. Because wouldn't it be a disaster, if in adopting the term outdoor learning, we lost what the outdoors actually brings? Provides for children? You could say the same with the term Forest School. It was useful using the term school but you know, look, what, how that has its journey. 

And has that was that a mistake to call it school? I have always felt it's a mistake to call it outdoor learning, let's just keep to play, but understand what play is instead of play being such a low status thing now.

Marina Robb  

So, you know, that's why we need in my view, people like you that have given so many years to your life thinking about this and allow people like me and other people to think about it and to really, you know, get to reflect and question what we've been told and revisit things that we thought were right or and you know, and learn because hey, we're all on a learning journey. But I would like to know that if people wanted to find out more about just how important outdoor play is. I know that you have a website. I mean, all this information will definitely be on the show notes anyway. But am I right that they could go to is it the is it what was the name of your organisation early childhood outdoors?

Jan White  

Right? There's two sources that I could mention this there's early childhood outdoors, which is, as a website has over 100 blogs from a huge diversity of people that explore various aspects of being outdoors in early childhood, and early childhood outdoors does exist to join everybody up who has a passion in this area to help them meet each other spark from each other and collaborate. But the the Express thing I would suggest is that if anybody wants to sort of look further about how to develop their understanding of working with the outdoors in early childhood, and develop their pedagogy, for working outdoors, ie, their practices for teaching and learning, and to develop their actual outdoor provision, then we have the perfect answer in the qualification that we've launched in the last year, called the certificate in outdoor practice, which is a level 315 credit qualification with OCN. 

So it's a very similar size to the forest school level three leader, but it focuses on early years, and it focuses on sight, everyday play in an earliest setting. That'd be, so it's a good companion. It's a contrast, but it's a companion as well to forest core training, which, which focuses very much it also focuses very strongly on child development as opposed to curriculum, but does help people work with their curriculum helps people work out how the curriculum can work in the outdoors, by focusing on all the stuff I've been talking about today,

Marina Robb  

And where did they find out about that? Where would they go to find out about the certificate?

Jan White  

Well, that they need to go to outdoorsthinking.co.uk Okay, great outdoors with an s.co.uk. And that website describes in great detail, the content of the course how it works, what we're about the people who've put it together, it's a collaborative of passionate trainers, with a huge amount of experience. And there are also current courses and a mechanism for booking and how to find out, you know, email to contact for more information kind of thing.

Marina Robb  

Absolutely, I will, as I said, I'll put everything on the show notes. And I really encourage everyone to go there and have a look. Now we didn't start with gratitude. We always do and I forgot. So if you would mind, I would love us just to just take a moment. Maybe take a deep breath, because what a lot of fabulous information and also heartfelt thinking with the heart, I would say in the last hour. So while I'm, I'm going to just say a little bit of gratitude to all the practitioners that are out there that are actually taking a risk, actually, and really dropping in to something that they feel is meaningful, and maybe that was in their life or meaningful for children and just taking those children out of store. So I just want to give gratitude to those people that are part of this community that is evolving. How about you, Jen? Let's finish with that.

Jan White  

I'm gonna go to the ones that I thought of at the beginning, which can I have to, you can always have eternally grateful to dandelions, always. And it's particularly important at the moment because we are completely surrounded by them, aren't we? I live in Sheffield. I live in Sheffield, and they've decided not to cut the verges. So we have trillions. Trillions of dandelions around us at the moment, turned into clocks now. I do hope the populace understands and goes with it because I'm just bathing in it. But the other thing is just outside my window. I have a laburnum tree that's grown from nothing. I didn't put it there, but it's grown. And it's just coming into flower. And the winds blowing it and all the you know the dangly receives. It's a bit like Wisteria, but it's yellow. It's a beautiful yellow, and it's all blowing in the wind and being so vibrant. And every day I look at that tree. And again, it looks after me.

Marina Robb  

Thank you so much for joining me and I look forward to catching up with you another time. Thank you, Professor Jan White. Thank you. Thanks again for speaking to me Jan. To stay updated with the wild minds podcast and get all the behind-the-scenes content, including show notes and links to Jan's work and websites. You can visit the outdoorteacher.com or follow me on Facebook at the outdoor teacher UK and LinkedIn Marina Rob. Join me next week for episode 14 when I discuss nature connection, deep nature connection and my ideas about the importance of attachment to place. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of The Wild minds podcast. If you enjoyed it and want to help support this podcast, please subscribe, share and leave a rating and review wherever you get your All podcasts. Your review will help others find the show. 

The music was written and performed by Geoff Robb. See you next week. Same time, same place.