Imagine you are a ground nesting bird, looking for that safe, hidden nook to make your nest and raise your chicks. Would you tuck yourself away in some long grass or reeds, so no one could find you? Would you flee when a predator came, or would you defend your eggs?
Now imagine you’re three or four years old trying to think like a bird, and you’ll have an example of what education can look like at Ynys-hir. Field Teachers Monica Lloyd-Williams and Jenny Dingle work with children and young people of all ages, helping them understand how nature works by getting hands-on experience with plants and animals. When you’re three you might call birds ‘fluffy’ instead of ‘ground nesting’, but having an exciting adventure in the outdoors is the first step towards a deeper knowledge of the natural world.
“I’ve learned that small children are very interested in slugs!” says Jenny, “As adults we might think newts are more exotic, but they don’t care what animal it is as long as they’ve found it themselves.”
Certainly the three and four year-olds that visited in June got very attached to the nests they’d made for their three wooden eggs. One child refused point-blank to leave her nest later in the role-play, when the other kids were roaming around to try to find each other’s nesting spots.
Older children tend to be more cynical or self-conscious about being obviously enthusiastic about the natural world, but being at Ynys-hir can still spark that same excitement. After spending the morning with three- and four-year-olds Wednesday, Monica and Jenny ran an afternoon of activities with a group of 6th formers.
“They were also very exciting about finding the toadlets that have been migrating around the reserve,” Jenny recounts, “and it’s quite interesting to see how similar the 6th formers and the play group responded to a little animal hopping across their path. The teenagers are usually just a little toned down.
“We had a group of 9 and 10-year-olds here a week ago, and they kept exclaiming ‘I’ve got an actual fish!’ or ‘Wow, that’s an actual frog!’ It shows what a difference there is between watching the telly or learning in a classroom and actually being out in nature.
“It’s remarkable how truly universal that fascination is. To us, perhaps, Ynys-hir may not be truly ‘wild’, but to a small child making a nest in a meadow where the buttercups are up to their shoulders, that’s wilderness.”
That universal fascination is at the heart of why Monica and Jenny are so dedicated to teaching at Ynys-hir. All children can get excited about being in nature, but not all children get the chance. Jenny believes this is simply not fair.
“Some kids get taken to wonderful places like Ynys-hir, but there are all these kids whose families aren’t interested, or who the free time or find it difficult to get to these places. So what we really love about school visits is that it’s offering that experience to every child in that school. We’re giving children the space to explore, to look under rocks and dip in the mucky ditch, and to be in a semi-wild place.
"There’s nothing quite like walking alongside a child who says ‘I’ve never been in the woods before!’ and feeling their sense of awe and excitement, or seeing a self-conscious, 'cool' teenager relax and really get in to being out on the reserve."