Nature Tots woodcraft – splitting a disk © Sussex Wildlife Trust

Picture of Sue Curnock by Miles Davies/Sussex Wildlife Trust

PIQUE asks a series of well-known local people to explain what they love most about Sussex. Our first writer is Sue Curnock, from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, on her Nature Tots group…

EACH September, I get a kick out of watching the new recruits at my Nature Tots group getting to grips with the unfamiliar feeling of muddy hands and, horror of horrors, dirty clothes – whether they are 3 or 33. I can’t think of any other job I would rather do than this, there are so many things I just love about it!

One of my stand-out moments was turning round to find the child shouting ‘Yessss!’ as she hit our tree trunk target with her mud bomb was the little girl who had joined us a few months earlier; very shy and a bit unsure about the whole thing. This was a turning point for her and for the way the other children saw her. She soon went on to be one of the ‘leaders’ in the group, aged four, encouraging younger Tots to try new activities and sharing the benefit of her new-found experience.

When I started working with the Nature Tots at Woods Mill nature reserve four years ago, I was completely caught up in the idea of connecting children with nature, in the hope they would grow up to care for their local wildlife and help to protect it. I couldn’t wait to put into practice all the environmental psychology theory I had studied at uni, about the importance of a mentor who shares their love of nature, and helps to light the same spark among the youngsters.

I felt like a cross between Mary Poppins and Chris Packham, and spent every spare minute of my time making up songs about prickly hedgehogs and brushing up on my nature know-how.

Four years on, I have calmed down a tad, and am slightly embarrassed at some of the more ‘weird and wonderful’ activities we tackled, but am still just as enthusiastic about getting children hands-on with mud, dens and bugs, all rounded off with hot chocolate around the campfire. But now I’ve also seen the other side of the coin: While the Tots are learning to love nature, Forest School is working its magic on their physical development, confidence and social skills. It is definitely a two-way street – nature needs people, and people need nature.

Nature Tots climbing over a fallen tree © Sue Curnock / Sussex Wildlife Trust

It’s all about giving them fun and achievable hands-on challenges. Being allowed to get their hands dirty is a new experience for some children, and taking risks is an essential part of growing up. There is mud to fall in, brambles to get scratched on, logs to clamber over and sticks to poke about with. There are also glorious autumn leaves to throw into the air, tractor wheels to be sawn, fire sparkies to strike into dragon sneezes, snowy paw prints to be made and followed on an adventure through the woods.

A Nature Tot with a mud bomb © Sue Curnock / Sussex Wildlife Trust

Making a mud monster or building a shelter – to be enthusiastically tested for weatherproofing with a watering can by one of our volunteers – it all brings the children and their parents closer to the natural world. Making our own smoothies with blackberries collected from the hedgerow, sawing and drilling a winter bird feeder or insect home all give opportunities to learn about our woodland
wildlife and make a connection with it.

So the reason I look forward to Wednesday mornings, whatever the weather, is knowing there is the chance of seeing that spark light up in another child’s eye, perhaps they saw their first toad, or
managed to keep their balance across our Tot-made log bridge over the stream, or just enjoyed getting wet and muddy without worrying about their clothes, but it was an experience I hope they will remember.

Sussex Wildlife Trust has Nature Tots groups at Ardingly, Brighton, Eastbourne, Henfield, Horsham and Rye. If you are interested in volunteering to support one of its Forest School leaders, or bring a child along to the sessions, please visit sussexwildlife trust.org.uk/naturetots.