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  • lizdarley

Outdoor playgroup


I would like to take my daughter into the woods/nature with some other young children on a regular basis (at least once/week) for free play in my local area.

This design began in Oct 2014 (although had been an idea prior to that), I intend to implement this project in August/September 2015.


About groups playing in nature

  1. It goes without saying that I get why and how important it is for Teasel to be outside in nature (and for me too).

  2. Through research I know of the following groups that offer children’s outdoor play in the area:

  3. Nature Play Richmond Park – self organised, free group for parents with toddlers, a small gentle walk followed by picnic and free play in the park. This is great, I love attending, but I drive or take a long bus journey to get there, logistically it is not ideal.

  4. Forest School on Wimbledon Common – paid activity (£10/session) I attended 4 sessions, led group of toddlers walking in the woods, woodland activities. This is good, not as much free play time as I would like, too much adult intervention resulting from it being led by an expert and parents not all understanding when and how they can and should stand back, some of the activities have been good.  It is expensive and also a drive away.

  5. Natural Childhood in Streatham – have researched but never attended (it’s too far away).  Weekly child led play in a local park

  6. There is nothing in the local area that I could walk/cycle to or get to on a short bus ride

  7. Nurture in Nature – I heard a talk from a permie person about a playgroup in Glasgow called Nurture in Nature, the premise was similar to Nature Play, the difference was that there was no compulsory walk and the group met at a different park each week.

About me

  1. I take Teasel out most days, but we are more likely to spend longer and have more fun if there are others with us. I like to take her where there are other kids sometimes and they are more likely to be in playgrounds than out and about in the park

  2. I will go to Nature Play whatever the weather, if the weather is poor and it’s just me I won’t always take Teasel out.

  3. It’s easy for a few days of the week to pass without nature time because of other activities and general busyness

  4. I enjoy regularly returning to the same woodland location and being there as the seasons change. I also enjoy discovering new places.

About toddlers locally

  1. There are LOTS of mums locally with many and varied interests (as witnessed at a recent ‘meet more mums’ event and just from living here). It is likely that there will be some who are interested in their children playing in nature in the way that I am.



  1. I would like the physical boundaries of this design to be within cycle/simple bus distance of my house.


  1. I would like to have a playgroup set up and running in the autumn.  There is a time challenge with the summer holidays (meaning that I am not available in July and early August), so aim to implement in September.


  1. My knowledge of forest schools (a little, would love to learn more); knowledge gained from volunteering for about 6 sessions with 3-5 year olds a couple of years ago, talking to a good friend Ruth who ran a forest school, attending 4 sessions on Wimbledon Common with Teasel

  2. Local nature spaces: parks, nature reserves, the river Thames, cemeteries

  3. My enthusiasm and passion for being outside with kids

  4. My ability to set up a website

  5. Friend who is a graphic designer who offered to design some marketing materials


I did an input output analysis of what a successful outdoor playgroup should be like.  This helped to identify functions, elements and yields.

Input output analysis

Input output analysis

Identify Functions

  1. Group and group culture

  2. Play in nature – child nature time

  3. Adult nature time

Identify systems and elements

Elements of this design are

  1. Me with two roles; parent and organiser

  2. Teasel

  3. Other children

  4. Other parents

  5. Other organisers

  6. Means of communication i.e. website/facebook

  7. Local parks

  8. Logistics (where/when)

I drew a web of connections (shown below) looking at these elements, this helped me to identify yields (in red) that could be achieved if I could link the elements to form a system, this tool reinforced my input output analysis in terms of yields.

Web of connections - yeilds in red

Web of connections

Potential yields (yield of a system is theoretically unlimited) identified through the web of connections and i-o analysis.

  1. Friendships (adults and children)

  2. Learn, experience and share parenting approaches

  3. Find new and interesting green spaces

  4. Older and younger children playing together

  5. Make me take Teasel out even on wet cold days

  6. I could learn more/new/different forest school type activities

I then tied together potential yields and functions and mapped them against the elements, this helped to demonstrate how most of my functions and yields are mapped with the adults and children of the group, which is as it should be for this to work successfully.

Map of elements and functions/yields

Map of elements and functions/yields

Through this brainstorming of functions and elements, I think I have a number of systems that could meet the brief:

  1. Carry on taking Teasel to the park by myself, and just go to Nature Play in Richmond

  2. Talk to existing friends and start a regular group among people I know.

  3. Start a group and publicise more widely than my own personal network.  As I have noted in my observations there are many different models that I could base this option on (Nature Play, Nurture in Nature, Forest School being the ones I know) .

I decided to do a little wild design/ideas brainstorm at this stage to see if there were any other systems I hadn’t yet thought of as shown in the following plan.  Whilst this didn’t yield any new systems it did give me a couple of potential ideas to incorporate into system 2 or 3 (crafts, day trips and singing).

Wild design ideas

Wild design ideas

To begin with I took my three possible systems and looked at a SWOC analysis for each.StrengthsWeaknessesOpportunitiesConstraints1I can be flexible on when and where I goI don’t achieve the goal of Teasel playing with other children.Going to Richmond is still to farI could invite friends along when I do go rather than going on my ownI worry that with the next baby getting to Richmond Park is going to be really hard, so it would be good to have something more local2Would achieve my goal of Teasel playing in nature with others, and all the yields outlined above.I have sort of already tested this option in Nov/Dec 2014 when I met a couple of mum’s at Nature Play in Richmond Park and tried to set up a more local regular meet up, it didn’t continue because there were too few people involved (just 3) and the location we chose was still a drive away and not logistically brilliant for me.   I therefore need to reach a wider group of mums.Using existing networks would likely draw others inI don’t know that many people.3Would achieve my goal of Teasel playing in nature with others, and all the yields outlined above.I would feel like I have to go every week, which could become a burden.It will take time for me to organise it.I am not very good at marketing and publicity.I could set up a ‘Nature Play’ group as there is a sort of mini brand associated with this.There is an opportunity to discover more local places and parks that I don’t know about yet.Other people might step forward to get involved – suggesting new play spaces, helping to organise (I don’t know until I try).I feel like there isn’t an obvious local place (in the manner of Richmond Park or Wimbledon Common which are amazing natural spaces).  The local parks feel a bit nature-less sometimes.If I set something up I worry that I won’t be able to keep it going once the next baby arrives.

Having worked through a SWOC analysis of the options it feels like option 3 is the way forward as it is more likely to be successful than option 2, option 1 will not achieve my goal.  There are a number of constraints around this option which I need to look at in more detail, there are also a number of different ways to design option 3.


At this stage I considered the ethics to help to develop the design further:

Earth Care

  1. Allow kids and adults to enjoy nature, to appreciate our local parks and hopefully to grow up aware of the need for earth care

  2. Make locations public transport accessible to reduce emissions of people travelling (also local parks people tend to walk to which is good!)

People Care

  1. Make sure the kids and adults are looked after – be clear about dressing appropriately, food, sleep, leaving when you need to

  2. I don’t want this to be my group, I don’t want to be the ‘leader’, I just want to be a co-ordinator of logistics, there should be no ‘leader’

  3. Make sure that communications are clear, people know where and when to meet and can easily find the group if there is a problem.

  4. Start on time – but allow provision for latecomers

  5. Session should be appropriate to the age group, two hours tends to work for other similar groups use this to start with but make it open ended and flexible for people to leave when they need to

Fair shares

  1. Needs to be free so anyone can join

  2. Need to be able to get to the location by public transport easily and potential for car parking to make it accessible to all

  3. No toys – so that kids can just play in nature, but also so that there isn’t jealousy and desires to play with toys created all the kids are on a level playing field

There are 2 key questions to enable the design to progress, what is the format of the playgroup and where does it take place?  I looked at a PMI of each of these questions to help with the decision making process.

What is the format?

I know of three successful formats;

  1. Nature Play (or Natural Childhood); meet at the same location each week allow children to play.  Nature Play includes an obligatory short walk, natural childhood doesn’t

  2. Nurture in Nature; meet at different local parks each week allow children to play

  3. Forest School; a led activity (usually paid for) with a few more props/activities provided than the two above but (done properly) these should enhance children’s play, sometimes but not always in a very clearly defined space in the woods

PMI of three formats

PMI of three formats

Having done the PMI analysis I can see that there are elements of each of these formats that would be good to include in my playgroup design including ritual, activities (sometimes but not all the time) and I am drawn to holding the group in the same location each week rather than a different one, but I am reserved about this as there is not an obvious local park.

During the observation phase of my design I considered and ruled out training as a forest school leader and set myself up as a forest school provider.  I ruled it out because I don’t have time to do the training right now, I also would be concerned (as mentioned in my ethics analysis) that it would become ‘my’ group and would burden me with planning and organising in a way that I don’t currently have time for.  It feels like FS is a paid activity, I would have to be careful about offering it for free not to undermine the work of other providers, or I would perhaps like to charge but this would not be in line with this design.  I would still love to train as a forest school leader as and when I have the time to do it, and potentially to offer forest school as a free activity – this is for a future design!

So on to the next question

Where could it take place?

I identified all of the local parks that I know of that might be possible and again looked at a PMI of each of them in turn as venues for an outdoor playgroup.

PMI of local parks

PMI of local parks

The analysis confirms my gut instinct that there isn’t an obvious choice, which leads me to think that a Nurture in Nature model rotating around local spaces might be better to start with until I have observed how children engage with each of the spaces.

I don’t feel like I am getting towards design answers yet so I need to consider some more design tools to see if they can help.


I looked at how patterns can influence this design in the following chart:

Patterns analysis

Patterns analysis

This raised some interesting points:

  1. Spiral (it will start small and grow, ideally in a spiral of growth). I need to communicate more with the Nature Play organisers, how did they do it, how did they start?

  2. Scatter – the lack of decent local park which I see as a constraint perhaps has a benefit as adopting a scatter approach to visiting different local parks each week could draw in more people to the group who will be able to attend at their local park.

  3. Wave – the ebb and flow of energy, led me to think of food and snack time and the joy of sharing snacks at Nature Play, this is an important part of the group and helps to hold it together, therefore shared snack time needs to be included.


I looked at the principles and considered how different principles apply to the design.

  1. Using biologcal resources:

  2. No toys, only play with stuff in the woods – I will need some rules/guidelines for the website (e.g. free, no toys, what to wear)

  3. Use and value diversity:

  4. Where I do promotion is important as I want to attract and encourage a diverse range of kids/parents; it is pretty  white middle class around here

  5. Integrate rather than segregate

  6. I want to try and get different aged kids involved – so perhaps need to consider what time of day is best.  Toddler activities are good in the morning, but to get older siblings to come would need to be afternoons.  Having said that to get toddlers in the first place mornings tend to be the best time, and toddlers covers a broad age range babies up to school age.

  7. This activity is about adults and children integrating together to achieve the benefits of nature time

  8. Observe and interact:

  9. this is fundamental to allowing child led free play to happen, need to make this clear and allow it to happen.

  10. I have to start something and observe how it goes before the design is ever fully finished

  11. Catch and store energy

  12. It needs to be free with as few barriers as possible so that we can catch the energy of anyone who is interested

  13. Apply self regulation and accept feedback

  14. I will need to monitor and adapt the system as the group evolves and allow for flexibility

  15. Stacking

  16. This playgroup will allow me to stack nature time, play time and making friends in the one activity

As a result of this work I have been able to clarify the design

  1. Where does it happen?  I will adopt a rotating park approach for the first month and then observe how that works and decide at that point whether or not to make it fixed.  We will start at Fishponds as this is one of the better choices.  I will make a schedule for the first month to be included in the publicity materials

  2. What happens during the session? just arrive and let play happen; adults can find somewhere to sit in the summer and move and walk or sit in the winter weather dependent, hold a group snack time.  I will take some forest school ideas that I like and test them out occasionally with the group

  3. How long is the session? 2 hours but open ended

  4. When is the session? mornings seem to work best for people – Friday’s work for me; 10am on Fridays

  5. How do I communicate about it? Set up a facebook page, link to other local groups (e.g. meet more mums, yourtot),  make posters for the local parks and possibly for the library

  6. How do I set a group culture?  Rules/guidelines on the website (look at again/use the Nature Play guidelines), allow free play to happen


The design work has enabled me to clarify what I am going to do.  I am going to start this outdoor playgroup in September, as many people (including myself) will be away in July/August.  This gives me time to publicise and promote the group before it starts.  My implementation plan is as follows:

  1. Make a poster (ask Cara to help with this) and facebook group. By 1 August

  2. Set a start date (Friday 2 September)

  3. Promote and publicise throughout August. Primarily on websites; meet more mums facebook, netmums, yourtot.  Also take the poster to surbiton, kingston and tolworth library to Gymboree, sunbeams, tiny talk, tiny tunes, on the poster boards at the parks.

  4. Gather my forest school ideas and equipment together to take along (small and simple)

  5. Attend on the first session!


The maintenance plan is as follows

  1. If no one comes after a few sessions – review the marketing, do more/different promotion, don’t expect people to turn up in poor weather

  2. Review which bits do and don’t work – ask the members of the group don’t just assume I know the answers to this question

  3. Perhaps narrow the locations down to a couple or even one if there seems to be a favourite

  4. Keep the communication on facebook regular and updated

  5. Keep reading and learning about nature and forest school type activities



  1. This has been a really useful process to allow me to clarify my thoughts about the type of outdoor play group that I would like to attend with Teasel. Going through the process at times seems laborious but it does reap benefits in terms of new ideas and insights that wouldn’t be gained unless the process was followed.

  2. I’m pleased to have looked at patterns again, I find it interesting to consider a problem from a patterns perspective it really opens up new ways of thinking.

  3. Having not implemented the design has enabled me to be much clearer in this design (than in some of my previous) about what my implementation plan actually is – this is a good thing!


  1. It is harder to evaluate a design that has not been implemented yet.

  2. There is a huge amount of uncertainty for me about whether or not anyone would actually come and therefore if the design is effective


  1. If I had actually implemented this design I think that I may not have presented all of the design tools that I have used, I feel like I’ve used loads but because I haven’t implemented it I haven’t finished the story.  On some of my previous design work where it has been implemented I have not presented all of the design tools used as they were no longer relevant as bits fell out through the implementation and return around the design cycle.  Having said that this will be a continually unfolding design, because it will constantly be reviewed and tweaked as people come into and out of the group.


These are my estimations for the implementation costs of this project

£25 – printing posters

Time estimations:

Marketing and publicity; 2 hours poster, 5 hours website + facebook + online promotion, 0.5hr/week updating facebook

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