Every Friday in The MERL’s garden during term time, we’re joined by families and caregivers with children under the age of five for our weekly sessions of Friday Fledglings.
The sessions are planned and delivered by Charlotte Allchin, a passionate local teacher and Level 3 Forest Leader, with help from The MERL’s staff and volunteers.
Ahead of the start of the new Fledglings year this Friday, we sat down with Charlotte to talk all about Friday Fledglings. Below, read highlights from our conversation, and find out what Friday Fledglings involves. Hear about the joy of outdoor learning, the creative projects the Fledglings have recently taken part in, and how play and storytelling offers a way for addressing complex and important topics that children can understand.
What is Friday Fledglings?
Friday Fledglings revolves around outdoor learning inspired by the themes of the museum’s collections.
The home for the sessions is The MERL’s garden. The Fledglings enjoy the same choice of activities each week, with seasonal and topical additions introduced in each session. This continuity provides security for the children and their caregivers, and allows a large space–in the eyes of a child–to be safe and predictable, as well as filled with excitement, adventure, and creativity! We usually have around fifty families joining us at each session, but we have limited this number to be a bit less at the moment due to COVID-19 safety precautions.
This link between the indoor and outdoor environment at the museum feels seamless to visitors. Fledgling families will often stay outside in the garden for the duration of the session, and sometimes long into the afternoon, bringing a picnic with them or buying lunch from the café. But the children know the galleries very well. Many have favourite parts in each space.
Friday Fledglings has always used natural materials for their crafts as much as possible and we constantly challenge ourselves to share ideas for sustainable living with the families. Resources are carefully chosen for functionality, and with the view that they will be used in as many ways as possible.
What have the Fledglings been involved with recently?
In the second half of last year, the Fledglings were invited to make their own unique contribution to The MERL’s 51 Voices project, marking the museum’s 70th anniversary.
Through our involvement, we asked the Fledglings to explore the cover of a book by Vita Sackville-West held in The MERL library, In Your Garden (MERL LIBRARY–4756-SAC), and use this beautiful design as inspiration to imagine what Sackville-West might do if she were designing and writing about a garden for 2021.
In fact, this wasn’t the first time that Sackville-West has provided inspiration to The MERL garden and its visitors. In fact, ten years ago, for The MERL’s 60th, the gardening team planted a display inspired by Sackville-West’s famous Sissinghurst White Garden.
Meanwhile, in November, Takeover Day 2021 was themed for the first time to coincide with COP26 in Glasgow. We used our Takeover Day participation as an opportunity to encourage our Fledglings to think about the role that gardens and gardening have in creating and maintaining natural habitats.
The children were invited to join in with some special activities, like creating simple bird feeders. This helps the Fledglings develop their fine motor skills, and provides them with a gift which they could either leave for the many birds in the museum garden or take home for their own outdoor space. The Fledglings make a variety of different feeders during the colder months of the year, as well as leaving out material that birds can collect for nesting.
Children are natural gardeners, and we encouraged the Fledglings to plant some flower and garlic bulbs in their own dedicated raised bed. Having this amenity enables them to leave a mark on the garden, enhance the enjoyment of other visitors (both people and animals), and often gives them a harvest that they can share and take home. Fledgling families often tell each other about how the produce they harvested was cooked, and what was particularly delicious.
How do you communicate complex ideas to families and young children?
Towards the end of every session, we have a snack, story and singsong. All of our stories link to the weekly themes and revolve around our character, Little Mouse. This activity lets us bring together the themes of the week, and explain some of the wider messages of the session in terms that the children can understand, all whilst providing a valuable connection point for families, volunteers, and staff alike.
In the case of Vita Sackville-West, for instance, whilst the children might be too young to appreciate the challenges of being a woman unable to inherit her ancestral home, they are able to understand that everyone is important and deserves to have a part and voice in decision-making and action for the future. They are able to empathise with Vita’s love of gardening and her role as a designer, steward and champion for the green spaces that she cared for and left for future generations.
We have treasured these weekly meetings more than ever before since the pandemic began, as it has caused us to become so cautious about participating in these things that truly make us part of a community: the sharing of food, the opportunity to sit alongside and talk with another individual that is experiencing many of the same life struggles or joys as ourselves, and the chance to have a shared experience based around the awe of being in a natural space.
Over the last five years, the session has gone from strength to strength, and after the break enforced by COVID-19, we have been thrilled to be back with our Fledglings, their families and caregivers, at home in our garden once more.
If you are a parent or caregiver living in Reading with a young child, consider joining us at Friday Fledglings! Book your place online each week through our What’s On.