The Big Park

The “Big Park” and the Lake District

After being asked to write a blog about green spaces I got to thinking about how my enjoyment of green spaces is influenced by how safe I feel in that environment, and as with most of us it goes back to experiences as a child.

I grew up on a deprived housing estate on the east side of Birmingham, living on the top floor of a low-rise block, with my mum and 2 younger brothers.  The only outdoor space was a communal, concrete drying area at the back of the block or the street out the front.  We were given strict instructions by my mum that we were never to go to the “Big Park” without an adult.  The “Big Park” in question was Babbs Mill park, which at the time consisted of an often-vandalised playground surrounded by concrete, some playing fields and an ominous looking lake.  Even when we ventured there with my mum, or friends and their parents, it wasn’t a place that we found particularly attractive, but we could burn off some energy before going back to our flat.

Compare this to a week in the Lake District with the school when I was 10 years old.  I can still remember the five-hour coach journey with 60 other children, every mountain we climbed, the dormitory we stayed in and even the fact we watched Police Academy (the first one!) at the cinema in Keswick on the Wednesday evening.  I loved that holiday, and only years later did I realise that it was provided by Children in Need, and had kick started my relationship with green spaces and nature.

After reliving these memories of outdoor spaces, I started to give some thought to why they had such an impact, and why my mum didn’t think we should go to the local park, but we could travel to another part of the country without her.

It came down to one simple feeling, of being safe.  The local park attracted anti-social behaviour and graffiti, the swings were always thrown over the frame so we couldn’t play on them and even as kids we knew to stay clear of anyone that looked suspicious.  Whereas the Lake District was beautiful, with lots of greenery and fresh air, and even though we were often miles from anywhere there was never a fear of us coming to any harm.

Roll forward 35 years, and I love green spaces particularly as we move from Autumn into Winter and all the bright colours disappear to be replaced by bare trees waiting for the warmth of Spring.  I get out for a walk every single day for my physical and mental wellbeing, and we’re lucky to have woodlands at the back of our house, so we get lots of wildlife in the garden.  However, I still sometimes get drawn back to those childhood feelings, and even as an adult, won’t venture anywhere where I feel unsafe.

As part of my role I have the privilege of working with housing tenants across the city, and a common theme for many of them is again having a safe space for their children to play.  I’m excited about all the collaborative projects happening across Birmingham, and being able to build on these partnerships, to establish community gardens for residents will be a fantastic achievement. 

For me personally we’re not just giving people the opportunity to enjoy and explore green spaces and parks we’re helping them to create memories.

Louise Fletcher

Senior Service Manager – Tenant Engagement, BCC Housing Management

“I could stay here forever”

Mentoring in Green Spaces – Reflections from a Mentor 

I’ve been a Health Mentor with Evolve for over a year, and I love the holistic view that we take of children’s health. We include not just physical health, but mental and emotional wellbeing too. One of the most important aspects of physical and mental health, for me, has always been spending time outside in nature.  

I grew up on the Malvern Hills, so my childhood memories include wading through streams, building rope swings, rolling down slopes and looking out over the huge expanse of Worcestershire from the top of my own magical mountains. 

Not every child is so lucky, and some children will barely go into a green space at all. I was really keen to get involved with the Future Parks project recently, to engage children and families with the many green spaces that are all around us in industrial Birmingham. 

My first introduction to mentoring outside was a visit to Cofton Park, which is just down the road from me. I had never been there before, only driven past. The tree nursery, pine woodland and lush open fields definitely opened my eyes to this lovely, surprisingly large park. I was led round by two park rangers, who helped me with the important details such as risk assessments and conducting pre-visits to a site before starting a mentoring session. 

Being on the South side of the city, I had never been to Sutton Park, which was where I decided to conduct my first outdoor mentoring session. Following the rangers’ advice, I contacted the Sutton Park rangers to take a tour of the park and conduct a risk assessment. To say I was blown away would be an understatement – everything was fantastically beautiful at the turn of Autumn, with so many habitats and so much wildlife to discover. 

My mentee loves horses, so I identified the best spot for finding the Exmoor ponies with the help of the ranger. He told me their history and highlighted the complicated relationship between animals and conservation, especially when animals like the Exmoor pony are introduced or re-introduced into an area. It was fascinating to hear about how the park is managed, how much work goes into it and how varied the ranger’s role is. 

Next, it was time to finally take my mentee out into a green space for the first time. They showed me the best way to the park, being local, and I let them navigate. We got lost in a muddy bog, took some new paths together and talked about everything, from life goals to Christmas plans. I felt like they were more chatty than usual, probably relaxed by walking alongside instead of sitting opposite me.  

Sadly, we didn’t see any ponies that day. We watched the tufted ducks diving in the lake, and admired the swans. Strangely twisted trees caught my mentee’s eye, and we took pictures. I showed them the fluffy insides of certain grasses, just like my grandfather had shown me. We were both calm, peaceful and spoke freely under the wide, grey sky. At one point, my mentee said, ‘I could stay here forever.’ 

Walking back, we talked about what plants we had seen, how some were edible, which led on to a conversation about their diet. We agreed how tired we were walking back up the hill, which sparked some ideas for exercise – in fact, we had done over 11,000 steps!  

Overall, this was a wonderful new way to engage with my mentee, learn more about Birmingham’s green spaces and reconnect with my own love for nature.  

Ellie Wilde, Health Mentor at Evolve: a Social Impact Company

looking up more

Sophie Hislam

Public Open Space Innovator – Jobs and Skills

Nature is our biggest ally and our greatest inspiration.

Sir David Attenborough

Since starting my role with FPA back in April 2020 I have found myself looking up more – not only looking up on walks to enjoy the surrounding but using the internet to look up what plants grow when, why trees turn orange and yellow in the autumn and how to grown your own fruit and vegetables (the novice guide).

With a maiden name of Green it’s no wonder my dad and grandma are such avid gardeners, during my teenage years, I would spend a lot of time watching both dad and grandma in the garden, planting, watering and weeding however at the time nothing was more important to me than sunbathing or “revising” outside….but now I’m older and have  a garden of my own – I find myself regularly asking them both for advice on what to plant when, where to plant certain plants and how to best look after them. I am lucky enough to have had my own garden for a year now and I am super chuffed that I have been able to grown my own basil, chives, tomatoes, cucumbers, chilli’s. I’m hoping for courgettes and purple potatoes next year!

I’ve been working from home since 18th March and with the other half continuing to work as normal, being home alone has meant the buzz I get from regularly seeing people has been sorely missed and I now find myself singing along to the radio in between Zoom, Teams and Skype calls. Before on lunch breaks it was a scroll through the phone but now I go for walk around the local park and regularly pass the same dog walkers. It’s great to know that the park isn’t just used a pass through as part of a commute or a stop off in the playground after school, but used by all ages in the middle of the day whatever the weather. I’ve always enjoyed being outside, enjoying the fresh air, as a way of relaxing but since lockdown being outside is so much more – a place to socialise, relax, exercise and appreciate all of the beautiful thing’s nature gives us.  

If you’d asked me 10 years ago where I’d be working now, I certainly wouldn’t have thought it would be as part of the FPA team. However, I consider myself so lucky to be working on this fantastic project, supporting the initiatives and really bringing the green sector alive to those that are yet to explore what it has to offer. During the summer I met with the Community Environmental Trust to meet the young people that are actively involved with their local green space and I was blown away by how passionately and enthusiastically they were talking about the green space. It has been fantastic, to talk with so many people working in the green sector and understand why they love green spaces but also why they love their jobs – I never knew how vast the green sector was, along with all of the different jobs involved. I’ve found the green roofing work fascinating and I’m sure there are still plenty for me to learn about.  

Through the Skills Showcase – we really have an opportunity for education establishments, training provides and businesses to come together and help plant the seed for those young people considering the green sector as a career choice. So let’s use nature as a our ally and use it to inspire those in to the wonderful world of green jobs.

Whatever the next few months hold for us, I will be fully embracing the winter – it’s my favourite time to get out and walk.

It will be fresh outside and my cheeks will be rosy, the ground beneath my boots will be crisp but I will be wrapped up warm and cosy.

The holly berries shine bright red and the cobwebs glitter ice white, as we put up the fairy lights at home, the stars fill the winter night.

The animals will settle in their homemade beds and I will light the fire and pour a warming glass of red.

The sky above will hold a winter shimmer and as l finish the Christmas chocolates and New Year approaches – I think to myself, I best get walking again to get slimmer!

Soph x

Growing up in green spaces

Name: Samantha Hall

Role: Corporate Parenting Coordinator

Hello, I am so excited to be writing this blog – I have never done a blog before and don’t really know where to start! So I am going to reminisce – My earliest memory of green space as a young girl stemmed from brook jumping in Woodgate Valley Country Park with my older sister as we made our way to visit grandad who lived in Quinton, this was much fun. We would find the widest part of the stream and take it in turns jumping, I don’t remember falling in so I must have been good! Other adventures were swinging on a rope swing over the brook to jump to other side.

Some parts of the valley were overgrown and we used to get stung walking in the nettles and had to find dock leaves Broad-leaved dock | The Wildlife Trusts to rub on our stings. We would pick the rose bush “buds” (rosehips) and tease each other with the “itching powder” (little irritant hairs) inside the hips by chasing and catching each other and sprinkling the itching power down the back of t shirts and giving a pat on the back (very naughty).

Growing into my teenage years parks played a big part of my life as these were the places we would ‘hang around’ meeting friends, playing games of football or rounders, tree climbing (apple picking) and racing on the BMX track in Senneleys Park.

I remember when Cannon Hill park (late 80’s) used to have the Radio 1 Roadshows, this is where I met Mick Reid (DJ) who was playing tennis and there was always a fair.

Being in this role in the Naturally Birmingham project and thinking about green space has really reminded me what a great time I had growing up and I feel lucky to be able to reconnect. Now I am a regular National Trust visitor and enjoy the outdoors with the family, although we are in unprecedented times it is important to be able to get outdoors I do a regular 20 minute walk each morning before starting my day working from home getting ready for the day ahead.

I hope some of my memories have helped you to think about your years growing up and what green space means to you, parks need people and people need parks.

Park Life

Dawberry Fields Forever…..

We are blessed in Birmingham with so many green spaces/parks? Wherever we have lived, we have enjoyed playing, walking, exercising, learning about the birds and the trees. Thanks dad.

Many happy hours were spent with school friends at the Muntz Park in Selly Oak, “down the Dell” then through the gap to “The Rec”, and back.. and back again!

Later in Bournville, I would retrace the steps that dad took with us, past Stocks Wood to Bournville Park, then follow the River Bourn to the “Yachting Pool”, now called Arrow Valley? We’d net us some Sticklebacks, before ‘Pooh sticking’ it home.

Stirchley was more challenging – I hunted down all the ‘Microparks’ and the recently reenergised Stirchley Park, with new trees and commissioned graffiti depicting Birmingham’s history, and I followed the River Rea to Hazelwell, and onto Cannon Hill Park. Mom and I would spring dad from his care home and sit for hours with him coddled in blankets listening to birds, which he could still name, and chatting to passers-by.

That’s Park Life! Passers-by speak to each other (mostly!).

Mom and I moved to Kings Heath, and what a lovely surprise it was to find that ‘just over the fence’ lies a hidden gem. Dawberry Fields Park shares it’s bounty with us. We have an Oak Tree full of life, blackberries, and a honeysuckle hedge which peeps over, and shares it’s heady scent in the summer evenings, when we’re out there watching the bats fly over the park (yes the nightlife is good here too!) while sipping our gin! I’m less keen on the sound of the foxes screaming at night though!

I’ve seen all sorts of butterflies and moths – Common Blue, Peacocks and my favourite the Cinnabar moth – striking red and black colour – I thought I’d happened upon a rare species, but thanks to a great Facebook page ‘EcoRecord’ I post my ‘rare’ finds and they let me know what they are. I recently met two like-minded ladies keen to inject more life into the park who had set up a nature trail which I had followed. It got me thinking about learning more and investing some time with nature. Just yesterday I counted over 30 Oak Trees!

Birdlife is thriving – the hedges are full of blackberries are also a cacophony of song – Robins, blue tits, sparrows, and of course the noisy crows! I recently saw Goldfinches near the Brandwood Park road entrance. I miss dad for helping me identify birds and their song – it would be nice to have an expert (other than Google) with me!

We hear (and sometimes watch) the footie players – there is some serious coaching that goes on, as well as families having a kick around, despite one of the goalposts having gone walkabout! This same lonely goalpost has hosted birthday parties, complete with balloons and picnic, and more recently a slightly scary full on firework display!

I also realised I had played footie here long ago. I was a Major with 202 Field Hospital and we’d walk down from the TA Centre and play – well, I say ‘play’, I spent a lot of time running around after a ball!

It’s (mostly) a tranquil oasis, interspersed with children playing, especially when they pour out of the nearby school to use the playground, and dog walkers chatting, joggers and has become a little busier recently, which is nice. Another bonus is that there are plenty of benches to sit and watch the World go by.

So, I’m all for ‘Park Life’, where all the people; so many people, they all go hand-in-hand, and while life passes us by in a Blur (see what I did there?) it gives me a sense of enormous well-being.

Kim – a friend of Dawberry Fields Neighbourhood Park

Nurturing pioneers of the future.

My name is Saleha Patel, I am currently a Nursery Lead and Early Childhood Studies graduate. I have been working within the EYFS sector for 8 years. I enjoy sharing my passion and ideas for our nurturing pioneers (The Early Years) of the future.

Outdoor learning has been a personal struggle whilst working in Early Years. I would have a tendency to doubt the benefits of outdoor learning due to several factors; lack of knowledge, funding, weather and resources. Over the last year I have attended some informative webinars and training about outdoor play, and I have come to a realisation that it is all about the simple outdoor activities. This blog will explore the simple, free and low-cost ways I have found to enjoy nature with children.

Outdoor Learning and Nature in Early Years

Outdoor learning is part of the curriculum, the Statutory Framework (2017) states “Providers must provide access to an outdoor area or if this is not possible, that outdoor activities are planned and taken on a daily basis.”

It is necessary for children to learn outside and take their own risks in order to learn how to manage their own risks. Outdoor learning and nature have a massive impact on children and their mental health, it also enables children to develop their confidence, resilience and self-esteem. A variety of skills are learnt through outdoor learning which includes social skills and relationship bonding. Therefore, outdoor play spaces are important for promoting children’s wellbeing and development. 

Why is Outdoor Learning important in Early Years?

Playing and learning outside helps children to understand and respect nature, the environment and the interdependence of humans, animals and plants. It is particularly important to those children who learn best through active movement. Below are some of the reasons why outdoor learning is important.

  • Accurate Assessment: Children act differently outdoors therefore it is important to observe them in the outdoor environment to get an accurate insight.
  • Healthy body and brains: There is more space, freedom and peace in order for children to develop and grow.
  • Characteristics of Effective Learning: The children are able to play and explore, learn actively, develop their own ideas and develop strategies for doing things.
  • Communication and Language: Being outdoors allows children to develop key language skills, boosts confidence and enhances social awareness.
  • Awe and wonder: The children are able to discover things outside that cannot be discovered indoors, sparking awe and wonder.

Barriers to Outdoor Learning

Many people say they are not getting the right support to provide an effective outdoor environment. Below is more detail on why there are certain barriers for outdoor learning.

  • Funding: This is fundamental; however, I am beginning to learn the simple activities can also have a great impact on children and their experiences, so it does not always have to be something that costs a lot of money.
  • Resources: Thinking outside of the box and recycling simple resources can go a long way.
  • Staff: Sometimes staff are not always willing to go outside. Making a rota can help with this and relevant training.
  • Planning outdoors: Planning outdoors can sometimes be forgotten about, however resources need to be replenished and meaningful. Resources which are open and accessible can always make planning outdoors easier.
  • Clothing: Depending on the weather, clothing can also be seen as a barrier. Investing in overalls and wellies for children and a waterproof jacket for the staff can be great.

Outdoor Ideas:

Here are some simple and effective ideas and benefits of how to get children involved with nature and the outdoor area:

  • Watch the world go by: If you have green space or even some tarpaulin on the floor, children can lay down and watch the sky go by – this is great for mindfulness.
  • Guttering and tubes: This aids natural co-operation. It can work brilliantly for any activity that requires movement of an object. Cars, water, stones, balls and other objects.
  • Mark making: Mark making can be done anywhere and everywhere. Allow children to mark make on walls outdoors, the floor encouraging large scale mark making with big paint brushes and rollers. Mud painting, powder paint, chalk and white boards.
  • Growing and Planting: You can use seeds and even old veg to regrow. You can use the end of a carrot, pumpkin seeds, pepper seeds, potato shoots, celery, onion bulbs. You can also use flower seeds and bulbs. Herbs are great, especially for sensory needs. Compost bins are great to recycle organic waste. A water butt to collect rain water, watering cans to look after the plants.
  • Mud Kitchen: Use real pots and pans, cutlery, sink – this can be recycled from people’s houses. Rice, pasta, mud is also fantastic for the children to cook with and role play. Create a bug hotel with pallets.
  • Construction: Asking local shops, marketplace and relevant websites you can get hold of cheap or even potentially free cable reels, pallets and crates. Spades and soil to do plenty of digging.
  • Outdoor Activities: Hoops, bean bags, balls, create dream catchers with twigs and string, nature trails, sound walks, throwing leaves around, leaf hunt, visiting your local park and best of all is allowing children to enjoy the freedom of being outdoors and running around.

Insights from the FPA Team 2.

Dan Lloyd – Naturally Birmingham FPA Project Officer

For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved nature and the outdoors. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of ‘rambling’ in the nearby nature reserve, stopping by the ponds to look at all the tadpoles swimming around, before stopping for a hot chocolate break on a bench overlooking the old claypit that is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (not that I knew what that meant back then!).

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was incredibly lucky to have lived somewhere with access to such places (and to be around people who embraced them); despite living in a relatively deprived area, we were well serviced by green spaces and this really sparked an interest in the natural world that shaped my life and career. I spent my years in college and university honing this interest, with environmental science, geography, and geology, and eventually found myself moving into local government, where I really hoped to make a difference in people’s lives. When I saw an opening in the FPA team, I leapt at the chance to be part of a programme that aims to provide the opportunity for everyone to access what I was lucky enough to experience growing up.

Recently, I’ve really had chance to reconnect with nature in a way that I had started to drift away from in the past few years. During the national lockdown due to Covid-19, and the advent of homeworking, I became increasingly ‘stuck’ indoors – sometimes not leaving for extended periods of time, and not seeing friends and family, or even other people. Over time this seriously impacted on my mental health in a way that was difficult to spot at first, but I eventually I made the decision to incorporate walks in nature as much as I could into my week – I still remember ‘emerging’ from my house and popping to the local woods for the first time since lockdown; I’d forgotten how green everything could be, how pleasant the birdsong was in the still, early summer air. Simply spending time in nature has been proven to reduce the levels of cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) in the body, and this was definitely my experience; I felt more relaxed, happier, and the ‘fog’ that had started to descend on me began to clear.

If there’s one thing I would recommend to people who found themselves in the same position I was in, it’s to spend as much time as you can outdoors. Admittedly I still find myself fighting the urge to just sit on the sofa and watch Netflix after a long workday, and I’m not the best at going out in the rain… but I’m trying to maximise my time outdoors where possible, and I don’t intend to lose the habit once the cold weather rolls in!  

My Park

Blog Author- Hamira Sultan – FPA Director for the Naturally Birmingham Project

I’ve been thinking quite hard about how becoming FPA Director for Naturally Birmingham has been life changing for me. I was born in Birmingham to a Muslim, Pakistani family, where I spent 18 years growing up in Perry Barr. I lived with my Mum and Nani (maternal grandmother), both immigrants from Pakistan. My mum had to leave school at 18 as her dad died 4 years previously leaving my Nani with 7 children to raise.

I think back on my own life growing up and my Mum was absolutely determined I wouldn’t follow in her footsteps. As a single parent, she was very protective of me – I didn’t get to play with other children in the street, we rarely went to the park as there wasn’t one near us and Mum wasn’t too keen on me getting dirty. Education was absolutely top of the priority list – and without that, I doubt I’d have got to where I am today. I’ll forever be thankful that she invested so much in me.

Nature and green spaces were a mystery to me growing up – Mum was and still is a keen gardener. I still remember we had a perfectly manicured garden and my cousins and I could look at it (but not run on it!). Seeing her spend hours cutting the edges put me off having a garden in all honesty, and was something I vowed to avoid in my own home. It might sound like I’m describing a stereotype of Asian families – maybe I am, but there’s no denying there is a shortage of black and ethnic minority people working in the world of green spaces. I often how wonder how much of that is because of our relationship with nature. Whatever the reason, and given the diverse make up of my home city, I’m determined FPA goes some way to address this imbalance.  

Fast forward 20 years, I met my husband Mark, who was born and raised in the countryside. An avid fan of nature and the outdoors, he has completely changed my perspective on nature. We have a young son, Esa who is now nearly 4 years old. Esa’s childhood couldn’t be any more different to mine – his world is all about the outdoors, nature and green spaces. Mark fell in love with where  we lived in South Birmingham because of all the green spaces we have on our doorstep – Swanshurst Park, Sarehole Mill and the River Cole. I didn’t quite appreciate it when we first moved here, but since taking this job (which feels like so much more than a job), I feel so lucky to offer it to Esa – he even calls Swanshurst Park ‘my park’ as we have spent so many days there as a family. I can honestly say that nature has given me this wonderful bond with my little man, and it will stay with me forever – I’m convinced I’m a better parent for it.

When I see other children who don’t have parents that are comfortable with nature, this is where FPA is so important. We need to find a way of bringing nature to all children – whether through nurseries, schools, children’s homes or their families. It’s a question of justice – we know those children who would benefit the most from nature often experience it the least. I’ve made a short video (with the help of my wonderful colleague, Debbie Needle) showing how easy it is for children to connect to nature. I would love to see a world where all children in Birmingham get to grow a plant. If this blog has inspired you, we’d love to hear about it you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @NaturallyBirmi1 or email us on

Insights from our FPA Team

Name: Hamira Sultan Role:
FPA Director and Consultant in Public Health

A warm welcome to our first Blog! Our FPA programme has been on an incredible journey. For me personally, I feel very lucky and privileged to not only be part of it, but to lead our team in moving forward with our goals.

I’ve never had a job before that has impacted me so personally as FPA – the way in which I spend my free time with my 3-year-old son, Esa, has completely changed. Green space is a daily feature of our lives be it in our local park (which he calls ‘my Park’), or in our garden or along the River Cole.

I am excited to see how all our workstreams develop–embedding the value of green space into people’s lives is vital if we are to secure a future for nature in our City. What our programme has concluded so far is the need to change the city’s Governance framework for the natural and green environment. This will be under-pinned by 4 other cross-cutting frameworks. We will be updating you every month on the progress we are making against our 5 frameworks for the FPA programme.