Matthijs de Gruijter, manager and owner of Struin, a nature kindergarten in Nijmegen
Meet Matthijs de Gruijter, manager and owner of Struin, a nature kindergarten located in the 2018 European Green Capital, Nijmegen. Struin, the first nature kindergarten to open in the Netherlands, provides children with the opportunity to play and learn out in the open air, or as Matthijs puts it: “We help kids feel at home in the natural world.”
The main Struin centre is located in the middle of the ‘Ooijpolder’, a former swamp area. The ‘Ooijpolder’ has been bordered by dikes since 1300 and is now and important piece of the Gelderse Poort Nature Reserve and additionally supports a sizeable population in close proximity to the city centre. The Gelderse Poort Nature Reserve is part of a greater site called the ‘Rijntakken‘, a 23,000ha area containing large parts of the Rhine river system, grasslands, forests, marshlands and an array of wildflowers. It is this rich biodiversity that makes Rijntakken an important breeding and resting area for endangered species, earning it a designation as a Natura 2000 site. The entire area is also classified as a Special Protection Area under the Birds Directive as it contains the habitats of a number of migratory/wintering birds.
Struin itself has no shortage of nature areas for the kids to explore, with approximately 1.9ha of grass, trees and wildflowers in this area at its disposal. With just one building on site (only needed during extreme weather, such as thunderstorms) children are outside almost 100% of the time with the natural landscape acting as their playground and non-formal classroom environment.
What is nature play?
Nature play is an approach to childhood development that encourages unstructured outdoor play.
Outdoor play and learning has gained popularity in recent years, and is espoused as a way to allow children develop their cognitive, social and physical skills. As Matthijs tells us, evidence shows that through natural and free play, children can develop a number of vital skills and qualities, including greater independence, patience, and creative thinking. According to Matthijs, creativity is one of the most important skills a person can develop – computers can do almost everything else!
Elaborating on how playing outdoors can contribute to a child’s development; Matthijs explains when children are given a manufactured object, they tend to use it exactly the way it is prescribed to them. However, when a child is in a more natural and unstructured environment, they will use their imagination and curiosity to play, discover and create.
Being outdoors is also good for kids’ physical health, as Matthijs explains: “being outside all year round in all types of weather can help build your immune system and increase your resistance to illness.” Children also do a lot more physical activity when they ditch their gadgets and spend more time outdoors. One thing is for sure: these kids are not afraid of a little mud!
Matthijs also notes that children develop a greater interest in and appreciation for nature when they spend more time in natural outdoor environments. “At Struin we aim to create a bond between children and nature so that they will actively commit themselves to living sustainably. That is why education is so important for our society”, said Matthijs.
Promoting environmental awareness in children is definitely a positive step towards tackling environmental challenges, such as climate change, that are faced worldwide.
A Natural Playground
The children at Struin encounter different environments and species on a daily basis including birds, fish, horses, deer and various native (and sometimes edible) plants.
Matthijs himself has landscaped some of the land, creating small hills and valleys, and a Savannah- style area. Matthijs explains that having a variety of natural features encourages different vegetation to grow. It’s also more fun for the children!
Of course, the horses help out with the landscaping! Having horses grazing on the land is a great way to maintain the grass and other vegetation. Although, as Matthijs tells us, the horses need to be kept off the land for three months of the year or else there would be no plants left!
The vegetation at Struin is made up of primarily native species and is of such a high quality that the centre often provides plants to wildlife and biodiversity conservation organisations.
The Struin Staff
It’s not just the nature that makes Struin a good environment for learning; all of the staff are also highly trained in education and child development. With this dedicated team, it’s no surprise that the organisation has won two national awards for nature pedagogy.
Over Ten Years Going Strong!
Before establishing in 2007, Matthijs was running a nature club for boys. When he saw there was such a high demand for a nature kindergarten, he decided to open a full-time centre. Since then, Struin has gone from strength to strength! Struin now has four different locations around Nijmegen.
The centre has also expanded its range of activities, including tours and day courses for school children, where they can learn to forage for mushrooms or build huts!
Struin has also acquired a fleet of electric bikes by collaborating with a local bespoke bike manufacturer; cargo bikes and multi-seater bikes are used to transport the children to and from the centre. Transport between pick up points, drop off points and the locations around the city is therefore environmentally friendly and adds to the children’s appreciation of a sustainable approach to everyday activities.
Children and adults alike would benefit from spending a little more time outdoors, come rain or shine. One thing we can learn from Struin is that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!
It is places like Struin that have helped Nijmegen be recognised as a leader in sustainability. “We are so proud to be one of the projects that contributed to Nijmegen winning the 2018 European Green Capital title”, says Matthijs.
When asked what it is like to live in a European Green Capital, Matthijs replied: “I am proud to live in a European Green Capital. Of course, my idea of a perfect world is to be completely surrounded by nature and wildlife and only travel by bike and public transport. In this sense, we still have a distance to go, but we are definitely getting there!”