The Stockport Early Years Network had the great pleasure of visiting the ‘Wacky Woods’ near Bollington in Cheshire last week, with Alex. This is part the Schola Foris curriculum – ‘a fun, challenging but safe outdoor environment where creative play and learning can take place naturally’.
We went ostensibly to find out about the way that being in a forest environment can enhance, encourage, stretch, challenge, reinforce, invigorate children’s learning.
I went because I love the forest and Alex does a great cup of coffee (with water boiled over the camp fire in a blackened kettle).
It has been raining hard here, so the first thing we experienced was walking through the mud puddles, squelching and squealing as the mud pulled at our boots. And the delight as we spotted tiny boot prints from the children who had visited that afternoon (or was it tiny forest folk?).
Gathered around the fire, watching the water boil, we started to talk about risky play and how to explain to practitioners and parents that climbing trees has many benefits. In fact, Alex suggested that your risk analysis should start off with the benefits, which I thought was an excellent idea.
Another great idea was the ‘feelings tree’. The children have to hang their picture on the tree according to how happy/excited they are – at the very top for very happy, at the bottom for not so happy and even away from the tree for those that don’t feel included. This is such a simple way for children to express their feelings and you could adapt this using a picture of a tree or a branch stood on its end.
We also discussed a couple of assumptions that might be made. The first was about fairy houses.
What image do you have in your head, right now, for a fairy house?
When I think of a ‘fairy house’ in the forest, it has a sparkly door, with a tiny brass door handle and is arched, probably with tiny flowers growing over the top. This is just the image I have, without even having to think about it. Not very appealing for most boys and probably a lot of girls!
However, if you call them something else (forest folk houses, for one example) then there are no preconceptions. It could look like anything – and may even be made out of rubbish rather than natural materials, or cut into the rock or made out of mud.
This did make me reflect on some of the assumptions and received wisdom that we give our children, and how this may stifle creativity and imagination rather than encourage it by the words and phrases that we use.
The second assumption was that all practitioners played outdoors when they were young. We are now well into a generation who grew up with computer games, and for whom going outdoors to play was seen as maybe risky and probably not ‘what everyone does’.
This means that the practitioners may not have the experiences and enjoyment that they are now being asked to engender in children, and may possibly be having some of these experiences for the first time themselves.
Which brings me to the most exciting part of our forest trip for me. When we had reached the upper part of the forest, the trees end and the land falls away in a natural edge. Overlooking the Wizard (who is said to be Melin, lying down, but waiting for when England needs him) and White Nancy (a folly built in 1817), you can shout loudly enough to hear a really clear echo back from the landscape.
I’d never really experienced anything quite like this before, and I found it very exciting and positively awe-inspiring, a perfect end to a magical walk through the forest.
The whole evening left me reflecting on the types of experiences that we give our children. I wonder if sometimes we work too hard to make them ‘all singing and all dancing’ when, in fact, the simple pleasures of water boiled over a fire, a chance encounter with a bird’s nest, creating a tiny home out of fern leaves and hearing your own voice echo are magical enough in themselves to inspire children in all sorts of ways.
Try it yourself this week, just let the children explore and enjoy with no assumptions or learning outcomes in mind and see what happens!
Find out more about ‘Wacky Woods’ here: http://www.wackywoods.co.uk/