I’m sitting in the Spinney’s Wild Wood with a laptop balanced precariously on my knee hoping that the Muse of the wood will inspire my writing. The air is fresh, the sunlight is dappled and a female blackbird is singing enthusiastically on a branch above. I sigh. My exhalation is an expression of relief and peace. I always sigh when I come into this fresh, green space.
The Wild Wood is really a rather modest place: a copse of trees, a small lake, a clearing with a log seat circle and an imperial gazillion of nettles, and yet the Spinney children often cite it as one of their favourite locations. It’s a place to explore, to be curious, to be creative and where the natural environment awakens the imagination.
The Wild Wood was re-discovered about two years ago – like Mary Lennox finding the Secret Garden – it’s set behind a high fence, there’s a gate with a padlock, and a ditch to navigate before you can get in. The tricky ditch caused me much consternation at first. I had to consider the little ones, health and safety and risk assessment. I investigated the options including the prices for various wooden bridges, the cost of which came close to a thousand pounds. Finally after a fruitless week or two, inspiration struck and I dragged two wooden pallets into place, which have since served their purpose very well.
The Foundation Stage children were the first to go in. Their initial exploratory steps were tentative and wary, crossing the makeshift bridge on hands and knees, but as the days went by and confidence grew they soon bounded over the pallets with growing assertiveness. Once inside and following the teachers’ briefing the children were off; free to explore, to discover, to build, to climb trees, and to graze knees. The teachers had to embrace a new paradigm to facilitate the children’s learning, allowing the children to take the lead, allowing experiences and stories to grow and to expand and be without the customary limits and boundaries of time. You can find out about some of the wonderful learning that has taken place in partnership with CCI by clicking here.
Several years ago, when my daughter was about two, I had the privilege to participate in a British Council CPD visit to Sweden and experience the Swedish school system for a week. The group visited several schools and I learnt a great deal, a visit to a kindergarten in the forest being one of the most memorable. School started at 8:00 in the morning and about 30 children between 18 months and 7 years were being taught in a long beautiful chalet building. It was warm and cosy inside and there were nightlights flickering on window ledges. Other than registration, gathering to sing songs and listen to stories there was no formal instruction. The children were regulating their curriculum, choosing from a wide range of activities inside and outside of the building.
I was struck by the level of trust and the confidence that the staff had in the children’s abilities for self-directed learning and keeping themselves safe. There was the usual variety of toys, construction sets, dressing up clothes, small world play and craft activities as well as woodwork in one corner of the room. The woodwork bench was well equipped with hammers, nails and saws. Occasionally, staff would intervene if a child requested it but predominantly the children were persevering and constructing their own wooden structures, sawing, hammering, drilling and designing without any adult interference. In contrast to the provision that had been set out by the teachers, I also noticed some of the children going over to their school drawer independently at times, to pull out a smaller crafting activity such as Hama beads. This requires great hand-eye co-ordination and is a gentler, quieter activity.
At about 10:30 about 20 of the children went into the hallway to dress in their outdoor attire. Again the children were doing this by themselves, pulling on boots, shuffling into salopettes and wrapping warm scarves around themselves. Although the older ones helped the younger ones the process of getting ready took some time and this independent dressing was clearly part of the learning process as well.
The kindergarten was set at the foot of a mountain range and there was a rough stony path adjacent to the chalet that headed into the forest. Accompanied by three teachers, the children took each others’ hands and, walking in pairs, headed up the steep slope. Teeny-tinnies not much older than my daughter were confidently picking their way up the mountain. After a 15-minute steady climb we came to a clearing. The children and adults sat on the ground in a circle, and I observed as the teacher pulled out laminated cards depicting various wild birds, woodland animals, and different tree varieties for the children to identify and name.
When this activity concluded the teacher signalled for the children to go off and play. The children dispersed in an instant, heading off in every direction and vanishing into the woods! My immediate instinct was to follow, to ensure that the children were safe. One of the teachers put her hand on my arm to halt my pursuit. She smiled. ‘Let them go’, she said, ‘they will be fine.’
The Swedish and English teachers gathered and chatted for a few minutes. ‘Now’, said the teacher eventually ‘you can go and see if you wish.’ I wandered off towards the sound of giggles and happy children and saw about six of them climbing all over a huge tree trunk lying on the ground. Even on its side, the trunk was about as tall as the children and they were taking it in turns to walk along, arms outstretched and balancing the length of the beam. The children had set their own physical challenge and were delighting in every child who successfully traversed from one end to the other.
Although several years ago now, this short visit to Sweden was instrumental in shaping parts of my pedagogy and has influenced my leadership of learning at The Spinney. I learnt that we must trust children; we must nurture their creative instinct; we must believe in their innate curiosity and their appetite to learn; we must allow for them to surprise and delight us; there must be times for concentrated endeavour as well as periods of focused calm; we must devise opportunities for them to create, collaborate, communicate, dream, imagine and problem solve. We must have confidence in children’s abilities to shape aspects of their own learning using their natural curiosity to lead the way. With thoughtful, kind and caring adults children will strive in the classroom and thrive in nature. With the right nurturing conditions children will imagine, invent, create, experiment and like the branches that surround me as I type, will grow towards the sun.
The Spinney Primary School is proud to be a member of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust Schools Alliance and to be part of this growing network of researchers and schools. The Cambridge Primary Review’s aims for primary education chime well with our school ethos and pedagogy. The Spinney has seven values. Pre-eminent of these is a child-centredness which underpins the quotidian as well as the strategic long term. Valuing children for who they are today, rather than simply what they will be in the future is also at the heart of the CPRT vision and I am excited by the opportunity to work with other colleagues and schools who recognise that childhood (and Wild Woods) are inspiring and magical places to be.
‘Exploration is grounded in that distinctive mixture of amazement, perplexity and curiosity which constitutes childhood wonder; a commitment to discovery, invention, experiment, speculation, fantasy, play and growing linguistic agility which are the essence of childhood.’ (From Aim 9 of the Cambridge Primary Review’s Twelve Aims for Primary Education.)
Rachel Snape is Headteacher of the Spinney Primary School, Cambridge.