Stick stomping, and other timber tales

...then the rest of us abandoned them to go eat halloumi. I took them a lot longer to get back out than it did to get in. Were we bad, for sniggering and eating marshmallows at them?

I was delighted to be invited to deliver a couple of workshops at the Slough Early Years Outdoor conference in March.  Even better, lovely Sharon Bright and equally marvellous Hazel Thorpe were prepared to indulge my current stick obsession, by positively encouraging me to share my (quite extensive) stick collection with practitioners from across the borough.Sure Start manager Julie Quinn introduced the day by expressing her disappointment at the blazing sunshine outside; we all looked slightly puzzled until she explained she’d hoped for raging storms and pelting rain in order to make the point that outdoor play can be enjoyed in ANY weather.  True, of course.  However, I don’t think I was the only person rather glad to feel the sun on my back.

My 'presentation'. I think it's essential to keep up with the latest technological breakthroughs...

Gail Ryder Richardson of Outdoor Matters! began with a rousing address on the benefits of outdoor play for young children, and what she expected to see in the revised EYFS (due out any day now, though I don’t recommend you hold your breath).  She made excellent use of an excerpt from Jan White and Siren Films’ documentary Toddlers Outdoors: Play, Learning and Developmentto illustrate how little is needed by way of ‘equipment’ for a toddler to explore and enjoy his environment.  In fact, as the audience agreed, the single most important element was the engaged, attentive and respectful practitioner, who supported the child’s fascination with a hill and a stick, patiently and with interest.

My workshop looked at ways of introducing sticks of all shapes and sizes to every day practice, and participants were invited to explore the materials, consider how they could support the six (three plus four) areas of learning and collaborate to create new activities for their settings.

Pampas is one of my favourite sticks and I loved how they were used on this teepee. The wind kept blowing tiny seeds around, as if they were snowflakes.

We began with a bit of stick stomping – always a great way to blow away any cobwebs.  I have around a dozen very long, very straight and pretty hefty staffs.  We used them to beat out rhythms in sequence, to help us spell out simple words and use our whole bodies to make sounds.  Then we used them to show off our balancing skills and hand eye co-ordination, tossing them in the air and catching them… well, mostly catching them.  I explained that with young children, I’d provide staffs half this size – taller than the children’s bodies but not so substantial that they become unwieldy.

Discussing how to arrange the sticks in order of size. That odd shaped one has a mind of its own: is it actually the longest, we debated? It was certainly the least willing to lie flat.

The conference was themed around challenging outdoor play, with other workshops looking at forest school skills and getting babies and toddlers active and motivated outdoors.  My groups examined real tools for making and doing with sticks, discussing the barriers to using tools and sticks in the setting and demonstrating how they’d mitigate risk and supervise the use of tools.  Then I set them loose with the stick collection, the tools and a myriad of free and found objects from my *ahem* crammed resources store (endearingly, my husband still calls it the garage).

Yes, alright. Your stick IS bigger than any of mine...

As always with early years practitioners, latent creativity leapt forth at the first opportunity.  Not only were the sticks and the other natural materials employed with wit and flair, practitioners made use of the environment they found themselves in (the courtyard of a very smart, new build school) to inspire their creativity and shape their work.  Exactly the point: you don’t actually need a flashy or expensive outdoor space to encourage dialogue, movement, risk taking or socialisation – what you need is enthusiastic, hands-on practitioners, able and willing to help children make the most of the spaces that truly ‘belong’ to them.

The shadow of this mythical creature's head became part of its tail. Loved this structure so much.

We ended the session by cooking halloumi and marshmallows over a fire; the group helped build it, and whilst we did so, they raised issues about safety, permission, food hygiene and insurance plus the questions they’d expect to face if they suggested having an open fire back in their setting.  I think (hope) that between us we were able to address all of these in a positive manner.  Certainly in the ‘my next step’ postcards I asked the group to fill out, many noted that by the time I’d posted the card back to them, they’d have tried out some form of fire in their setting, be it incense sticks or nightlights, or a full campfire.

Conversation, collaboration, creativity - this group made a beautiful washing line, with stunning and mysterious shadows cast onto the paving.

A super sunny day and a truly eager crowd at Slough; the buzz of conversation over (a spectacularly delicious and locally sourced) lunch confirmed that everyone had connected with the morning’s discussions and endeavours.  I wasn’t attempting to offer the participants forest school ‘lite’ with my workshop; I admit to one or two ‘issues’ around forest schools, but that’s for another time.

The venue had its own woodland right on the edge of the grounds - what a amazing resource to have available every day.

There is a place for large, inherently risky natural materials IN the setting, EVERY DAY.  Sticks are not just for the woodland – they offer infinite opportunities for free play, directed play, purposeful learning, personal investigations and collective fun.  We all saw the potential for using these fabulously sensory and tactile objects (voted #1 toy of all time) in a different way in the setting; separated from the woodland, each stick becomes special.  Even in the brief time they had together, participants began to feel a connection with their stomping stick: evaluating its weight; testing its structural qualities; feeling its texture and shape and anticipating how it would respond to their movements.

I’m hoping for nods of recognition from the participants in my workshops, when their own voices drop onto their doormats in the form of their handwritten evaluation postcards in four weeks’ time…

Stick story books, stick activity books, stick poetry, stick operas (actually, just kidding about that last one)


Engineering – the missing Area of Learning

'A' swinging from the tree swing she made herself

Last spring a nearby school invited me to run a play session at an ‘inclusive play day’ they hosted for local families.  The intention was to get families playing together, whatever their ages, abilities or interests.  It was a great success, with ‘play stations’ located all around the site at which a variety of indoor and outdoor activities were taking place, from face painting to model making.

I ran a den building session in the school grounds, using my own den building resources and borrowing a couple of extra boxes of kit from Learning through Landscapes, the national school grounds charity.  One box does really well for up to 8 or 10 children, but with a larger group, more choice and variety is essential and the den building boxes are treasure troves of odd stuff including free and found resources.  You certainly won’t find anything like this in a ‘bought’ set of den building kit equipment.  See the PLL Den Building resource for an idea of what’s in our den boxes.

Love this - utterly child initiatied and how lovely that they'd thought about a welcome mat! Or were they more concerned about mucky wellies in their pristine den?

As with all den building sessions, there was a great deal of creativity on display, a plethora of complex and descriptive language and excellent use of quirky materials, but the imagination and energy of this little girl, A, in particular really struck me.She’s certainly no older than 4 in these pics, and yet her tenacity and fine motor skills showed a highly developed sense of purpose.  She worked collaboratively with the older children around her (one of whom was her sister), persuading them to undertake the tasks that were genuinely beyond her – although in fact, there actually weren’t many of those.  A had a really good go at tying the knots for her swing in the branches of the tree – and managed to do one herself.  Took me ages to untie it later…

This future engineer was also the first to try out the swing she’d built – fearless?  Or just very confident in her own abilities?  Perhaps a bit of both, and I think that’s great to see in a young girl.

I think A may have been with a friendship group as well as her sister; at any rate, this small group worked well together, collaborating, communicating and sharing ideas generously.  They created and decorated a very sturdy den as well as the tree swing in their ‘garden’ area, and made the ‘Welcome’ sign at the start of this article, using scavenged twigs.  The den stood up to being played in for around half an hour and could be dismantled and rearranged without collapsing.  It encompassed shelter and privacy along with places to observe without being observed, which is pretty much everything you’d ask from a decent den.

Practising knot tying. As the person who took all the dens down at the end of the session I can testify to A's success on this task.

When I contacted A’s mum for permission to write this piece and use the pics (thank you A’s mum!) she said she was intrigued by the story and the pics because they represented something of a role reversal – her elder daughter is usually the tomboy, with A taking less of a lead in shared play.  On this occasion however, there was no doubt who was boss and A was very clear and determined about what she wanted to achieve, how she was going to achieve it and who would help!

In my experience, this is one of the things ‘outdoors’ does; children and adult behave differently outdoors.

They physically and mentally feel freer when not constrained by walls, chairs and desks.  Experimentation seems exciting and children show real tenacity when problem solving in ‘real life’ situations.  Open ended resources can be used in new and big and innovative ways and mess is positively encouraged… or at least, it is in my sessions!

Young children thrive and their minds and bodies develop best when they have free access to stimulating outdoor environments for learning through play and real experiences - from the Shared Vision and Values for Outdoor Play in the Early Years

I adore the featured pic of our future architect (or hey, landscape architect, even better!) swinging on her creation, celebrating her achievement and using her brain and her body to fly through the air.

This is why I love den building…

Siege! Or, ‘How we learned about pivots and counterweights’.

Our recent trip to Odiham Castle to consider ‘how they kept warm in the olden days’ yielded all sorts of treats, not least an unexpected and deliciously welcome lunch at the real ale pub at the end of the canal tow path.  But leaving our stomachs aside for just one moment, the real highlight was actually right at the end of the walk.

The canal adjacent to our parked cars had a wonderfully rustic looking wooden bridge across it and as luck would have it (since PLL the Younger has been studying castles) the bridge was to all intents and purposes, a drawbridge.  Having answered our key question of the day (answer: not very well, it must have been appallingly freezing most of the time) we had plenty of time to explore how the drawbridge worked.

So, exactly what do I have to do to get this thing moving? Press a few of these buttons maybe?

Sadly, it was key operated (“Urgh! It’s electric” groaned A in disgust, although that didn’t stop him testing out the many buttons on the console and poking the keyhole with a tiny stick ‘key’).  So, we weren’t able to test the mechanism of the bridge itself, but the safety barriers were distinctly manual and the Junior PLLs and their ever willing accomplices A and P set about the task of opening and closing it – several hundred times.  Well, maybe just half a dozen times, but boy, was it fun.


A huge counterweight at one end ensured the barrier didn’t accidentally flop down on an unsuspecting car (or, indeed, child).  The older two quickly established that it would take all four children to collaborate to move it even slightly, so PLL the Dad took this opportunity to share his extensive knowledge of levers, pendulums, pivots and counterweights to explain why it was so impossible to start the barrier moving at one end and yet so light to push back up at the other.  He’s a hoot at parties, honest.

He was also collecting tolls each time we strolled by...

Young P also enjoyed repeatedly guiding the barrier into its aperture – quite a tricky task for a five year old, but one he completed with great care and precision, co-ordinating the relatively small slot, the heavy barrier and avoiding trapping his own hand in there too.

We took some time to examine the gap between the road and the bridge, to establish how often we thought the bridge was opened – verdict: not very often. Junior PLL the Younger and P observed moss and dirt wedged in the gap and surmised that it had been some time since the bridge was last opened.  A recalled that the tunnel we’d seen earlier in the day had collapsed many years ago, and had never been cleared, so there was little point in canal boats heading through the drawbridge anyway.

"Yep. It's going to take more than the weight of a skinny 7 year old to lift this bridge."

Of course, no trip outdoors is complete without children climbing all over something that wasn’t intended for that purpose (how I love affordances!).  The drawbridge cables proved irresistible but at least we were able to explore how heavy the bridge must be by testing the rigidity of the cables.

All in all, a very satisfactory Castles outing – with added forces and dynamics, plenty of collaboration and observation and of course, opportunities to poke things with sticks and climb all over them.  Perfect!

Let’s stick together

Exciting outdoor play activities using sticks collected in the school grounds. These purposeful, simple ideas can be undertaken with little prep and with no funding required, but will allow children who are motivated by working with natural materials to extend their learning in a range of ways.

The value in these activities will be in how you integrate them into your existing curriculum plans; learning beyond the classroom is a route through which the curriculum can be enriched and made more meaningful – it is not a curriculum in itself.

Observing and recording outdoor activities is vital in order to share children’s learning journeys with them, their parents and your other colleagues; use similar techniques to the ones you’d use indoors, but consider quick and weatherproof written records (i.e. post it notes and felt tips).


  • Physical development  – gross and fine motor skills
  • Problem solving, reasoning and numeracy – working together to solve problems; patterns
  • Creative development – ephemeral art with natural materials
  • Communication, language and literacy – speaking and listening, new vocab
  • Knowledge and Understanding of the World – seasonal change
  • PSE – sharing stories and feelings around the campfire


Mark making with sticks

Five, six, pick up sticks

  • Discuss autumn – what happens to the leaves on the trees in autumn?  When the leaves drop, what can we see on the bare trees?
  • Wrap up warmly for a walk around the perimeter of the field – and other places where there are trees.  Walk around looking for sticks, leaves and fungi.  Sniff the air under the trees – what does it smell like?  What colours can you see?
  • Decide on a place to deposit your stick collection (for the sake of a bit more problem solving I’d suggest choosing a halfway spot rather than taking them straight back to your playground) – how will you transport your sticks to this place?  What will you do if the stick is especially long or heavy?
  • Collect all the sticks you can find on the ground – or at least, all the sticks that aren’t rotten or slimy!  Pile them up in your halfway spot.  Any sticks will do, but ones with relatively few ‘sub branches’ will make some of the later activities a bit easier.
  • Fostering a ‘problem solving’ approach, encourage children to
    • use their whole bodies to transport the sticks
    • collect large and tiny sticks
    • collaborate with one another to carry awkward or large sticks
    • decide when they have ‘enough’ sticks
    • discuss and agree the best way of transporting a large stick collection back to the playground (e.g. wheelbarrows, trailer, bags, one by one…)

Using your sticks

Allow children to experiment freely with the stick collection; record their explorations with cameras, post-it notes and video if possible.  These activities will appeal to children in different ways – some will play on their own, others will want to collaborate; some will see patterns and shapes in the sticks and others will use them to generate stories and imaginative play scenarios.  These are all important lines of enquiry and the play can be built on in future as children’s fascinations evolve.  The list of possible activities below could happen naturally as children explore, or you could plan them to suit curriculum plans.

  • Sorting
    • by length, width or colour / shades; arrange the sticks to show how they’ve been sorted
    • Patterns
      • create mazes and abstract or regular patterns by organising the sticks on the playground; draw round them with chalks to record the patterns; fill in the gaps and spaces with other natural materials such as leaves, flowers, conkers, corks, etc.
      • Lay the sticks along the playground markings; encourage children to choose the correct length of stick to ensure accurate replication of the lines.
    • Mud hedgehogs
      • Use mud or clay to create hedgehog bodies, then use the sticks to represent the spikes on the hedgehog’s back.  Allow to dry completely then place the hedgehogs in spaces around the grounds where children think hedgehogs would live or forage.
    • Mark making
      • Burn or char the ends of the sticks to make ‘charcoal’.
      • Make marks in mud or puddles.
      • Create imaginary words and shapes in the air – can children guess what their friends are drawing or writing in the air?
    • Stick picture frames

      Stick picture frames

      • Lay them on the floor to make pictures using natural materials or chalks
      • Connect the corners with string, masking tape or garden twist ties then hang them from the trees, eaves, fence etc. to create natural ‘panoramas’ and ‘landscapes’.
    • Journey sticks
      • Place 6 or 7 thick elastic bands (found everywhere the postman has been) to each stick.  As the children ‘journey’ around the grounds, the collect found objects and attach them to the stick using the elastic bands – great for practicing fine motor skills and hand eye co-ordination.  I also use this activity to encourage vocab development and speaking and listening skills.

        Eeyore's house

    • Clearing up
      • At the end of each play session, encourage children to clear up the sticks and store them somewhere handy for use the next day.  A huge brush used by a caretaker or cleaner can add some fun and laughter to this task.
    • Measuring sticks
      • If you are lucky enough to find long, straight sticks, slice them up into regular lengths, to use for measuring and estimating.  If you can, create a metre long stick and then a series of 10, 20 and 50cm sticks.  Remember to gently chamfer or sand the cut ends to avoid splintering.
    • Windchimes
      • Make a circle from a wire coat hanger, string different lengths of sticks to the wire circle and hang from trees or eaves – add feathers and conkers for added interest.

Sticky fingers – saying goodbye to the stick collection

By now you probably have quite a mess in your playground, and a depleted stick collection! There are several ways of disposing of the left over sticks.

  • A member of the school community (or another local school) may have a mulcher; if so, ask if they’ll come into school to demonstrate how it works to the children.  This in itself is a wonderful learning opportunity – a mulcher is a large, loud, smelly machine that will ‘eat’ the sticks and create wood chips at the other end, which are fantastic for mulching around your plants to keep the weeds down.  You’ll also have another useful ‘transporting’ problem for the children to solve once the sticks have become mulch.
    • If you use the mulch on your plants, retain some in a small pile somewhere sheltered; children will be interested to watch it start to break down over time and can also experience the raised temperature inside the pile by putting their hands into it.

    Take the sticks back to the places you found them; they will eventually break down or be used by animals, as they would have if they’d never been moved.

  • Use some of the sticks to build a fire pit, to burn the remainder.  Choose a sheltered spot where children can safely sit around the fire and enjoy its colours, sounds and warmth.  Choose sticks or logs with a wide diameter and make a fire pit by laying them end to end in a circle or square – a metre square is a good size to begin with.  You could remove the turf before lighting the fire, and replace it afterwards, or keep the space as an informal fire pit.

    Cooking sausages on sticks

    • Use the remainder of the sticks as fuel on the fire, remembering to retain a few to toast marshmallows on.

Risk assessing outdoor learning and play

A common sense approach to health and safety is now advocated by the HSE and by the Coalition Government[1] and whilst it is important to understand and record risks, a dynamic approach, based on risk / benefit analysis is likely to offer the flexibility needed to really deliver a creative, inspiring early years curriculum.  Dynamic risk assessment and risk benefit analysis materials are freely available on the web: try and for starters.

Other equipment and materials

  • Bottles of antibacterial handrub are a good idea outdoors.  A few germs are no bad thing, but neither is instilling a sensible hygiene routine outdoors.
  • A ‘go anywhere’ outdoor play resource box could usefully contain string, scissors, 10m measuring tape, felt tips, masking tape, baby wipes, nappy sacks (aka treasure bags), an A4 magnifying sheet, garden twist ties…
  • Children love cameras and recording equipment; the Tuff-Cam, available from various educational suppliers is great for stubby little fingers; for children with more developed motor skills or a desire to use ‘grown up’ equipment, the FlipCam video recorders are ideal – both of these cameras are relatively inexpensive.

[1] Tickell Review Recommendations, p6: “To reduce the burden that paperwork introduces, I am also recommending practitioners should not have to undertake written risk assessments when they take children out, but instead be able to demonstrate, if asked, the ways that they are managing outings to minimise risk.”