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…

“How did they keep warm in the olden days?” or, Why I Love Sticks Part II

Junior PLL the Younger is studying castles this half term and there is plenty of building and exploring action going on in and out of the Reception year classroom at his school. Getting into the spirit, we took a trip to a local castle with friends A and P and their parents. Two years ago we all made a similar trip to Portchester Castle, when Junior PLL the Senior and his class ‘did castles’. Portchester has a huge enclosure, with a pretty well preserved square keep in one corner, a deep and excitingly dangerous moat (dry!), ramparts to climb and amazing views south over the English Channel and north up towards the South Downs.

This time, we chose Odiham Castle, a dramatically ruined mediaeval keep set in woodland and with a canal now adjacent. Luck provided us with a spectacularly beautiful frosty day, and with clear blue sky above it wasn’t hard to imagine how atmospheric and yet how bleak castle life must have been.

The Junior PLLs are having a Star Wars moment (week /month / year) so sturdy sticks from a collapsed chestnut paling fence were soon put into service as lightsabers. It wasn’t long before they became swords and jousting poles as the children began to visualise themselves as knights and peasants living in and around the castle rather than space cowboys. Odiham has a broadly circular footprint , and the ground around the base undulates, encouraging they boys (sorry, knights) to gallop everywhere which inevitably resulted in muddy trousers. Our boys know they won’t get much ‘I fell over’ sympathy unless there’s actual bones on display or significant blood loss, so we were able to continue admiring the delicate patterns made by frost on the castle’s etched glass signage.

We’ve learned from sore throat inducing experience that when our four boys get together, it’s a good idea to let them get a good chunk of energetic and noisy catching up over with before attempting any kind of questioning or task setting with them. After they’d tripped over in the moat, kicked gravel over each other and poked their own eyes out with chestnut palings to their satisfaction, we began to explore in a bit more detail. The older PLLs were less interested in stopping their important and playful games, so we let them be… P and Junior PLL the Younger were keen to discuss what they could see.

“What’s that huge hole in the wall up there for? What could it be?”

  • It’s a fireplace. You can see the chimney going up. There was a floor there once.

The inglenook fireplace must have been 10m above the ground – we could see the gaps in the stonework showing where oak joists would once have supported the floor. A noted that there was no soot left in the chimney because it was “hundreds of years” since a fire had last been lit there.

“Why are these bars here – who put them there?”

  • This is the kitchen. [Me : Are you sure it’s not the dungeons?] No, kitchens are at the bottom of castles. The dungeons are underground. Where are the stairs to them….? [Pauses to look about] There aren’t any. They’ve gone, we can’t get down there.
  • I think the man put the bars here. The castle man. [I think he meant the council – both boys knew the iron bars weren’t original]

Junior PLL the Younger loves cooking, so he and P played kitchens for a while. P brought me half a dozen pine cones, cupped carefully in his hands “for breakfast” and the lightsabers / swords / jousters were put to good use stirring an imaginary cauldron of something that probably contained the pheasants we could hear coming to a sticky end nearby.

I was impressed by how much the younger PLLs had remembered from their expedition to Portchester castle two years ago – they were only 2 and 3 at the time. A’s mum and I had quite a detailed conversation with the boys about the shape and size of the windows, and they both recalled that windows were small and narrow to keep precious heat in and keep enemy arrows out. They also knew that glass was at a premium so couldn’t be wasted. Some of the holes in the wall were actually quite big so we thought they may once have been doors – or perhaps a cannonball destroyed the wall! I think we were all picturing the latter… until we saw on the interpretation boards that there were in fact very large windows at one time – presumably in times of relative peace.

Meanwhile, the older boys had found two chestnut palings with a delightfully rusty nail joining them through the centre, and were wielding their giant ‘tweezers’ with abandon, attempting to cut the grass, other chestnut palings and bits of historic masonry.

My husband is a historic buildings architect and (rightly) quite protective of ancient monuments like this, so the game of ‘poke our swords into this very inviting, just at the right height, hole in the wall’ didn’t last long.

By now, we’d been at the castle for about 45 minutes (it’s actually rather small, if undoubtedly imposing) and the grown-ups were getting a bit chilly, so we headed off down the canal, with the Junior PLLs and their pals carrying the most ridiculously enormous ‘stick’ they could manage between them…

We had more adventures later that day with a drawbridge – over the canal, not the castle. But I’ll save that for another post, as the quality of the thinking, language, experimentation and collaboration from our four hardy under 8s deserves it