Learning for Life through Wild Play
We have just finished running a Wild Play week for children in a lovely mixed woodland in the Scottish Borders. Participants ranged in age from 4 – 11 years and the majority came to every session. When we met for the first time, we circled up and introduced ourselves, giving our name, and an animal starting with the same sound, e.g. Geraldine the giraffe, plus an action (okay, I did most of the actions at first because the children were a bit shy and I like to act).
Then we headed into the woods with the children helping to carry the kit – light stuff for little ones and slightly heavier for older ones – an important lesson that we are team and we work together.
We arrived at basecamp and talked about the boundaries – so that us leaders could keep them safe, and the rules – look after yourself, each other and nature. Then, with slight trepidation that some of the children would not know what to do, we said “Okay, off you go.” We need not have worried.
There were a few remnants of dens from previous users of the woods and some of the children rushed to build/extend them. A major draw were the hammocks, which seem to facilitate bonding very effectively. Others ran off their energy & used the slack-line to challenge themselves.
Meanwhile, us adults (2 group leaders and 4 volunteers) set about settling in to the woodland. A couple of us collected wood for the Kelly kettles and got a brew on. Another two began hollowing out some elder to make elder beads and somebody used clay to create tree spirits.
The elder bead making caught the attention of one of a group of three siblings and he joined my colleague in making these. Much experimentation took place to determine which sticks worked best to remove the pith from the centre of the elder cuttings. He took a few lengths of elder home to experiment and find the best tool that night. By the next day his brother and sister joined in and by the end of the week they had made bracelets, necklaces & key rings for various family members.
Another request from some members of the group was to climb trees, so some of us went off in search of good climbing trees, which we duly found. A line of beech trees, battling against the odds within a coniferous forest, low leafless branches seeking out the light, strong trunks pushing determinedly towards the canopy where the upper branches were in full leaf. These trees were a gift from nature as even one of our four year olds, with perseverance, managed to get into the tree (the lowest branch was only just low enough for me and my stiff old bones to get in it).
One lad wanted to find a walking stick and so the whole group went on a walk around the estate loch in search of hazel, not least because we could use this to make bows and arrows. After exploring and coppicing various lengths and sizes of hazel, we were ready for lunch and hot chocolate. Afterwards, the children amused themselves by rolling down a grassy slope again and again, laughing and screaming a lot.
The following day, those who were interested, used knives to whittle their hazel sticks, one 10 year old saying she had never used a sharp knife before. Others carried on with their den building, making an intricate roof, secret escapes and a garden hut.
For much of the time, us adults were almost invisible, quietly observing and facilitating when needed, very rarely needing to intervene in the children’s self-directed activities, pegging their experience onto the familiar routines of meeting & greeting, sharing food together and reflection at the end of the sessions.
The final day was the busiest – I guess the children realised that time was running out. All of us adults were busily engaged with supporting the children in tree climbing, bow and arrow making, collection of firewood, elder bead creations, whittling, sawing, toasting marshmallows, making popcorn and finally breaking camp and saying goodbye.
As a staff team our final review was inevitably tinged with sadness as we had reached the end of a week where we’d seen the children settle in, gain confidence, make friends, gain independence and most of all have massive amounts of fun. We reflected on the benefits of going with the flow and in supporting each other as a team. We had not led the children, we had not taught the children, we had responded to their needs and interests and we went home every day with the satisfying, heavy tiredness of a job well done.
One four year old summed it up. “Can I go to the woods every day until I’m a grown up?” Yes! And, when you’re a grown up, you can too.