HomefieldPark, as we discovered in our first meeting, is a place of many places. One entrance is flanked by two enormous plane trees, covering the ground with yellow papery leaves and hanging thick with spiky seed heads. There is a mound there smooth and gently sloped. Two areas of wide open space, one with a number of paths travelling through it, open out and stretch over to the woods. We made our camp (a couple of rugs and some logs) next to an avenue of fantastic sculptural trees, tucked just inside the woods. And the woods themselves are criss-crossed with narrow paths, interrupted by thickets of spiky bramble and nettles, with ways through and around, and enclosed smaller spaces between.
We are beginning with small groups visiting the park for about an hour each (though planning soon to stay for longer). So on the first day we had four different groups of three to four year olds coming to explore the park, many for the first time. We had also decided in our planning session, that a spirit of exploration would be one of our key values, and so the children were welcomed to our camp to the woods, and then invited very openly to explore – to see what it was like here today, to explore with their bodies and senses, and to share the discoveries they made if they wanted to, with someone else.
It was amongst other things an intriguing natural experiment; four groups of children the same age, from the same educational setting, meeting the same place on the same day, with an open invitation to explore. Where would each of them go, how would they travel, what would they find?
We were amazed at how each group, and smaller groups within these, met the same place in such boldly different ways. There was plenty of decision making and authorship “I’m going that way… we’re going this way… I’m going a far way, down here”. There were surprise meetings where paths through the tangled thickets suddenly joined. One group played with huge running laughing energy this game of losing each other and finding each other again, for almost the whole hour. Three girls came out of this game right at the end to play another, in the wide open field: a different game of losing and finding, safety and danger: “pretend I was in the house and you came and you saw my bike lying down and I was dead.” And then repeatedly when the ‘mother’ arrived from the edge of the woods the dead daughter was alive again and they needed to go together to find the other mother, “now you and me were her mum”. Lying down in the grass and looking up at the sky was also part of the game, and swapping over.
There were groups that found their way to the absolute edges of the woods; the fence that runs down one side, the furthest path, the “dead end – it means you can’t go any more”. Elias was fascinated by the dead end, went right to the end of it, moved branches that were blocking a way between a tree-trunk and some bushes and when he had finished said “now it’s not a dead end, I didn’t make a dead end”.
There were many meetings with sticks – bigger and bigger ones, branches that were hauled out of bushes and balanced on; sticks that were tools, brushes, extended arms to meet the high-up branches of trees. There were meetings with creatures – ladybirds, a centipede, wild monkeys, a gruffalo, and a gorilla – and leaves “it’s soft – you can stroke it”.
Out of curiosity back at home, I looked up the dictionary definition of exploring and found it surprising:
1) to investigate systematically
2) to search into or travel in for the purpose of discovery
3) to examine minutely
4) to examine for diagnostic purposes
It was far more structured and deliberate than I had expected. I use the word often but for its open connotations– exploration as an invitation to go somewhere unknown, or in an unfamiliar way; exploration as both physical and imaginative journeying, slipping the boundaries between the two; exploration as a counter-weight to a version of education that signposts the way with lesson objectives, and knows where it’s going before it gets there.
But reflecting on the children’s explorations, which certainly more than met all my meanings of the word, I realize how much of their ways of discovering have also to do with systematic investigation, minute examination, and travelling for purposes of both discovery and diagnosis. It will be fascinating to see how this process develops both in and out of the classroom, as these children continue their explorations, in any and every sense of the word.