The world in a log

“To find new things, take the path you took yesterday”  John Burroughs (American naturalist and essayist, 1837 – 1921)

We’ve been thinking about how children are exploring the woods and park, and as they re-visit, about the patterns that are beginning to emerge.

For some groups of children discovery is still about freedom and dynamic movement – they are expanding and exploring boundaries, moving with growing confidence and skilled orientation, playing games of fast running and following that play with sociability and belonging as well as knowledge of the park.

But other children want to settle in places they have already found, and listening to what happens in this kind of re-visiting, we are beginning to understand what inhabiting these places might mean to them; the qualities of spaces that draw particular children and groups of children, how inhabiting the space expresses and develops social relationships, what kind of rules the children make about their spaces, and the language they are finding to explain it to others.

There are a number of places to which children keep returning; here is one of them…

It’s a large fallen log, part of the split willow tree that still stands behind it.   Sometimes three, four, five different groups are playing around it.  Sometimes one child stays there alone, content and engaged in narrating a kind of play that weaves words and actions continuously.

Elias and Evie are jumping off the log, and also trying to move it.  It rocks but is much too big to shift anywhere.  Elias jumps again, very happy with his flight through the air, and his landing.  Avni is standing nearby watching.  She is finding it difficult to join in with the play around her, but engages verbally and in her imagination with the new environment:

“You know, we have got three woods.  We have only got one wood. We are going to the woods today.  But the woods is too wet.  I don’t like my wood.  I was too hot for the sun. The log is too big.  You can’t sit on it…walk on it” (the first week she spent a long time balancing on long branches in the wood). “Fifik is on holiday.”

Ethan (at the ‘back’ end of the log):  “There’s bees in our radio. This is a seal.  We got bees computers.  There’s a plug in our radio.  It goes into the ground and it goes down into the log and here”…he shows where with a long flexible stick coming down from the main log and over towards the bushes nearby.  He connects it up.  “I got all my powers up” he had said the time before when putting a shorter stick into a hole in the log.

Elias and Evie are still jumping, and also balancing along the log.  Zac and Luca, Joshua and Riley are also interested in the physical balancing, and the play with sticks and electric power.  Riley watches, only climbing on to the log after a long time looking, and balances along it, his eyes smiling.  Danielle, amongst the electricity, the jumping and balancing, is quietly but repeatedly exploring a hole in the log with a delicate stick.

Ethan moves another bigger branch to the log; “that’s the brake”.  “In case we’re going too fast?” asks a teacher.  “No.” And a bit later again, “that’s braker”.  The naming seems more significant than its explanation and reminds me that Ethan has been coming to the log since the first visit, and his engagement with it has always been very precisely expressed – it seems important to him to name things and to narrate them with his own words and meanings:

“It’s a horsey” (the log). “Where are you going?” someone asked.  “To a park.  No, to a baddy park, a baddy place, a castle.”  Ethan moves to the back of the log.  “Parties in the horsey back” (there is a hollow there with soft rotted down wood inside).  “We got a horsey child”.  He picks up a leaf from the hollow, shows it “this is our horsey child’s in the back of our horsey”.  He runs towards the front of the log, and puts the leaf in another hole “washing it…I’m washing the leaf child”.  He jumps back on the log and is shooting baddies with his stick, and flying.

Back at the same log in the afternoon, with a different group, one child who has been making ‘fires’ with branches in the woods with his friend, comes away to climb on the log.  Nobody else is there.

“This one means I have to go backwards” (pressing a bump in the log’s bark).  “I just made myself into a plane…and that’s why I’m speeding through the water…that’s why I’m standing up to go backwards.  This is where you jump in the sea.  This is a fire bobber.  I got the fire done” (at the hollow where Ethan found the ‘leaf child’ in the morning)… “that’s the beomb…that’s called sambra…it goes through the wood.  I think it’s to turn the bombs on so the train can shoot.  It’s going to go again.  Going to light the fire.

First I need to light my hand – my thumb I need to light” (putting his thumb in a small hole at the front of the log). “ I need to go in here first, I need some more fire on my hand.  There’s some more fire on my hand. Two bits, I did two now, I need to do them together.  Good, I hold onto my handles” (some old shoots still left on the fallen log).  “I didn’t burn them.  Woah! It’s dangerous! Woah! I fell off !  I need to climb up again that’s why.  But first I need to light the fire in this little corner.”

I’m amazed by the generous nature of this log – the way it inspires fantasies of movement and travel, although it remains itself resolutely on the ground.  The way it draws stories of power, electricity, fire, even though it is dead and in places rotting away.  The way it can accommodate so many different dynamics and explorations, although it is only one old log.

And I’m wondering what we can learn from listening to children playing around the log – what are the qualities and characteristics that they find so intriguing and provocative, and how could these be brought alive, back in the classroom, and the built environment in which children spend so much of their formative time?

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