Alongside the children’s dynamic physical exploration of the park and woods, and their imaginative journeying through invented narratives, there has been a strong interest in inhabiting specific places in the woods. The thick tangled undergrowth, the dips and hollows, and the accommodating scale and shelter of mature trees, all present opportunities for inhabiting to which some children have responded week after week.
Kaede in her very first visit to the woods back in October, spent a long time finding difficult ways through the undergrowth, often travelling at speed, searching for secret places. She found a fantastic place ‘in waiting’ in the first week that became the focus of her engagement with the park right through the project and gradually drew in other children. She called it her underground house. And it prompted Reubens, Gabriel, Sammy and others to find another home space nearby when they went looking for Kaede’s house and didn’t find it.
Den building is a familiar activity, and often offered to children as a first way of engaging with wild places. There was a suggestion within the staff group that we pick up Kaede’s and Gabriel’s interest in particular places and offer more materials to make dens. But this needed thinking about carefully – were the children really interested in extending the spaces they had found, adding to them, building onto or transforming them (all of which would be possible if new materials were offered) or was their engagement and fascination more to do with occupying and owning special spaces, physically, imaginatively, and through their shifting social relationships?
It seemed more important in this project not to immediately offer more materials, but to look again and listen to the children’s experience of inhabiting to see what we could learn about it. We noticed that the children moved straight into spaces, and although they used their coats or a blanket from our camp to make soft places to lie on the floor, they were not concerned with ‘building’ new structures or extending the places they had found so much as defining, owning, and spending more time in them. They began to describe the internal space – Kaede, Lachie and Amelia marked out bedrooms with a stick in the surface of the ground, and adapted tree branches for hooks on which to hang coats and hats. Gabriel’s group made a cooking place and a fire, swept the floor (a piece of plastic they had found on site) and also made bedrooms. We decided to keep watching this inhabiting, and only offer what was directly talked about in part of the children’s play.
- What were the qualities of this space that drew the children?
- What rules did the children express about the space?
- What social relationships were being expressed/tested/re-defined in the inhabiting?
- How were the spaces and relationships in the woods different from those in the classroom or playground, and what could this tell us about children’s sense of place and each other?