Saturday, 18 October 2014


Here's a lovely thing to do over the fire. I did a bit of metal casting when I studied metalwork in my teens and it feels like alchemy every time you cast metal. 

Pewter is a metal that has a low enough melting point to melt over an ordinary fire. Which just adds to the magic.

If you are planning to do this with children then think carefully through the steps you put in place and practise the skill yourself first. 

Hopefully you will get the idea from the following photos. 

You can use anything to make a mold. I quite like using cuttlefish as it is soft and easy to carve even with a nail. It also leaves an amazing patterned imprint on the surface of the metal. 

Remember whatever you cast will come out in reverse, This can be tricky especially with letters. 

A wall of clay around the cuttlefish will ensure the pewter doesn't roll off the sides and can be used to give a nice overall shape to the piece.

You'll need a crucible. Anyone who knows my love of a good contraption will approve Of this spoon lashed into a split green stick with some wire.

Striking the edge of the spoon with a screwdriver gives it a good pouring edge. 

These don't have as big a capacity as casting crucibles but it's easier to get hold of an old spoon. 

The pewter I use is a fine grain lead free* casting pewter. Sold for fishing and craft work it's fairly easy to find online and it goes a surprisingly long way. *The lead free bit is important. Don't be tempted to reuse old pewterware by melting it down.

There comes a point where the grains become liquid. It's important to watch for this stage as the pewter can scorch after it has melted and you end up wasting some. 
Pewter has a low melting point, around 170-230 degrees C (338-446 degrees F) depending on the exact mixture of metals. It seems to work fine on a normal open fire.

 See how the scorched pewter stays in the crucible and the lovely shiny metal comes out from underneath it. 

This is the trickiest bit; getting the metal to stay where you want it and filling the entire mold evenly. You have to move fairly quickly to make sure the metal stays molten. The results of partially filled molds can be quite interesting and if you don't like it then just melt it down and start over. 

Then the exciting part; sitting patiently while it cools. It stays hot for a while but will be ready to turn out after a few minutes. 

The mold can be reused again and again which gets some interesting results. These fish were made by my friend the artist Jo Polack who has a thing about mackerel. You can see the effect of the cuttlefish pattern on the surface. 

Remember to work out your own plan to make sure everyone can enjoy this safely. Let me know if you try pewter casting. I would love to see photos of the things you make. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Compound Flexibility

During my years as a Forest School leader one if the attributes that I find myself drawing on is flexibility.  Being able to change plans, put aside my agenda because of the weather, a really interesting discovery in the woods, because of something a child needs or wants to do –my flexibility is core.

The flexibility of the environment, the range and diversity of resources, how they can be used in lots of different ways. This is what feeds the success of the children. It influences their ability to manage whatever task they have set themselves. This success nurtures the child’s self esteem which in turn makes them more able to interpret their environment flexibly.  It’s a positive spiral.

 It's an idea I explored in a series of drawings for the FSA newsletter recently and wanted to delve a bit deeper into the theory here , this was first brought together by Fraser Brown’s into a theory he called Compound Flexibility; 

“This is not a simple interaction but a complex process wherein, flexibility in the
play environment leads to increased flexibility in the child. That child is then
better able to make use of the flexible environment and so on. There is massive
child development potential in a play setting.” (Brown, F. 2003, ‘Compound
Flexibility’ in “Playwork Theory and Practice, p56)

I really enjoy working in the woods as it is such a flexible environment. But what is meant by a flexible environment? Nicholson (1971) in developing his theory of loose parts, explains it like this; “In any environment both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”.  
A ‘loose part’ environment includes everything from the the branched trees of a woodland to the cones, stones, mud and twigs that lie within. Nicholson also suggests that a beach is a good example of such an environment. The sand for shaping, the sea ever changing, the rock pools whose life and form shifts with the tide. The flotsam and the jetsam. An environment full of things that fulfil many different roles and functions. A place that can be adapted to our needs and ideas.  This environment also needs the flexibility of the adults in it if children are to be allowed to explore the potential. 

This permission for exploration leads to experimentation. A wide array of elements means that children have the opportunity to combine things in different ways and find the space or material they require to fulfil the need and further the line of enquiry. Children develop by responding to a rich environment. The fewer elements there are to explore, the slower or more restricted the development. The more stimuli, the broader the development. 

One of the key factors in the compound flexibility process is that the child feels in control. This is why self-directed play is so essential for a child’s development. 

This combination of control and challenge is also what gives us good feelings! We try something, we find the resources we need to be successful. The people around us give us the time and space to work things out for ourselves which gives ownership to the success. There are things around us that suggest ideas to us. These are the perfect conditions for feeling really good about ourselves. 

These good feelings are critical to a child's development. Those good feelings mean a child is likely to take a risk and try something else. They are the sort of feelings that govern self acceptance. They are the feelings that contribute to self confidence. Good feelings will keep someone involved, interested and focused in a way no amount of cajoling, bribery or threat can manage. The child is at the centre of the process and wants to be there because it feels good. 

Self confidence also means that a child will try and solve problems when they arise. Self confidence is a desire to keep experimenting even when something goes wrong, the belief that you are able to work things out when things get tricky. This is what we often describe as resilience.  

This is where the cycle connects. The exterior becomes interior and the flexibility becomes part of the child's way of being. The successful experiments suggest new ideas. The problem solving suggests a new goal.  The experience they have just encountered is added to the toolbox of the child's mind. The compounding aspect if this is that the more flexible the child is the more they see the flexibility in the environment.

Conversely a restricting attitude of the adult can shut down that extraordinary potential found in a flexible environment. The compound flexibility process can stagnate if conditions are unsuitable. Children who have little control over their world inevitably have fewer positive experiences, which in turn slows the development of their self confidence. Children who lack confidence are less likely to take risks or try out different solutions to the problems they encounter. Which makes them less flexible and responsive. 

I find that thinking about how these elements interconnect really helps me think about my role and the role of the environment that the children are in and reflect on how these two elements can combine with the child's experience to create powerful opportunities for development. 

Drawings taken from a doodle for the Forest School Association Newsletter Autumn 2014

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Badges of honour.

Many years ago I talked with my friend Martin about the idea of the badges of honour of outdoor play. Martin wrote about this in,  that dirt, stains and smells can be treated like ‘badges of honour’, ‘evidence of successful outdoor play’ and learning. Like all good ideas I'm still mining it. 

I recently worked in the woods with groups of children and adults as part of a summer school of transitions. Groups came to me for a full day at a time. One of my challenges was setting the expectations with staff (who were only with me for a day) around allowing the children to get immersed in activities and reinforcing with the children that it is OK to get muddy and involved. 
This is when the badges of honour turned from a metaphorical notion to a literal tangible thing. 


I filled my pockets with them and brought them out at opportune moments, a girl who raced off and find the right sorts of sticks off the den she was making, met with an 'uuuugh' from her friends as she ran through a puddle. 
A badge of honour for muddy shoes changed the story and the girls raced off together. 


A staff member complaining loudly about getting mud on her leggings actually looked kind of proud to receive the first badge of honour off the day. 

Sitting, quietly after putting a plaster on a cut, I shared with the child that he had a badge of honour too, that cuts sometimes happen because you are living life adventurously. 

As the summer holidays come to an end and looking down at my own hands and legs I can recognise there are badges of honour here too.  


Thursday, 14 August 2014

What happens after you feel the fear?

I didn't know how much of this last week would be spent dealing with fear. Heights, the dark, spiders in the toilet, bigger kids. All normal parts of a week of play in a field on the edge of a wood. But what struck me again and again is the resilience and bravery of children who know they are afraid but refuse to let that get in the way of experience. 
Jerry Hyde says there are some books which you only need to read, because it's all in the title; Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. That sort of thing...
Choosing the forty foot tree swing, walking out in the dark, becoming so fascinated by the fact the spider has babies that you get over your fear and look through a hand lens. The tales of bravery I could tell you, and that's just one week.


It's normal to feel fear. It's part of what keeps us safe. It's part of moving out of your comfort zone. A way, as I've explored before here, to help children (or anyone) move out towards those fears that won't case harm and to still feel safe is to help them see it as a challenge and to play with the idea. You can't simply tell someone not to be afraid. Something has to replace the fear. 
We stepped out of the field, over the fence and into the dark dark woods at night. Nate said; "I'm scared!"
What of? I asked.  "Everything." replied the tiniest voice. Are you afraid of the clouds? I asked. "Yes." Are you afraid of kittens? "Yes" said a slightly bigger voice. Are you afraid of fluffy blankets? "Yes!"  ...of baby chicks?
"Yes!!" said Nate. "I want to hold Elliot's hand."
 Are you afraid of holding Elliot's hand? I asked "oh yes" Nate laughed and took Elliot's hand. 
Sometimes it's a challenge to remember why you were afraid before. 


Fear is an OK thing to feel, I tried hard to let the children know that it was OK and a normal thing for them to feel. The bodies way of dealing with fear is cortisol. The chemical trickle that, if turned into a flood will lead to a fight, a freeze or a flee. This stress response in it's trickle state gives us the adrenalised state of full attention, real curiosity and the learning sweet spot that comes with it. Too much adrenaline and the flood turns into a punch and kick, or a run from the scene. Or a shutting down, and a blacking out. Poppy's stress response is so extreme that she starts to black out if things get too noisy or busy or crowded around her. The doctors are still trying to work it out, but age 11 she manages it well, preparing an adult to take responsibility and notice the signs. Coming over and tugging a sleeve when she feels it start. Yet, the need to feel the fear and do it anyway is so strong she pleaded to be included "will I be still able to  go on the swing and the night walk even though I have my head thing? Pleeeeeeeease" she refused to let anyone suggest she was not up for it.

Clipped onto the swing and ready for her first attempt I could hear her rationalising under her breath; "my friend did it... all I have to do is is is is... if I step off here where will I go... and what if what if? So we talked about the special kind of fear that comes before you do something really cool and really safe and how that gives you an even more special kind of feeling afterwards. The feelings you have when you have overcome a challenge. "OK ready" she said and let herself go into a wild swing with a scream that could be heard across the valley. It ended in laughter. "I'm totally doing that again." 

Bob Hughes in his Taxonomy of Play Types uses the phrase; Deep Play. It's one of the hard play types to describe, yet whenever I have helped people unpack the play types and we talk about deep play, "you know that sensation when you do something tricky and you feel it right here, under your ribcage. That's deep play." Everyone nods we all know that feeling, from balancing on a wall and wobbling just a little, from climbing a tree and losing a foothold, even standing on a stage and preparing to sing or take part in a play. It's different for everyone. Your deep play could be my everyday experience. My deep play could be your relaxation. The Swedes have a saying about that feeling; occasionally you have to feel the ice in your stomach if you are to feel alive.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Look after yourself, look after each other and look after the place we are in.

There are many ways that I have used over the years to set ground rules with children. It always boils down to this though; 

How this is works is negotiated as we need to know it, sometimes in the middle of a game we might need to stop and work out the rules and make sure they work for everyone. This process of making group agreements rather than ground rules is an important part of developing social skills and having empathy for other people's needs.

With this comes an element of responsibility for your own self. Knowing where the boundaries are and making sure you stay with the group is important. As is the ability to notice your needs and do something about them.

This can't come at the cost of the place we are in. We should remember that we are visitors, in the home of the things that live in the woods and wilds. 

I've been making some resources to help focus on these three responsibilities and I'm interested to hear how you start these sorts of conversations with the children you work with.  

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Wood cookies swinging in the trees make romantic braids...

Occasionally I see a craft technique and think to myself "I can't wait to take that to the woods!" So it was when I attended a textile workshop with Larry Schmidt at the North House Folk School. He specialises in traditional Scandinavian textile techniques that were brought to America by the first settlers and the have wonderful names like flettet snor, frynseflet, bregdet band and rundflet snor.

I've shared this technique with various practitioners and children over the years, most recently when I was hanging out in the woods with the fabulous Treecreepers. They have done what I have never managed to do and got some excellent photos that they allowed me to share with you. (Thank you Simon and Harry).

The technique is called a Nordic slinging braid. Also known as a romantic braid because it requires two people and good cooperation!

The first step is to hang weights off four strands of wool, string or thread. These strings need to be two different colours. Wood cookies or little branch slices are ideal for weights. Treecreepers used different symbols to help people who can't distinguish the colours as easily. This promotes thinking skills, trying to work out what things would work as opposites.

The strings need to be tied together then hung above head height. This is when I realised that the woods are ideal for this. All those convenient branches! 

Next stand facing opposite each other, each with two strings of different colours, one in each hand.

The next bit is simple; take the string in your left hand and let it swing across and swap it with the string in your partners left hand. 

Now do the same with the strings held in both of your right hands.  

Now repeat; left, right, left, right and... allow the rhythm to build, the strings to swing, from one person to the next, sometimes getting faster, or slowing down, stopping completely to untangle and laugh when things go awry. 

You will notice a braid starting to develop above your head and a pattern starting to develop in the braid. This pattern will be different depending on whether you both have the same colour strings in your left hand or opposite colour strings. You could try more than two colours when you get the hang of things. 

They are called romantic braids because you can only really do them with another person, I like the way this appeals to very physical people, and people who like to get immersed in making things, as well as people who 'don't normally like this sort of thing' but think they will have a go.  

Massive thanks to Treecreepers for the use of their pictures. Check out their facebook page for more inspiration (and probably some pictures of beetles). 

Friday, 13 June 2014

Bug book hotel

I have spent an inspiring couple of days in Scotswood Natural Community Garden. It's a stunnning place on so many levels; just two to three acres in very urban part of Newcastle, thriving with trees, flowers, birds, insects, foxes, ponds and people.

The garden is a real treat for the senses, with lots to discover. I was taken with these book bug hotels that Hive Arts made with the Garden for their Pollination Street project.  

So much so that as soon as I got home I started hunting through the bookcases and garden for suitable materials. 
The first step was to drill a few holes into a log from the firewood pile. 

I chose a few different hole sizes. This sort of habitat will be appealing to a range of small creatures like ladybirds, their larvae, lacewings and solitary bees. 

Then I chose a book with a hard back cover. This was a really tricky thing for me. I'm a real book worm and was always told that you should never do bad things to books (or paintbrushes). But I overcame my conditioning, found a book on Ecology that was very out of date and I think the author would approve of it becoming a habitat!

The last ingredient was a bundle of hollow stems from plants that had died over the winter. When I tidy up all the dead stuff in spring I keep this for fire lighting so I still had a ready supply. You could use bamboo canes instead of hollow stems. 

Using a drill I made holes in the spine of the book. Then got a stick with two pieces of long wire wrapped round it that would hold everything together. 

Materials assembled! I used quite a lot of trial and error as well as some pliers to get the wire tight enough and to make sure everything was securely held together. I started by threading two wires through a hole drilled up through the log, then took both wires round the bundle and then through the book. Pushing extra stems through the bundle helped make everything tight and I could use the left over wire wound together to make a strong hanging hook. 

With everything assembled it was ready to hang. I chose a sheltered spot in a tree out of the sun and weather. Hive Arts were inspired by Alec Finlay's 'Bee Library' at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. 

 I hope they like their new home.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Walking alongside

Sitting around the fire at a recent Forest School conference a fascinating discussion developed about the nature of the pedagogy we employ. My friend Annie, of Get Out More, remembered a conversation she and I had had a few years ago. We had been discussing the amount of knowledge that we feel we should have in order to help someone else learn. She had said to me that she had noticed something that had helped her, the realisation that you only need to be one step ahead of where the learners are. We laughed when she recalled that my answer had been "One step! As much as that?"

As I reflect on this conversation later I realise that there is a deeper truth in this idea, held in the approach to learning employed in Forest School. If we look at the word 'pedagogy' it's roots hold the secret of the skill we that we try and master, the "science and art of teaching"; 
In Ancient Greek and Roman culture the pedagogue was the adult, often a trusted slave, whose role it was to walk with the child in the street, carrying their bags and modelling how to behave in a range of situations. He or she was not the teacher who directed the acquisition of subject knowledge. The pedagogue was literally the person who walked alongside the child to the place where they learned. Maybe one step ahead, if as much as that.  

My husband and our long legged dog love to go striding out across the moors near our home. Both covering ground at great speed and exhilarating in the wild weather. I go with them sometimes but it requires careful negotiation. I have a tendency to get distracted; an abandoned egg shell from a moorland nest, a wildflower blooming in the moss, concentric circles of vivid lichens. Then, when I look up they are gone. Little specks away up the hill, (always uphill) and I have to really motivate myself to catch up. I arrive, out of breath as they wait patiently, ready to move on again.

When we try and keep pace with each other, it is much easier to get into the flow of walking. I have to walk a little faster and push myself. He has to pause and take notice of little things. The dog runs in circles around us both. But we are walking together, maybe one of us is one step ahead, if as much as that. 

This is the ideal that I try and strive for in my own practise and in the sharing of my knowledge. I try to walk alongside the children. Delighting in the observations they choose to share with me, encouraging them to push themselves a little. Rather than rushing ahead, leaving them to struggle on their own, expecting them to keep up.

The more I think about this the more I appreciate the woods as a place of playful learning. Where we can create the time and space so children and adults can learn alongside each other. That learning and developing ideas with people does not mean that we are making it up as we go along, that we are lazy or unprepared but rather we use our skills and expertise to stay with the learners. Maybe one step ahead. If as much as that. 

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