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


  1. This is such a well put piece Lily - don't you just love watching the learning process unfold and children mastering problem solving when the compoundly flexible environemnt allows. You have put what Fraser-Brown and Hughes state eloquently in such an accessible way. thnaks for the doodles.

  2. Great to read so much of it resonates with me. Adults so often crush the creativity of children with their own agenda. Often because we are curriculum driven we lose sight of the 'letting it flow' attitude. This is what I love about being involved in FS I love to watch the children thinking and doing. I love their delight when they realise they are "allowed" to take ideas and run with them in their own way. You are just so much more eloquent then me!

  3. Hi, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this blog post. It was helpful. Keep on posting!
    Schools in Hitech City

  4. Very true.This is not new knowledge .Our child selves knew this.Its so refreshing to meet it again put so clearly .Thanks


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