Spinney Beginnings

In autumn 2013 head teacher Rachel Snape wondered how this small area of tangled woodland could be offered to children as a place for adventure and discovery.  In conversation with Ruth Sapsed and Deb Wilenski from Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination, and Richard Rice from County Grounds Management, some fascinating questions were raised:  Should we clear part of the space to make access easier?  Would this affect the feeling of wildness?  Should we introduce new structures – a bridge, a shelter, platforms for climbing high?  Who should begin the exploration?

CCI has years of experience working in rough and ready wildness.  We encouraged the school to remove only dead wood overhead, and enough brambles to clear a couple of paths.  We would learn from the children whether other changes were necessary.

Our Footprints project in spring 2014 saw the youngest children in the school become the first explorers.  A pallet worked as a makeshift bridge, and a circle of logs was our meeting place.  It was immediately clear that the tangled qualities of the woods, exactly the parts we didn’t clear, were what fascinated the children.  Here they are showing Ruth their discoveries on day 5 of their project with us.

The diary posts below show in more detail how the children’s discoveries developed in the woods and classroom. CCI’s first wild exhibition event, This tree is bigger than earth, was curated from these explorations, and our series of professional development experiences in the Spinney often begin with the children’s words, maps, and stories. More recently the woods have been a space to continue our exploration of wild exchange with the poet Jackie Kay.

Throughout our work we hear stories of how far the ripples from woodland experiences travel. Shakila Bukhari, mother and governor, recounted her own family's story for our recent discussion event - Curating the qualities of wildness. She describes how:

When I saw my daughter lead me in and be so assertive it was quite magical. It has changed our lives as a family unit….it’s been a lifelong journey for us

Signs, Knowledge and a Sense of Place


(By Deb Wilenski) This group of reception children are the first class from the Spinney school to explore the Wild Woods.  Four weeks in they are definitely the experts, with a strong sense of place growing from first-hand knowledge, imaginative connection, and the explorations they have been making in clay, drawing, and three dimensional modelling.


The children’s families have been invited to a ‘stay and play’ morning just after our final fifth week together, and we are taking them into the Wild Woods.  But we want the children’s expertise to lead the way, and some of the depth of their engagement with the woods over the weeks to be visible.

Working with words and images the children began yesterday to make signs which will be placed in the woods as markers of knowledge – factual and fantastical – and as invitations to others who come there to explore with their senses of drama, intrigue, beauty and exhilaration.


Signs and Knowledge in the Spinney


(by Deb Wilenski) In this project, as in many others, we are working with a fundamental value of children leading the way.  Leila’s Reception class is the first to explore the Wild Woods and will introduce the space to the rest of the school, shaping the way they encounter it.  Children leading is a value which drives much of our creative practice too and a metaphor we use to ensure real space is made for children’s own ideas and inventions, imaginations and expertise.


Parents and siblings have already started appearing on the signs in anticipation. Roland makes a sign for the magic house he has been exploring with Lucy, and on the back draws his dad coming to the woods in his big black wellies.  When his father appears on Monday morning, he is indeed wearing his boots, ready for the mud. Tania draws me, a friend, my sister and a friendly worm-snake.

When Leila suggests that the school’s ‘stay and play’ invitation to parents, which usually welcomes them into the classroom, could be relocated to the Wild Woods, it seems a perfect opportunity to make these children’s leadership literal.  We will ask them to lead their parents from the classroom to the woods, and take the signs they have been eagerly making to make visible their imaginative and physical ownership of the place.


A group of around twenty parents come on the day.  None of them has been in the woods before.  The children are fantastic guides, and lead them into exactly the places where they have explored: edges, under brambles, into small clearings, below fallen tree trunks.  They place their signs with their parents and the place for all its visitors still feels wonderfully wild.

Magnetic Mud and Fantastical Wildness


(by Deb Wilenski) It has been fascinating to see this class of thirty children take ownership of the Wild Woods.  There are pathways subtly appearing as ways are retraced week by week. There are favourite places, hidden places, places right at the edges of the woods to which children often return.  Comparing observations with Sara, Sally and Leila it becomes clear that children rarely choose to spend time out in the open part of the woods where the brambles have been cut back.  They seem to want to squeeze themselves into corners and the furthest parts they can reach, stopped only by the ditch or by deep water.


One of the most popular places is a pool of mud formed as the ditch curves round and water overflows at one end of the woods. The children’s feet have trodden the muddy water into a rich, slick and silky texture and they rush to spend time there.  Children already in the mud call for others to join.  At one point I count heads and realise half the class is in an area the size of a couple of work tables! Young children need a sense of space and expanding possibility but within this they often choose to occupy much smaller areas; the muddy puddle, the rocket tree, small clearings in the undergrowth. In this one muddy place they can explore earth and water in infinite concentrations and textures, through adventure, daring and narrative.  They need little else and their absorption is clear.

In the classroom this afternoon I want to pick up some of the imaginations of wildness with which the project began; I remember the extraordinary list of animals the children had made, and decide to show images of fantastic but real forests in other parts of the world to see what the children make of them.  Eryk told me that he will be in Poland next week and strangely enough the first slide I have is of a forest of curved trees planted there in the 1930s.  There are images too of the stone forests of Madagascar and the lemurs who somehow manage to live there; of rainforests dripping with thick moss; trees whose leaves or blossom have turned impossible colours; and one of the strangest forests I have seen first-hand – the cork trees of Sardinia.  The children are intrigued and have many ideas of where each forest might be; some they say are made of ice, some of fire.  They see water through the gaps in the trees in one picture, and debate whether it is or isn’t a river.


I have brought in branches of new growth and blossom from my garden and hedgerows, as well as slates, stones and thistles.  The colours are amazing – fantastical wildness is not just far away this time of the year.  Some of the boys are especially eager to work with the spiky plants to make new lands. The children’s appetite and fascination for working with clay and natural materials is still as strong as ever, and their work is intricately beautiful.


I begin to see forests everywhere.  Martin and Thomas clean clay off the chairs at the end of the afternoon, with soapy water and great enthusiasm.  They look like they have landed in a strange forest of their own, exploring and looking after it at the same time.

Working with Arts Award Discover


(by Ruth Sapsed) CCI become an Arts Award centre recently so we were curious to use the Discover framework within a Footprints project. The values of the award - discover, find out and share - chimed so well with how we establish these projects that we were confident that this award framework could help to make visible the valuable learning taking place, offering the children a recognised award and encouraging the use of working books for the children to use. 

Each child was given their own 'working books' which they were invited to decorate as they wanted. They were then freely accessible in the  classroom throughout the project and parents and carers too were invited to add to them at the final sharing event.

The feedback to date suggests we will carry on using the award framework within our projects.

I was worried in the beginning. I thought this could be another thing. Was this going to feel like double but I think the moment they decorated the front cover themselves then they were there and they knew they could pick them up whenever. We’re doing all this art so its good to put it in. These have been nice because children felt they could pick them up and do whatever they wanted. And they will keep doing it. They’ll stay here.

There’s no reason that this can’t be evidence (for assessment) as well. It adds in, it doesn’t take away.

They’ve really enjoyed doing them. They will keep doing them. 

Mrs Williman, reception teacher

Time and place in Spinney Wild Woods


(By Deb Wilenski) In the fourth week of our project I am struck by the sense of time in the woods and its relationship to sense of place.  As places are returned to and some are named – the magic house, the angry bird rocket, the ditch, the muddy puddle – so time seems to stretch into the woods and children settle for longer.

From the beginning there have been images of houses in the children’s drawings of the wild woods, and now there is a language of magic houses and homes spreading too.  There is an awareness of the fox and ‘the place where it sleeps’, and the possibility that it might decide to leave its own house and come into someone else’s.  Lucy and Roland use wool to string across the doorway of their magic house to keep the fox out; other children who call a large fallen log the fox’s bedroom use small pieces of slate to leave gifts for him – pictures of a river, a lion, and a fire to keep him warm.

On a nearby tree one of the students who is with us today points out a sign which has been made and placed in the branches.  It shows a person and the single word ‘home’.

A desert, a magic house and a driver’s room with diesel


(By Ruth Sapsed) I was lucky enough to spend the whole day with Mrs Williman and her class on Tuesday – in the marvellously tangled Spinney Wild Wood for the morning and then back in the classroom for the afternoon.

The children were invited to show me their discoveries as a new visitor and I was amazed to be led off to a desert with squirrels and cute little bunnies, a magic house with a bathroom where the fox lived and a driver’s room with space to fix things up and fill up on diesel. There were some extreme removal activities too with teams recruited to unearth huge pieces of wood that needed to be taken to the other side of the water.

The children were intrepid and I tripped behind trying to keep up with all their discoveries, which I then watched reappear in the afternoon. There were more signs created – some huge – for Monday’s visit to the woods by their parents, as well as some fantastical clay lands and games that involved drawing themselves inside the woods again. For some this was an opportunity to imagine something that they haven’t yet been brave enough to try – like climb a tree – but might do next week.

What was really marked was the fantastic energy and excitement in everyone. This was their fifth long morning there in as many weeks and they were still uncovering new routes around what is quite a small space, new spaces to get into and inhabit and a range of problems to solve.

We’ve made a film for the session with families on Monday to celebrate some of this work and will be sharing it here soon.

How long is a piece of string?


(by Leila Williman, reception teacher) Or more importantly how long is the piece of wool needed to attach a twig to stop the fox entering the magic house?


It has been a real pleasure to see our children enjoying and applying themselves in a new and exciting environment. The most noticeable developments for me personally have been to see their confidence grow in tackling new challenges and witnessing new relationships blossom in the woods. I am also impressed by the children’s perseverance in solving problems they have created for themselves. They have shown ingenuity, teamwork and determination to achieve solutions for themselves whilst having the most fantastic fun!

The textures of wildness


(By Deb Wilenski) When we made the decision to keep the Spinney Wild Woods tangled and richly overgrown, it was in recognition of the beauty and adventure already in there.  We didn’t want to cut away the sweeping tendrils of ivy and brambles, the sense of abundant growth and visual complexity.

This week Sofia was standing near a stand of trees covered with old clematis and ivy growth and said:  this is a plait.  We looked closely at how the plants had spiralled round as they grew and how they had woven together.  Sofia was reminded of the model she had made on a museum visit of strands of DNA.  It was a beautiful connection to the ‘connectedness’ of the woods; the genetic material shared by plants, their physical inter-weavings, our relationships with the shapes and textures of wildness.

We offered different kinds of wool in the afternoon to the children working with clay and collected materials.  Delicate strands of connection began to appear, worked with great care and concentration, but also with a light touch and a sense of wild beauty.




New worlds and whole worlds


(By Deb Wilenski) Our second week in the Spinney Wild Woods:

The rush of return, brave meetings with crocodiles and trees, finding and settling into beautiful places, a new path, the other side of the water.  And back in school whole worlds appearing, timeless, detailed, Jurassic, composed.

How wild is wild?


(By Deb Wilenski) Tomorrow will be the first time we explore the ‘Spinney Wild Woods’ with Leila, Sara and Sally, and their class of Reception children. It’s an amazing world to have right next to your school, with only a gate in-between.  When we met just before half term as a group of adults, to make plans, and explore values, we spent just ten minutes exploring the woods on a very wild windy rainy day – but we all felt we had been somewhere else, already on an adventure.

We began our discussions that afternoon with a question: how wild is wild?  We remembered places where we have found wildness tamed by too much clearing or where there are only prescribed routes through a place.  In contrast to these places each of us could easily think of others that were definitely wild enough, and how encountering these makes us feel: alive, exhilarated, connected.  Going into the woods we really appreciated the wild growth of plants and trees there, the sounds of the wind and the rain falling; some of us found shelters, some of the shelters had been found before by rabbits and foxes.

When we came back into school we used dark paper and chalks to draw our journeys, and drew with our eyes closed.  It was a fascinating process of representing, and enacted some of the sense of discovery we had talked about – surprise at seeing what we had drawn and how it communicated our journeys and sense of place so well.  Surprise too at how beautiful the drawings were, and how different from each other.

These were some of the words we explored in association with wildness, and which led us into our exploration of the woods:

magic, fear, adrenalin, safety, water, the unknown, the opposite of tame, underground, running wild, freedom, at one with the weather, lichen and tiny wildness, heart-thumping, excitement, wind in your face, edges, beautiful things, precious things, so few things are left wild

After our explorations in words and images, and our adventurous time in the woods, we settled on three core values for the next five weeks, something to return to as the project builds, a way of noticing and effecting changes:

Autonomy: letting the children lead the way, not planning too much in advance of their own explorations

Discovery: fully embracing the two sides of this word – discovering because you are really looking, and discovering by chance or unexpectedly

Exhilaration: the sense of real happiness and excitement that can come from meeting the wild places around us

I had to check the spelling of ‘exhilarate’ and found the dictionary definition beautiful in its simplicity, and perfect for this beginning stage of our work together.  I can’t wait to see what tomorrow, our first day in the woods, will bring.

  1. 1.
    making one feel very happy, animated, or elated; thrilling.

This tree is bigger than earth


(By Deb Wilenski) We are just through the gate, not yet over the ditch into the woods, but the world the children are discovering is already huge.

Adam: This tree is bigger than earth.

Tania: I can climb big trees.

Yana: If the sun is bigger than earth it is really enormous.

Imaginations are unbounded too – there is an unparalleled cast list of animals we are going to meet or search for in the woods, voiced by the children as we get ready to go:

a giant lizard, a dinosaur, an elephant, insects, rabbits, a hedgehog in its house, ants, a chameleon, tigers, a wild lion, crocodiles, an owl, a fox.

Spotting the water in the woods, in the ditches and in the large pond which somehow feels more like a lake, a sustained and sometimes dramatic hunt for sharks and crocodiles begins.  Some children stay by the water a long time, finding many signs of occupation:


that nose is a crocodile nose…whoa! there it is I can actually see it!…there’s a dark thing, it’s another one…i can feel it with my stick, it just bit my stick!

In the classroom there are opportunities to respond to the morning in the woods at different scales from huge to tiny; a very very long roll of paper runs across the floor, a new ‘role play’ area has enticing bare walls but for one tree, clay is offered in generous amounts, and used with fine attention to tiny detail.  Journeys, stories, lands all became visible.  But curiously no creatures…where have they gone?

Reflecting at the end of the day with class teacher Leila, we wonder how much ‘discovery’ , one of our project values, is about actually finding, and how much it is the desire to search which is so important?- the anticipation of discovery that was so marked in the children’s first explorations of the Spinney Wild Woods.