Bramblefields Nature Reserve

Bramblefields is a nature reserve in the city of Cambridge, managed by the City Council and tucked away behind the school and between houses. It is true to its name and offers many places to hide as well trees to climb and some open spaces. CCI first met the space in 2011 when we invited families to discover it alongside CCI artists through a series of after-school workshops. Since then CCI has worked closely with the school to support a commitment to outdoor learning that reaches across the school:

When our EYFS Leader was first approached about Forest Learning, I was interested but also rather sceptical.  Allocating half a day to outdoor work in our local nature area and the rest of the day to follow up activities back at school represents 20% of the week!   Can we afford the time? I thought.  What about coverage of all the areas of learning?  How will we fit it all in?

I am now an avid supporter of the forest learning experience ... we have extended the forest learning programme to our Year 1 pupils so that they can continue to build upon all the skills they learnt in YR.  In addition to this, discussions have started about introducing the programme to our Nursery children from next year.

I have seen for myself how the forest learning evolves from the needs of the child and includes the child’s interests.  It provides a real context for using language and inspires and motivates them to use their early reading and writing skills in the classroom when back at school.

The forest learning programme provides experiences that cannot be offered in the classroom or   most primary school EYFS outdoor learning areas.  Our local nature area gives the children the opportunity to move out of their comfort zone, take risks, make mistakes, try things out, try and try again whilst remaining in a safe and controlled environment.

Angela Leach, Headteacher

In 2015 CCI worked with the City Council and the school to identify a part of the reserve that could be licenced for sole use for educational projects. 

This short film introduces the space and in particular how it has ignited an interest in storying for a class of four and five year olds and their educators from Shirley Primary School

This continuous celebration and encouragement of stories has encouraged reluctant writers to engage.  It may be the informal chance to write what they want how they want, the wish to hang their story books on the story line or to hear their stories during a circle time.  It may be that they want an adult to scribe or the fact that they can take a home-made book to a quiet place in the woods, or lie on the rug in the centre of the woods, but what ever it is this combination of experiences and opportunities has encouraged the class to become authors and story tellers.  Reluctant writers have been picking up pencils and mark making or phonetically writing single words or sentences.  This is one of the major successes of the project; story writing.
Jane Taylor (Teacher, Shirley Primary)

The original project was commissioned by the Early Years Service at Cambridgeshire County Council. CCI artists Filipa Pereira-Stubbs and Deb Wilenski worked alongside the 30 reception children and their educators Jane Taylor, Julie Chambers and Anita Kozicz, going out to the reserve for morning each week throughout the term and spending time each afternoon creatively exploring their questions and discoveries back in the classroom. The posts below document some of these visits.

Our publication A Story of Smallness and Light: discovering detail in the woods focuses on the particular fascinations of some of these children.

An evaluation of the original project can be read here.

Beginning, meeting, imagining


We met at the reserve without children for this first session.  We wanted to begin our project by giving time and attention to some significant meetings:

  • first hand meetings with the wild spaces in which we would be working – offering the adults in each project a chance to explore without their usual responsibilities
  • imaginative meetings with ideas of woods and wild spaces – a chance to hear individual voices, and to notice shared significant influences and differences in our relationships with the wild outdoors
  • meetings of educational languages – articulating together and finding language for our core values for the projects, and our approach to connecting the inside and outside places where children learn

We began our first conversations around a game of cards – using images connected with woods to explore literally, fantastically, imaginatively, through conversation, what these places might mean to each of us.  These are some of the images and some significant words from the exchanges they began:

a bird’s nest, safe, dens, structures…children’s books, dark wood, exciting, maybe scary…makes me want to have a look…hesitant, protective…evocative shadows, magical, otherworldly, transfiguration,…greeness, lush, the invitation of a path, wondering, timelessness…scared, running away…a little place where you might want to lift, and investigate…back to earth, back to the ground

The images enabled us to hear personal memories, accounts of recent experiences, references to childhood stories and iconic pictures, as well as hopes and fears for this project.   They also helped us to realize that when we go to the woods, we are always already taking an internal relationship with wild spaces with us, an emotional imaginary woods with its roots in all these things – and that this is likely to shape how we encounter wild places with children.

As at Lattersey, we offered time to explore the particular woods that were in front of us too.  To meet these as adults, through our senses, through any words from our conversations, and with an invitation to bring back a first response to the space.  At Lattersey we collected single words:

Wet, atmosphere, enclosed, homely, ancient, stories, intruding, history, a bubble, calm, refreshing, relaxing.

And following our conversations around these, articulated some central values for our work.  CCI offered the value of time, and asked for the Kidzone staff group to suggest two more.  They offered back equality and child led.

At Bramblefields we also used the time immediately following our exploration to decide, while we were still in our wild place, on three core values for the project: Filipa suggested a sense of wonder and fascination; Shirley educators added let the children lead and calmness.

We will return to these evocative and complex words throughout the next ten weeks to explore their meanings, significance, expressions and implications – both in the wild outdoors, and back in the more familiar worlds of the school classroom and nursery.

Further inside – interior spaces in the woods


(By Deb Wilenski) From the beginning some of the children have used the terms ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in their explorations of the woods and meadows at Bramblefields.  And from the beginning we have been interested in observing their relationships with the interior and exterior qualities of spaces in the classroom, playground, and nature reserve. Far from using them as simple terms and concepts, the way children are relating ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is showing us subtle understanding of space, and a fine sensitivity to its qualities of light, architecture, atmosphere, aesthetics, and ownership.

The interior qualities of the woods have a lot to do with light and visibility: the woods are noticeably darker and cooler than the meadows through which the children approach them in the morning.  There is quite dense overhead cover now the trees are in full leaf and many pockets of deep shadow and dappled light underneath.  Not all of the woods space is visible at one time, you have to go further in to find places, and there are overgrown edges and corners which you can enter into further still, places inside places.  Many of these the children call ‘secret gardens’ or ‘magic places’.

As the weeks build the children are literally settling in; returning to ‘inside’ spaces and spending slow time in them.  Picking up one of the projects core values, calmness, we are beginning to see children stopping, sitting, lying in their special places, with no sense of restlessness or hurry, and with the kind of expansion of time that is a quality of being fully in the present, following your fascinations.

But calmness doesn’t have to mean stillness, and Julie spent a long time observing another home space being made by a changing group of children busily coming and going.  Calmness here seemed to come from focus: “they knew what they were doing”.  The conversation and verbal instruction between the children was minimal, but they seemed to understand what needed doing next.

Szymonek, Wiktor, Maisie, and Tyler spent a long time in a place which is difficult to get into.  Thick spiked brambles hang down over the entrances at both ends, nettles grow tall, the head height until you reach the centre is low even for children.  There was a peacefulness to their occupation of this place that seemed to be related to it’s ‘insideness’; nothing was going to be easily interrupted, there was all the time in the world, and their body language expressed relaxed settledness and friendship.

Some inside spaces are tiny.  Keira is an explorer of detail and beauty; she is drawn to the smallest of seeds, and petals, leaves, markings. Since the first week she has been collecting these treasures in the open half-shells of larger seeds, and when I fold a miniature paper envelope for her to keep things in as she runs in the woods, she carries it the whole morning, safely in her hand.  The seed cases, Keira’s closed hand, and the envelope are also ‘inside’ spaces in miniature – places to hold beauty safely, and keep it close.

In the classroom Keira has made more ‘inside’ spaces.  Beauty and containing seem to drive the making:

So there is an exploration going on around making and occupying internal spaces, whether these are in the undergrowth of the woods, the ‘rooms’ between trees, or the inside of seed cases.  There are also children who can find and occupy ‘inside’ spaces outside the woods – hiding deep in the long grasses of the meadows, playing games of stealth and stalking.

Where there are inside and outside spaces there are also of course  thresholds, and these are becoming a more noticeable focus of children’s interactions and conversations.  The threshold spaces at the edges of the woods bring a striking contrast in light and feeling, and fascinate some of the children.   Keira calls them her ‘windows’ and when she showed me her many secret gardens I realized they were all positioned to include one of these glowing spaces, inviting you to look out as well as emphasizing the feeling of being in.

And as internal places are owned and inhabited, and thresholds established, questions about social relationships surface; who can come in, who can’t and why, passwords, keys, fairness, unfairness.  The inside and outside of friendship and acceptance is also beginning to be explored.

From the woods to the classroom


(By Filipa Pereira-Stubbs) Another Tuesday has rolled round, and again the rain hangs heavy in the clouded sky, but its another wonderful morning at Bramblefields.

We’ll start with a story, told by Tyler who has climbed back into his favourite tree, despite the wet bark, and slippery wells.  He’s wedged comfortably into forked branches, and leans like a tiger.

There was a sleeping dragon… and a fox tiptoes then bites my boot off.  Then I was fighting the fox.  The snake was helping the fox and the stinging nettles.  Then all my friends came – a horsey, a dog, and a cat…and a gruffalo.  And some leaves helped me.  And the flies helped me.  And the sticks helped me.  And the wellies helped me.  And the hand helped me.  And the sun and the rain.  I had some bombs in my hand and I throwed them at the badies.

A comfortable boy high in the tree surveying how kingdom with satisfaction,  acknowledging the friendships he has made in Nature, and his pride in his own climbing body.

Filipa: Are you going to come down?

Tyler: No, I’m going to stay here forever.

Filipa: Really?  What are you going to eat?

Tyler: Leaves and stinging nettles!

Filipa: What happens if you stay in the tree forever?

Tyler: I’ll eat the bats,  If I see a snake, I’ll jump on it.  If I see a frog it will try and bite me, and I’ll kick it in the face.

Ongoing interests are revisited, and new interests develop.  The trees are visited again, and climbed again, and many roaring running games are played.  A show is held by the elephants, who have successfully chased away the elephant hunters – which no one comes to, it turns out, but this doesn’t seem to bother the elephants too much.  Magic stones are found, dug by pirates, searching for treasure that has been left there for them by previous pirates.  Huge amount of exertion is needed, and each new discovery is greeted with great excitement.

The magic stones are carefully wrapped in green leaves.

We have made books for the children – blank sheets simply stapled together, and these are seized eagerly – there is much writing of stories, of lists, of ideas, and many pictures drawn.  Keira sits next to me while I watch the pirates dig, and writes in huge letters all that she sees.





Keira’s words are big and beautifully drawn – calligraphic in their precision – they sit fully and simply on the pages of her book.  The morning feels like a reflection of this list – the play is full, and important, and yet simple and tranquil.

In the afternoon, the classroom environment, indoors and outdoors is rich with possibility.  We want to honour and continue some of the ideas and experiences of the children as expressed outdoors, and see how the values that anchor our practice outdoors can be implemented in conjunction with the interests of the children once we’re back in the traditional classroom setting.

There is a wall and floor space set up for the stories and images told and drawn by the children.  This week there is a big tree on their classroom wall –  with pictures of the children climbing high pasted high in the tree branches.

There is lots of paper set out – big and small to draw/make creatures – imagined and seen.  The children want to put creatures into the tree that’s on their wall – alongside the pictures of themselves up on the highest branches.  They get busy.  Butterflies, caterpillars, large creatures.

At one table Anita is busy working with the children who suggested making maps – all kinds of pirate maps, maps of the woods, maps of how to get home…

We bring compost into the classroom to hide stones in again, and to continue the fascination with tiny creatures – ear wigs this time.

SO many stories to tell in the woods – we don’t have time to finish them all.  We are careful to make time to finish stories back in the classroom.

Last week we began building a den from willow – a lightly built construction – swaddled with masking tape. This week we continue working on it.
We make a canopy – drawing all the creatures we would like to have on our den.
We put up walls in the den – again, these are covered with names, and creatures.
Finally we begin to decorate our den.

Although it is fair to say we probably all prefer being Outdoors, this afternoon has felt like a seamless continuation of  the morning- endless creating and storying, and sharing ideas, and games. There has been a sense of having enough time and enough materials to follow ideas through without interruptions, and to great satisfaction.

Physical prowess, collaboration, and imaginations come alive


(By Julie Chambers, reception's nursery nurse) And here we are again in the reserve on a beautiful sunny Tuesday morning. I am glad to be out of the classroom! We don’t need our waterproof jackets today, just our imagination and bags of energy! The class of Reception children are excitable, eager and ready to go! Deb and Filipa are aware of this and the children disperse, walking, racing, running, chasing in every direction. They are oriented and know exactly where to go to reach the ’secret places’ they have previously discovered.

I trust the children and know I must ‘let go’ for their benefit, not mine. I would like to hear, see and understand everything that is going on but that is just not possible. They are full-time researchers and I want to learn  all about their findings, but I must focus my attention and spend time on one aspect only. There is much to be learnt about how the children interact with each other, form new relationships and how they can co-operate with each other to complete a task they have initiated for themselves.

Away go the monkeys, conscripted to the monkey army. Suddenly, as if by magic two elephants arrive with large leaf ears, swinging their trunks and tails. There’s a story just waiting to be told here. Off go the farmers to their house, maybe to make “carrot ice cream for rabbits, bread ice cream for birds, apple ice cream for horses.” The adult visitors will be invited to tea, they’ll be asked politely to knock with a “rat-a-tat-tat” ( a negotiated password at the door). Wash your hands under a horizontal twig ‘tap’ and sit on a wobbly log chair.  What is this all about? Is there a subconscious need to build a shelter for survival or create a space that is entirely their own, maybe it is role play and you are playing out your own experiences of ‘home’, perhaps its a mixture of all of these. So many questions! The children’s pleasure and delight in showing off the farmers house is palpable. The children have changed and are not the children I thought I knew. They seem happier, full of pride and almost glowing. They want to show the adults and other children everything they have discovered.

Over there is the climbing tree, just near the entrance to the wood. Determination will be needed! This climbing high business is something you have wanted for several weeks. With some slipping, sliding and grasping, a foothold found here and a handhold found there, it is done. You have listened to a few simple instructions, something you don’t always find easy to do and one little girl has climbed what looks to her like a very tall tree, and clinging there with soft face pressed against rough bark, smiling with what looks like satisfaction, she lays. I really want to ask her how it feels but this would spoil the moment that she is enjoying, a moment of total calm. Perhaps you will remember this feeling the next time you face a challenge? Perhaps you will forget all about it but benefit from having the confidence that comes with knowing you can achieve. Wait, Oh dear! Now you’ve got the problem of descending! With a small squeal you show me that you are afraid, but a little encouragement and a reassuring hand is all you need as you slide almost effortlessly to the ground.

Suddenly some sticks appear that look like characters ”here’s a capital T”. “This is a ‘r’ and if you turn it the other way it’s a 7″. “If you turn it upside down it’s a L” and so the reading and searching for shapes continues……..

Now there is a request for me to throw a small stick ‘ball’ to a boy with a  flat stick ‘cricket bat’. The bat is held in the traditional way and hitting the ball is almost impossible, timing is crucial, swing your bat too soon or too late and you have missed. You quickly analyse this problem for yourself and adapt your style, holding the bat directly in front of you with a lifting,upward motion to hit the ball, and what a delightful smile when you succeed and the ball flies. Here is problem solving at its finest. The cricket match quickly becomes very popular and there is not enough room for everyone to play in the wood and so we leave for the meadow to continue playing. There is fairness in how they cooperate with each other, taking turns to bat and bowl.  Some boys are showing off their prowess with spectacular dives to catch the ball and these daring acrobatic moves are met with great appreciation from the rest of the players. The children are indefatigable super heroes.

Now cricket becomes baseball with bat held at shoulder level. This is a theme that has been building for a couple of weeks with both boys and girls showing how important it is for them to display how strong and powerful they can appear. The relationships being built and strengthened here through physical exhilaration fascinates me. Hand eye coordination is being practised at every turn. The children are learning to be patient with each other, one boy struggles to bowl, he has realised that a underarm throw is easier for the batsman to hit rather than his natural overarm throw and another new skill has been acquired this morning.

It’s nearly time to go back to school and we gather together to sit, talk and listen to each other while eating apples and drinking water but listening is very difficult when suddenly a swarm of mosquitos descends upon us, attracted by the sweetness of the apples and there is a rather unwarranted outburst of panic and excitement. The insects only need to be wafted gently away, but you do not realise this just yet, maybe you will next time we are here.

The stories snails write in the woods


(By Deb Wilenski) Some of the children at Bramblefields are interested in writing or drawing in our notebooks, so Filipa creates sketch books from different sized paper, and we offer them to be used in the woods.

The following week, looking for somewhere safe for the nest they have found, a small group of children finds one of the books.  It is soaked with rain and dew and full of creatures.

Amelka, Margaret, Oliwia and Kexin spend slow, focussed time watching a snail’s progress through the pages, as well as discovering a spider and slug inside the book – and whilst the snail inches around they draw him in another notebook.

In this project that is interested in storying, language, and communication, we are working with a concept of stories that can encompass all kinds of narratives: the snail’s journey through pages; the story of a book lost in the woods; the tale of four girls’ drawings.

By opening up our definitions of what a book can be, who can write in it, where you might want to begin storying and writing (up a tree, in the long grass, lying on a carpet deep in the woods), we are also making unusual opportunities – less formal than in the classroom – for writing and communication to flourish.  And we are beginning to see children find, draw, and write their stories who have never done so before.