Lattersey Nature Reserve

Lattersey is a nature reserve, on the edge of Whittlesey six miles west of Peterborough, managed by the Wildlife Trust, offering woods, surprising slopes and a network of boardwalks to explore. This short film introduces a particular strand of our work there with three and four year old children and their educators from Kidzone Nursery, highlighting the different opportunities for adventuring together both outside and back in the nursery.

We feel that we are more confident in letting the children slightly out of sight but close enough to hear.  We feel that a higher level of trust has been gained and given to the children.  We have adapted to not leading or controlling a group and allowing that group to choose their own activity.  We have had to learn not to help a child and to step back and see if a child is capable, or if that child asks for our help that's when we step in.  Adapting ourselves to allow danger or risks without removing them and have an understanding that certain things are going to happen to the children but they won't get hurt. (Mark, Kidzone)

The original project was commissioned by the Early Years Service at Cambridgeshire County Council in 2012. CCI artists Sally Todd and Deb Wilenski worked alongside the educators from the nursery and a group of 10-12 two and three year olds throughout the summer term, exploring the reserve for a full morning each week and then spending time each afternoon back in the setting. An evaluation of this project, together with a parallel one in Bramblefields Nature Reserve in Cambridge, can be read online or downloaded here. The posts below document some of the visits during this project.

The nursery have continued to take their children to the reserve and find ways to connect their learning back in the nursery. 

Exploring Bigness


(By Deb Wilenski) The slopes in the reserve are exciting even for an adult, appearing so unexpectedly out of the flat lands around them.  In one part older children have exaggerated bends and drops for biking, making smooth slides and places where rain collects in deep wide puddles.  These extreme slopes have shown us children inventing, discovering, and adapting each other’s ways of navigating sheerness.  Speed has been important too, with particular children refining their abilities to go faster and further, challenging our ideas of what is possible.

Reflecting on our observations of the children in the woods, especially of their physical explorations, we noticed they have a consistent interest in ‘bigness’:

  • in climbing the hills they call mountains and reaching the top
  • in finding the most difficult way up, and the steepest way down
  • in mapping epic journeys around and through the woods

And some of the stories that are now emerging at the beginning and end of our sessions are exploring big themes too:

  • the “massive big big monster bear”
  • brave and enormous battles with a powerful adversary
  • the all-important business of alliances and friendships
  • the big emotions of belonging, rejection, opposition, acceptance

Steve observed one week that Riley “was having his own adventure”. Off by himself, he ran most of the morning, very fast, with unstoppable energy and confidence he covered huge distances.  When we gathered at the end of the session and asked who had found an interesting place to go, Riley burst into a dramatic narrative:

I went all the way over there and I just kicked that bear and I threw him up to the ceiling and I punched like this…and I slammed the wood and it was awesome”.

Ethan could barely wait to add “and me, and me”.

Looking back through notes from the first moments of the first visit I found this exchange, heard right next to the hills in the woods:

Ethan: “Harrison, Harrison, what we doing?”

Harrison: “There’s a bear coming!

Charlie: “He might be killed by a dog.”

Harrison: “He lives in there” (pointing to the hill).

The children’s physical and imaginative exploration of immensity and scale has continued in the nursery too.  They loved seeing their shadows grow huge on the projected images of the woods.

Caitlin drew the bear, filling her whole piece of paper, and Jaden ‘built’ his.  The bear is too big to stay quietly on the page.  In Riley’s hands it roars into life…

The following week there was a ‘three boy bear’ – Ethan, Charlie and Riley wanted the longest possible piece of paper to draw right the way round themselves.   And Lizzie drew a huge picture of the bear, with herself and family alongside as tiny people.

With clay, the bear can be closed safely in.  A number of children during their first explorations in clay created caves or castles and controlled the ways in and out.

And bigness is beginning to be owned and explored further in this  material which offers not only endless transformation and the power of creating; but resistance, weight, and strength which the children are meeting with their own resilience and determination.

Miniature and Immensity


(By Sally Todd) 

‘Thus the miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness.’

In ‘The Poetics of Space’, Gaston Bachelard compares the botanist and his magnifying glass with that of ‘the enlarging gaze of a child’ and that, the act of paying attention is by itself ‘an enlarging glass’. In the woods the children are natural experts at paying attention, and noticing the tiny detail.

They have seen that when it rains (and it often does) snails and especially slugs  are suddenly everywhere to be found, their deep black bulging bodies transforming the pathways.

‘Look baby slug, a mummy slug, a slug spider bath. 

Ooh that wood’s sharp it’s a beak it’s eating the slug!’ (Callum)

‘This is dead slug no no its moving look its runny’

‘I saw one hundred (slugs) 

balanced on top their backs

and I standed on top of them

D’you know how I got down?

Two by two by two down’ (Fyion)

Slug  Slug Spider Bath

'Mummy Slug and Bird Beak' Callum  Squashed Slug

We understand the miniature by its relationship to immensity. Both in the expanse of the reserve and underneath the soaring trees, the children strive to extend their bodies with sticks, reaching up to touch the branches, or they find places to hide, becoming smaller still and absorbed into the landscape. The contrasting, sometimes conflicting nature of these interests (big and powerful or small, vulnerable and hidden) are made manifest in the childrens games and language:

Harrison (looking at the cracks in the ground) : ‘I jumped on that and then it cracked’

Charlie: ‘I’m killing the trees cos they’re laughing at me’

Riley: ‘The stingers want to hurt me’

Ethan: ‘I’ll help you, I’m gonna fight you’

Riley: ‘The bear’s coming! it’s going to eat the camera…I’m ripping the bear

So, there is the permanent and solid fact of the woods, with the towering trees and ‘huge’ hills to grapple with, the intricate fragile world of the slugs and snails and the big unknown of what has come to be called ‘the bear’ for this group of children.

Ethan has discovered he is an expert at climbing the hills and, while at the top he can dwarf all below, he also instinctively crouches behind the leaves and branches, fully camouflaged, and utters an extraordinary bird sound, at once one with the landscape.

Running and Hiding

Running and Hiding

Callum �as tall as the trees�

Callum ‘as tall as the trees’

Ethan camouflaged

Ethan camouflaged

There is also an awareness and fascination with the holes in the hills and in the trees, and who might live inside them. Ava takes me on a journey of exploration….

This is the secret place, look a tiny worm, a feather, let’s go in here, look at this hole I’m going to put flowers in it, this is a tiny hole, a mouse house. Look (at this log) it’s got holes, its got eyes, I’m putting ‘hair’ in it. This hole’s for another mouse, I’m going to get in it, I can go inside in there all the way to the top (of the tree), let’s stay here and hide.’

The Cinema Tree


(By Sally Todd) There is a strangely shaped and singularly striking tree in the woods which always captures my eye…the children have seen it too:

‘Look it has a doorway’

‘Its like a snail…it’s fat…it’s dead…it’s a snake…I’m gonna kill it’

‘I can climb it all the way along to the top’

We’ve noticed how little the children have tried to climb the trees and wondered if the hills were satisfying enough for getting up high. This particular tree though, leans over so much, with strong outstretched arm-like branches – a sturdy sideways stepladder. It is mossy covered at ground level, with an old gnarled trunk and young roots shooting out at all angles….it invites you to linger.

Fyion climbs onto the tree and settles comfortably, soon followed by Maddox.

‘I’m watching a movie and eating popcorn, I’m watching Madagascar’

‘No The Incredible Hulk…I’m breaking the screen…I’m the Hulk!’


We share the discovery of the ‘Cinema Tree’ with the other children and how Maddox was turned into the Hulk. The response is immediate….

Fyion: ‘I turned into a clown and a hat and a duck…and an ear leg horse donkey another donkey and a monster and a camera and a tree and another tree and another tree’

Caitlin: ‘And a tiger giraffe and lion’

Callum: ‘and a slug!’

Kyle: ‘I turned into a cake and the bear ate me’

Charlie: ‘and he ate me all up in one gulp even my eyes then my eyes were blurry’

The physical place of the woods as a spur to the imagination resonates with ancient fairy tales set in enchanted forests. These timeless and persistent stories of monsters and giants have offered children the means to grapple with the big emotions of feeling small and anxious about the mysteries of the world….and a fantastical tree that can transform you into ‘The Hulk’ could not be more empowering!

Signs and knowledge


(By Deb Wilenski) Fyion and Alex are still exploring the boardwalk with the clue finder.  We stop at a board that has been replaced and sprayed orange.  Mark has drawn all the children’s attention to it earlier, to point out that the wire mesh is still loose over the top of it.  But the orange board is a sign of other possibilities for the children.  It is for example, not ordinary and perhaps because of this can be the beginning place of magic: “I’ll show you the magic trick” says Fyion, “if we went out of that orange thing and we went onto that bridge, it’s really magic.  We just have to go a bit longer…”

We have looped round from the orange plank and back again already this morning.  But the way is very long and the trick isn’t instant.  In fact Fyion has an idea that magic and magic ways might shift, despite signs like the orange plank and landmarks like the bridge: “we just have to go a bit longer.  ‘Cos when I had mummy and daddy here and my brother it did that, but I don’t think it will do it today”.

Signs are already far from the clear communications we agree to use them as in the adult world.  I’m beginning to wonder what the reserve would feel like if these children’s experiences, stories and knowledge was made visible alongside the information signs that are there already…if there were signposts to their wild imaginings, their adventures and re-interpretations.

After many more minutes and the whooshing by of a train (Fyion: “oh my goshy word…I just saw the bear on that train”) the magic comes full circle and we are back at the orange plank.  What’s more there is a second way to go: “How magic is this?  If we go that way we get back to the minibus!”  Fyion has just from a high vantage point connected up the whole circle of the site.  Could a sign carry the amazement in her discovery?  Imagine a map of magic ways and sudden brilliant discoveries…

I ask Fyion and Alex if they want to draw the ways we’ve been.  First hand experience, memory, imagination and magic all play into the girls ‘knowledge’ of the reserve, and as they draw the ordinary slips effortlessly into the extraordinary, fact loops around fiction: Fyion’s drawing includes the orange plank, and the ways around, but also transforms from a map into a bear.  Alex’s map begins silently, turns into the bear and then into a ghost, and finally into a ghost of a map.

When Lizzie and Jessica join we end up stopping for a long time by the orange plank, near to the reedbed sign.  Lizzie draws a map that incudes the reserve, an ordinary nursery and a “castle nursery…where I sometimes live”.  Landmarks are also people – Mark, Keith, Steve – important points in a map of security and relationships.

We want to extend this idea of making visible, through a parallel signage, the children’s experience and imagination of the reserve.   We decide to offer them slates and chalks with an invitation to make signs for important places and communications, and a chance to place them in the reserve during our morning there.  

Here are some of the new signs, both made and placed by Caitlin: the ‘white frog’ and it’s home in the reeds; and the dead bat killed by a dragon.