Spinney Wild Exchanges

This small tangled woodland, tucked into a residential area has offered us a perfect space to continue exploring ideas of Wild Exchange.  Our projects always encourage children to share ideas, to build connections between the woods and the classroom, and to explore how other artists and writers have responded to wild places. In recent years we have invited professionals in the fields of landscape, language, and exploration to respond to children’s ways of exploring and discovering.

In 2013 Robert Macfarlane wrote an intriguing Foreword to our Fantastical Guide to Hinchingbrooke Country Park based on CCI’s project there with Cromwell Park Primary School.  He joined us in our discussion event You are where? and the Foreword became a much longer chapter in his 2015 publication Landmarks.

In 2015 poet Jackie Kay explored alongside children in Year 1 and Year 3 in the Spinney Wild Woods and back in their classrooms. There were fascinating exchanges between the two groups of children, and a lively, rich exchange of ideas and composed work between the children and Jackie.  Detailed diary posts can be found below.

Now published alongside each other in A poem of a dream of the woods are six new poems by Jackie, and a small selection from the children’s prolific journals.  In a second Wild Exchange we invited illustrator Elena Arévalo Melville to draw on the project documentation to create our first Fantastical Map of a wild space.  Elements from the map along with Elena’s on-site sketches of the woods and the children’s drawings of trees and monsters now illustrate this collection of poetry.

You can read more about how we began exchanges in the Spinney woods, events we have hosted and opportunities for professional development

A Fantastical Map


A Fantastical Map of Spinney Wild Woods, created by illustrator Elena Arévalo Melville for CCI.

This intriguing map is our first commission of this sort. Inviting users to explore both the real and the imaginary, it beautifully combines over fifty layers of information drawn from creative work about the woods by the children, poet Jackie Kay and Elena herself.

A map in the making


We often work with ideas of mapping in our Footprints projects.  Children’s individual drawings of journeys in Hinchingbrooke Country Park grew into an enormous ‘Map of maps’.  And in the Spinney Wild Woods fantastical maps were one starting point for Year 1 and Year 3 in their recent project with Jackie Kay. 

From Tavi’s map (Year 3) of under the lake a whole new subterranean land has come to life in the Spinney woods; there are chambers and secret passageways, monsters and electric bats.  Above ground children have found amazing worlds too; head high nettles as green as green can be; a lightening-struck tree whose inside can be ground to gold; palaces, cafés, boats and rockets; desserts, lakes, kingdoms and swamps.

In a new Wild Exchange, following collaborations with writers Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Kay, CCI has invited illustrator Elena Arévalo Melville to develop a new kind of visual map of the Spinney Wild Woods.  It will carry elements of the children’s discoveries and inventions, and have points of actual orientation too.  It will be shaped by Elena’s own experiences in the woods as she spends time sketching and exploring, and it will be used to invite new visitors in.

We have no idea what this fantastical map will look like yet.  Elena described a feeling last week of working like an actual cartographer mapping the wild and unchartered.  Her work for other projects has the subtlety and drama we often find in children’s explorations, and a style which should carry well the many worlds we continue to find in the Spinney Wild Woods.

More of Elena’s work can be seen here www.elenaarevalomelville.com and below are two of her tantalizing on-site sketches from the woods.

The lost lake


(by Deb Wilenski) In the middle of the newly green woods, something is missing.  The lake with its crocodiles, monsters, battles and secret passageways, has disappeared.

The water level rises and falls in the Wild Woods right through the year, but it has never been this low.  Each week I go in early to check the woods before we all come in together, and it’s often a time of surprises; once a fox held my gaze, still, blatant, brave; often there is riotous birdsong that quietens when the children arrive.

But the lake has never been lost before.

I climb over the rope barrier to check the water has really gone, to see how muddy it is.  I walk in a new and weird world: white bones of wood, unreadable ground.  When was the lake last empty like this?  Why does walking on ground once covered by water, feel so uncanny? This word from Beowulf (the text Year 3 brought into the woods) comes back again.  It was perfect for describing the mere in the frost-stiffened woods, and is perfect now for the missing water.

This is our first week working with Jackie Kay.  With what turns out to be characteristic strength and sensitivity, Jackie asks the Year 3 children where the water has gone, and to think about lost things, and secrets.  They rush to enter this newly opened world of the dry lake, and some children spend most of the morning there.  The mud monster’s city expands.  There are bubble monsters in the mud that make it stink, and treasures that rise to the surface – an old bicycle, a bottle with potion inside, a white staff, a huge piece of bark.

When we stop for a drink Jackie asks the children to write down three things that were lost in the woods, three things that were found.  They place their words in the cabinet. 

In the afternoon these words grow into whole poems.  Here are two of them.

The Lost Silver

Beneath the fallen tree struck

by lightening there lays something sliver,

It was lost by me and found by me,

then its power turn the woods into winter,

as the swallow calls its final call,

The silver returns to its place.

Once upon a time,

when the lake wasn’t dry,

fish filled it

reeds grew in it

swans swam in it

herrings fished in it

and those memories, now, today,

Keep the lake going, day, by day, by day.

And Jackie shares with us poems she has begun to write too - words caught from the language of the children’s play, words that lie waiting in the woods.  Words that sound, as Hannah said long ago like a poem of a dream of the woods.  A refrain from one of them stays in my mind all week:

Like the trees dream of saps and rings

And the nettles dream of nests

As green as green can be


(by Deb Wilenski) We are back in the Wild Woods with Year 1 and Year 3, and later this week Jackie Kay will join us too.  Last time we were there barely anything was in leaf, and mud was everywhere.  It was freezing and wet.  This time as Emily in Year 3 put it, it was as green as green can be

And how green is that?  As green as head high nettles.  As green as moss growing over every stone.  Kirsten, Lucie and Summer picked up a phrase from Jackie’s poem The world of trees and wrote:  The deep green heart of the wood is bubbling. 

In the afternoon with coloured chalks, pastels, and pencils, we made green in many shades and variations, naming some, leaving others unnamed.  Yellows, blues, greys, browns layered over each other made reptile green, scaly green, a dense forest of dark green, see-through green.

Children became fascinated with the leaves we had brought back to show some of the range of greens in the woods.  Intrigued at first by their shape and colour, they began to notice fine detailed structure – the branching veins of the leaves, their glossy, or rough, or leathery textures.  They held leaves against their faces to feel them more closely, and looked through magnifying glasses for a long time.  Katie named her green old green because: it’s nice and delicate and old people like delicate things.

In the woods Year 1 had found the embers of our fire from a meeting the night before.  They were still glowing.  Martin, Kelvin, and Avia added sticks, leaves, feathers to make more smoke.  They were fascinated announcing fire…real fire as each ember lit up with the air blowing over it.  The quick breath of the green woods.  Kelvin was amazed to see his feather burnt away.

In Year 1 fire writing appeared in the afternoon, made with charcoal from the fire, and fire colours – hot reds and oranges complementary to the greens we were making.  

Lucy’s anticipation of working with Jackie Kay was burning bright!

Time, animation and adventure


In Year 3’s forest of individually drawn trees, time is very evident.  It takes time to get to know a place so well, and time to draw line by line a single tree that makes your detailed knowledge visible.  Back in the woods time with this class seems literally to fly, the children are fast and their ideas prolific.  The woods of course invite all kinds of exploration – from slow, investigative observation to impulsive, energetic adventure.

As a creative language, animation holds contrasting experiences of time.  It is slow and meticulous, needing slight changes in drawings or 3d models for the animation to work smoothly; but it is also fast and furious, with disasters and dangers transformed almost instantly to escapes and counter-moves.   It seems a language well worth offering to this class to further their wild explorations.

With acetate, pens, black card and an overhead projector, Year 3 begin to make some of their narratives visible.  They work with clay too and natural materials from the woods, to build worlds and make the creatures or characters who inhabit them.

On our temporary screen – a white bed-sheet pinned to the ceiling – the mud monster appears with its two heads, there are trees to climb in and hide behind, giant serpents are coiled ready for battle.  With generous amounts of clay whole worlds are being made, a serpent is re-energising, a monster has fountains of fire…

At our half-way point in this project we share some of the children’s works-in-progress with their families.  Here is one story, animated on the overhead projector, for an appreciative audience of family, friends and Year 1 explorers of the Wild Woods:

The king and the prince are walking through the Forest.  Claw – a giant monkey - starts to climb down the tree to attack. The archer, called Tiny, climbs up the tree, shoots an arrow and kills Claw. 

The guard is walking the horse with the queen.  The mud monster is waiting deep underground.  The evil emperor arrives, and the queen runs quickly away.  The guard comes back and fights the evil emperor but she drops her sword.  The mud monster joins the battle against the evil emperor.  The guard slips away. 

Wolves come from the sky and start biting the evil emperor, but soon they get tired.  They fall asleep in the tops of the trees.

The mud monster breaks through the ground and kills the evil emperor in a single bite.

The Battle for the Wild Woods


(by Deb Wilenski) As children explore wild places they often invent stories.  Many of these new stories have strong echoes of old tales - they tell of magic places, portals, underground monsters, extraordinary powers.  

But sometimes a story begins that is startling in its newness.

On our second visit with Year 1 a café opened in the woods.  It served fat chips and thin chips, there were workers and customers.   I wasn’t with the group of children in the morning that had been playing this game, but I was there in the afternoon when Billy M showed me his drawing:

Billy:  The Fat Chip Café has 200 legs so it can follow us. You might get eaten so you have to stay in it. You are in its mouth but you don’t get eaten.

Ashleigh:  It’ll chase you everywhere you go.

Billy:  It will only get you if you run...now there’s snow coming down and he doesn’t like cold.

As Billy carried on drawing, the Fat Chip Café took on a heroic role, rescuing the woods from danger:

Once upon a time there was a storm, and lightening flashing so hard it bashed into the magic house. Then a man walked outside and he got killed by a monster. Then the big Fat Chip Café jumped on the moon and killed the storm and lightening. He came back home and had a party. The snow is falling down.

In the same woods, on the same morning, another surprising story was beginning by the muddy ditch.  There were royal penguins, a king, queen, princess, and prince.  There were guard penguins with swords and shields.  There was a Penguin Palace to defend with traps. 

Working with young children in woods I have met many creatures, some familiar, some fantastical.  But I never met penguins until now.  In the children’s afternoon drawings water appeared, surrounding the Palace, brilliant blue, with waves made from swirling chalk.

Half-way through our project, we wondered how we could share some of the stories that were developing with the children’s families.  We had been working with shadow and projection, imagining the woods at night, and decided to include a shadow performance in a special Wild Woods assembly. 

But how could chips and penguins find a place in the shadow stories of night monsters, moonlight and magic that had already begun?  How could these very new stories meet stories that sounded much older?

In one hour, working with their class teacher Jenny, the children became authors of a shadow play which to our amazement, brought all their stories seamlessly together in a classic tale of ambition, conflict, power and friendship. 

The chips and the penguins were enemies.  They lived in the wild woods.  One day a magic jewel fell through the trees and into a secret underground passageway.  The leader of the penguins saw the jewel.  The leader of the chips saw the jewel.  Both of them wanted it, and made secret plans to get to it first.   A race began, and a battle for the jewel, whoever won the jewel would rule the woods.

The penguins controlled the sun and threw it up into the sky when night came so they could see the chips.  The chips controlled the moon and used it to push the sun out of the sky.  In the darkness the chips set traps for the penguins.  As the battle raged, the leaders came upon the jewel at the same moment and both seized it.  There was a huge tug-of –war.  The jewel split in two.

The penguins took one jewel, the chips the other, and they ruled the Wild Woods together.

A world of trees


(by Deb Wilenski) This is the first time I have worked with a Year 3 class in the woods and it is truly exciting.  They know exactly what they want to do, they are strong and effective.  The woods are endlessly transformed as they build bridges and dens.  Their imaginative explorations are dramatic and fast, they run through the woods, completely at home and purposeful.  There are boundary disputes when one game claims the territory of another but most of these can be sorted out by the children themselves.

The imaginative, social, physical daring of the children is obvious.  What I begin to wonder about and discuss with Emily, the Year 3 teacher, is how aware the children are of the environment that is such a perfect stage for their play.  What do they notice of the trees, plants, sounds, signs of other life in the woods?  Could we explore this alongside their brilliant games and imaginative explorations?

We decide to ask the children as we begin our afternoon back in the classroom, to think of a tree they know really well.  Maybe one that features in their games, or inventions.  And with graphite pencils we ask them to draw it from memory.

A breathtaking forest emerges.  A detailed, beautiful, known forest of individual trees.  I am taken aback by the time, and careful attention in these drawings, and by what this says of the relationship between children – even in their fastest, most dramatic play – and this world of trees. 

The repeated line in Jackie Kay’s poem comes back to me: 

Sycamore.  Mountain ash.  Beech.  Birch.  Oak.

Individual trees, known, given their precise definition.  As strong and clear as individuals in a class of children.  As connected to each other as friends in a wood.

Under the lake – an exchange of imaginations


(by Deb Wilenski) In the Year 3 classroom maps are appearing of the Wild Woods and many are full of monsters.  Tavi’s map is different – a series of linear pathways, tunnels and chambers, drawn on dark paper.  In the top right-hand corner is the lake and at its deepest point a way leads down into his secret underworld.

Tavi’s intriguing map of the world under the lake, and other real and imagined maps from his classmates, are offered to the Year 1 children the following day in the Wild Woods.  We place them in the drawers of the collecting Cabinet from our exhibition ‘This tree is bigger than earth’ and after the usual break for hot chocolate small groups choose a map with which to begin new explorations.

Adam, Layl, Billy M, and Pavel triumphantly carry off Tavi’s underworld map and head straight for the farthest corner of the lake.  One part of the rope barrier has been blown down in the wind – could this be the gap they are looking for?  Adam, Layl and Pavel begin to move a massive fallen tree trunk to see if there are ways into the underground beneath.  Billy stands looking at the lake and says: But how can we get really under the water?  I really want to go down under the water. 

I look at the leaning tree whose roots must be buried deep in the bottom of the lake.  I see it as if for the first time.  I imagine murky water swirling round its base, weeds caught in the mass of roots, maybe a secret way through…

In the afternoon Tavi’s map inspires more underground drawings in the Year 1 classroom.  Thomas draws the ancient city of the bats deep underneath the earth’s surface with the moon shining above.  Roland’s underground land has passageways and rooms to which there are secret entry codes. 

When these two drawings are offered back to Year 3, as responses to Tavi’s map, the children are wonderfully responsive, and elaborate their own work on the worlds under the woods.  Stories begin to grow inspired by a heady mix of games, ancient tales, contemporary adventures and brand new invention. 

Antonia is a master story-maker, and includes the idea of secret codes and rooms from Roland’s drawing in Year 1 :

Quickly, quickly you need to avoid the room of evil – all of your darkest dreams are in there.  You don’t want to go in thereIf you go up here you can have a meeting with the biggest and best and most magnificent dragon in the woods.  Except the Mud Monster who is the most powerful.  But this one is actually the son of the Mud Monster itself! 

See those thorns there?  If you so much as touch them you get sucked down under there.  Also the gravity there is so strong it pulls you down.  And there’s a code – 1892 into the room of dreams.  All the tree’s good is there – the tree’s dream, its sap, and its blossom that comes in the summer.

You need to avoid the beast, unless you want to kill yourself I suggest you don’t go in there.  Only with the most modern technology you can imagine, that can protect you against the fire.

Each water in the woods has its own ecosystem underground, and this is under the pond.

Maps and monsters


(By Deb Wilenski) Before our project started Year 3 teacher Emily took her class to the woods to read parts of Beowulf there.  The murky lake and sometimes shadowy undergrowth in the Wild Woods seem made for this oldest of tales:

A few miles from here

A frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch

Above a mere; the overhanging bank

Is a maze of tree roots mirrored in its surface.

At night there, something uncanny happens:

The water burns.  And the mere bottom

Has never been sounded by the sons of men.

(Beowulf ,translated by Seamus Heaney)

Beowulf’s epic battles with the ‘shadow-stalker’ Grendel and his monstrous mother are still very live in the children’s imaginations and it hasn’t taken them long to discover more monsters in the land:

JJ:  I found this ditch called the awesome ditch

Sevgi:  It’s called the mouth of the mud monster

Antonia:  The whole of that ditch is made of the mud monster and the mud monster has two heads, and there are two ditches. 

In the afternoons we have looked at old maps and the monsters that roam there, discussed maps as fact and maps as fiction, shared our thoughts about what makes a monster.  The Year 3 children have been mapping the Wild Woods from their own physical and imaginative experience, including the world deep underground.

Antonia explained her drawing: 

This is an earthquake monster that makes earthquakes every thousands of years. When have you ever seen earthquakes, but this is the earth moving. But she is always sleeping. Very rarely her head but sometimes her spikes come though the ground - it makes tiny little holes - that's where these come from. Not the ditches. The girls and boy are just running around wondering about the earth shaking.

The Big White Eye of the Woods


The trees knew each other’s secrets

in the deep green heart of the forest.

Each tree loved another tree best.

Each tree happy to rest, leaned a little to the east,

or to the west, when the moon loomed high above:

the big white eye of the woods.

(from The world of trees by Jackie Kay)

(by Deb Wilenski) The children in Year 1 know their woods intimately.  Last year, in Reception, they were the first class to come into the newly opened space and make it their own, and coming back now they are quickly at home again, beginning new explorations, re-visiting familiar places. 

Given such close connection and knowledge of the woods, I was intrigued to see how we could work with an opposite relationship back in the classroom – exploring the Wild Woods as unfamiliar, dark, different.  We began by imagining the woods in deep night-time, using part of Jackie Kay’s poem The world of trees to help us begin, and a simple shadow projection of the moon in a dark sky rising over tree-tops.  The children continued to work all afternoon with light and shadow, moon stories, dark drawings and collage, and the fantastic possibilities brought by the night. 

In Billy’s drawing a man is trapped between the trees and sticks are coming down about to fall on him – at the last moment a tiny door appears through which the man can escape. 

Zach’s work in chalk changed constantly as a dramatic story of danger unfolded:

Lava is flowing in the woods, burning the trees.  A volcano exploded, lava is spraying all over the air.  When it was spraying it set the moon and sky on fire.  Lava is trying to burn the woods, and the water is stopping it.

And in Megan’s shadow story of wolves and zombies, night and day came out of their familiar relationship: 

The wind blowed even stronger and stronger, until the moon came again.  And the sun came, but it was too late for day-time…every time it was morning it was too late, because the moon came.  All of the creatures were making it night time, all the time, every day.

Words in the woods


(by Deb Wilenski) We are in the Wild Woods, half way through our first visit with Year 1.  Four boys are caught in quicksand.  Two girls are battling through brambles.  I don’t think they will want to stop for words – but I am wrong.

Introduced as a game, face down on pieces of torn white paper, words and phrases from Jackie Kay’s poem The World of Trees were offered to the children and they responded with excitement and reflection, taking time to find exactly the right place for the words to live in their woods.

 ‘Dreaming’ appeared in a tangle of creepers.  You go inside a dream there Sofia explained.

‘Waiting for another tree’ lay patiently amongst the roots of a tree already growing.

‘The leaves fluttered their wings’ was placed in ivy that moved with every breeze.

When Year 3 came into the woods on Friday with adventure and bravery on their minds I didn’t think they would stop for words either, but I was wrong again.  They were fascinated.  Finding first one phrase then another, then a single word, then another, a group of children wondered aloud about the meaning the words carried:

It could be clues

It might be a puzzle – we have to put them together, it might say something

Maybe it’s someone’s dream and they left it in the woods

Maybe it’s a poem of a dream of the woods

Each word or phrase was given its place in a new-born poem.

The children searched, brought words back, re-arranged the words already there, read their poem aloud.

The poem had many versions, but here is the one that was settled on in the end, and written from memory, word by word in the afternoon:

High above

in the cold night air

a canopy

in the middle of the forest.

The wind fluttered

the leaves flapped their wings.

Many roots

waiting for another tree.


of bony fingers

like stars sparkling.

(Hannah, Alice, Micah, Michael)

A wild exchange of words


All of this is a great forest.  Inside the forest is the child.  The forest is beautiful, fascinating, green, and full of hopes; there are no paths.  Although it isn't easy, we have to make our own paths, as teachers and children and families, in the forest. 
Loris Malaguzzi speaking on education in 1993

(by Deb Wilenski) Next week we head back into the Spinney Wild Woods with a new project as part of our Wild Exchange work.  And at this beginning stage, there are many new paths to find.  We have often worked with nursery age and Reception children (3 to 5 year olds), but this time we go with children from Year 1 and Year 3 (5 to 8 year olds).  On four of our twelve sessions we will be joined by writer and poet Jackie Kay, who will explore the woods alongside us, and bring her own wild words and influences into the project.  We will pick up too from where last year’s Reception class led us (many of whom will return as part of the Year 1 group), with discoveries that still resonate – the magic house, the muddy place, the rocket ship, the tree that is ‘bigger than earth’.

I know there will be paths that seem clear and ordinary, and ordinary paths that run straight into the fantastic too.  I plan to work with the sense I had with this first class, of children’s explorations running parallel with other journeys in human history, in particular the half ‘real’ half fantastical accounts of explorers from earlier centuries.  There will be plenty of time for this as we work together in the classroom for the afternoon.

Around this time last year, I remember Kelvin watching a worm in the woods and saying:  It’s a snake.  When will it be a snake?  With our emphasis in this new project on writing, words, and representing wildness, I wonder what Kelvin might think of this account, taken from a miscellany compiled by Chinese travel writer Wang Tai-hai in 1791?

The Monkey of the Inkpot

This animal, common in the north, is four or five inches long; its eyes are scarlet and its fur is jet black, silky, and soft as a pillow.  It is marked by a curious instinct – the taste for India ink.  When a person sits down to write, the monkey sits cross-legged nearby with one forepaw folded over the other, waiting until the task is over.  Then it drinks what is left of the ink, and afterwards sits back on its haunches, quiet and satisfied.
(Wang Tai-hai quoted in Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings)

I’m looking forward to discovering with the children and Jackie how our time in the classroom can be as wildly surprising as our time in the woods…