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

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.


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.

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.




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.



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