Cambridgeshire Footprints

Supported by Cambridgeshire Early Years Service, we facilitated a series of ‘wild exchanges’ in 2013/14 linked to three particular outdoor spaces in the county. These have all been sites where we were commissioned to work with a nearby early years setting to establish or develop their outdoor projects (Bramblefields, Lattersey and Hinchingbrooke ). We met together as a group of educators and practitioners linked to these projects and spaces once a term, without children, to share experiences, develop practice, and continue exploring ways to meet the wild and connect the classroom.   

CCI also established other ways to share the experiences of the children and educators in these projects - through our online diaries on this website, through our resources and through professional development sessions held in the spaces themselves and elsewhere. This diary draws together elements from this work.

Visit the individual Footprints project diaries (BramblefieldsLattersey and Hinchingbrooke for the most recent news from the individual projects, all of whom are continuing to take their children regularly to their local wild spaces as well as supporting colleagues working with other children in their settings to establish their own projects.

This aspect of CCI's Footprints work in the County has been developed in partnership with Cambridgeshire County Council’s Early Years Service. The service also offers a programme of support packages to develop outdoor learning in schools and settings. This incorporates the Forest Schools ethos and recognises the strong impact this approach to outdoor learning has on children’s learning and development for all ages. 

All the worlds in the woods


This workshop offered a journey for delegates at the Forest School Conference run by Cambridgeshire County Council.  It began outside, in the wildness on the conference doorstep (the Grafham Water Centre); then came inside for a presentation of experiences and questions from the recent Footprints projects with nursery and reception children; and continued as the group tried out together some of the ways children have furthered explorations back in the classroom - through drawing, light and projection.

The sessions ended with discussions about strengthening connections – between the places children learn, the worlds they find there, and our values and freedoms as educators.

I was surprised that I could work so easily with other people to be creative when I didn't feel creative.
I wonder why I don't do more of this at school.
I was struck by how the outside language used (by the children) is so different from inside
I was surprised that children used complex text

The Connected Classroom


By Deb Wilenski

For our second Wild Exchange meeting, supporting educators from recent Footprints projects, we were in Cambridge. We began by exploring Bramblefields Nature Reserve and then walked back to Shirley Primary School where Jane and Julie welcomed everyone into their Reception classroom.  Our focus this time was on how we connect fascinations from the woods to explorations back in school or nursery, and find ways back into the woods from these enquiries.

Bramblefields is much smaller than either Lattersey or Hinchingbrooke, but still surprising and intriguing.  We invited our group to explore the woods and meadow through ‘escaped sentences’ from A Story of Smallness and Light – the publication which grows out of some of our work there in 2012.  Once we returned to the school we took the opportunity to enact the creative connections children have been making by representing our brief experience of the reserve with chalk pastel on black paper, with our eyes closed.  This was a way to remove any worry about visual accuracy, and find a way instead of catching the experience of being in the woods, what it felt like to be there and what was discovered.

Ben said that coming out of the woods into the meadow reminded him of the ‘magic door’ that on a far bigger scale at Hinchingbrooke opens out from the woods to the field.  Steve’s detailed drawing was a smaller scale adventure, looking deep into a tangled mossy area of the woods in response to Amelka’s words from our project: You can’t whisper near here because the fairies live in here.  They have colours but we don’t see the colours, we only see the black. They are really, really small.

We spent time hearing from each setting about the ways in which the woods and the classroom are becoming connected – and the value of these connections for the children and their educators. 

Ben shared the giant map that is building each week from his children’s new discoveries, including the slippery mountain house, snow trees, angel grass, and the gynormous journey through the gate.  It not only records where children have been and the stories of those journeys, but builds a mythology and sense of place that returns to the woods with them.

Mark, Karen and Steve told us about the new space at nursery, coming to be known as Mark’s shed in which children can explore natural materials and re-visit their experiences in the woods.  It is a dedicated space which in such a busy setting, used not just as a nursery but as after-school provision, makes the woods visits and fascinations more visible for everyone. 

Julie and Jane shared their work with drama, taking the children’s own stories written or scribed in the woods as the source for whole class exploration.  On a simple stage, marked out by masking tape on the carpet, any story can now come to life under the expert direction of the children themselves, and with Julie’s quiet, calm voice narrating.  Julie spoke of the children’s satisfaction in this process, and of how even on the way back from the woods they are already talking about ‘doing their stories’.

Towards the end of our time Steve shared a fantastic film compilation with us, from the nursery children’s year in the woods, which brought us on to our final focus for Wild Exchange this year – how to share the wonderful work that is going on in these three settings, with whom, and why.  This will be the theme for our next meeting, which will begin again in ‘other woods’ – at Lattersey Nature Reserve near Kidzone in Whittlesey.

From story to drama (Shirley Primary School)


(By Deb Wilenski) Vivian Gussin Paley has been listening to kindergarten children’s stories, scribing, reading them back for many years and has written eloquently and with wonderful perception about her work with children and educators.  Here, in Wally’s Stories she recalls the moment when, for the first time, and inspired by kindness towards Wally who was often in trouble, she suggested they act out one of his stories:

It made Wally very happy, and a flurry of story writing began that continued and grew all year.  The boys dictated as many stories as the girls, and we acted out each story the day it was written if we could.

Before we had never acted out these stories.  We had dramatized every other kind of printed word – fairy tales, story books, poems, songs – but it had always seemed enough just to write the children’s words.  Obviously it was not; the words did not sufficiently represent the action, which needed to be shared.  For this alone, the children would give up play time, as it was a true extension of play. (p.12)

In our project with Shirley Primary School’s reception class in 2012, many children found their narrative voices, and we welcomed and encouraged their exploration of words.  Some began on day one, with our first visit to Bramblefields; Katie’s heroic tale of her fight with the bears was remarkable for its drama and clarity:

Katie:  Cherish, guess what I seen?  I seen a hairy bear.  It was up there in those trees. I went in the far away forest.  I saw hairy bears over there – they were climbing on my head.  And guess what I did, I fighted them.  I killed them.  I killed the bear with my gun.  And when I came home guess what I found?  I found no-one, ‘cos they were all hiding.

Other stories were shorter but no less momentous.  Oliwia who was first to climb the tree with no branches, told me she had never climbed before, and exclaimed:   I didn’t.  And I have now.  Her words marked not only the beginning of intrepid and skilled physical exploration, but a desire to speak, in the woods and in the classroom, far more than she had done before.

We all worked closely with this process of recognising and encouraging children’s authorship.  Through our ten weeks together we scribed stories, collected stories and made them visible in the classroom, we often began and ended our time together by sharing stories, and used photographs as a way of inventing as well as recounting narratives.

This year, coming in to support Julie and Jane in their continuing exploration of Bramblefields, Ruth and I wondered whether the stories children were telling might be used as an even richer resource.  We described Paley’s method of dramatizing children’s own narratives – and the simple use of masking tape to mark out a ‘stage’ on the carpet.  We wondered if the stories children told could be used by Jane and Julie’s class as material – their own script for acting out – and what might develop as a consequence.

Because the children had just been involved in the Christmas play, Julie could introduce the idea of a stage in the classroom with some familiarity.  She remarked that the children easily picked up the idea, and with it the way they could act out their own narratives.  When Ruth and I visited last week the practice was beautifully established and truly exciting.  Even on our walk back from the woods children were asking if they could ‘do my story’ this afternoon, with a clear sense of anticipation and intent.

And we saw wonderful stories unfold.  Julie read each story sentence by sentence, very slowly and carefully, giving each phrase its time and importance.  The author stood in the middle of the circle and in the role of stage producer/director chose people to play the parts needed.  There were no props or costumes.  The children made everything out of themselves: we saw a spiky dragon come to life, a dark cave, a ‘gynormous pink castle’; there was a dual between the Hulk and a fire-spitting dragon that was beautifully choreographed in slow motion.  When the director struggled with an idea, help was offered from the circle of children, how to make the invisible woman disappear, how to play the role of ‘the dark’.  Authors worked with authority and skill, a solution was found for every dramatic demand, there was a strong sense of shared understanding, social and imaginative connection, and as Paley has described so often, of kindness.

Blue land no more – finding another Hinchingbrooke


(By Deb Wilenski) The first day we worked with Ben and his class from Cromwell Park Primary School last year was marked by snowfall, re-shaping the woods in Hinchingbrooke into unknown white lands.  Just over a year later, as Ruth and I returned last week, there was whiteness of a different kind;  a low lying and settled mist kept company with us in the woods, softening boundaries, shifting perspectives, making the familiar mysterious again.   I half expected the children to be tentative in this atmosphere, but they seemed completely at home.  Meeting in the same Living Room space that Fareedá and Kerensa had found last year, they had clear ideas about where they wanted to go, and with a phenomenal amount of support from parents, their explorations could easily extend into different parts of the woods.

Ben began the morning by sharing a story with us all from the notebook he brings to the woods. It was Jim’s story from the previous week, an intriguing story of journeys and lands: Through some mud, over the log, under the branches of the trees.  Blue land is no more.  It’s got down because it’s rotten.  Yellow land is starting.  Jim had plans for this week too, to go over the path to the unknown land.  Another child picked up a phrase form Jim’s story and said they were going to find a new story, of mountain no more.  Lots of children wanted to go back to the mountain where the week before they had got completely covered in mud.

The woods were beautiful this morning, not just because of the mist and the tall trees, and the lands and stories unfolding.  But because of Ben’s calm confidence, his authentic interest in the children’s explorations; because of the way children listened to each other, and because of the gentle way adults gave them space and quiet attention too.  It was beautiful because we could really experience the woods – Ben takes nothing with him, no equipment ‘just in case’.  He trusts that children will find their own way to be interested in where they are, and that this will be enough.  He has a class of confident, happy, resilient children to show for it.

The children have begun mapping their places in the woods back at school, marking the spaces and landmarks they have discovered so far.  The mountain is represented many times, and after walking with a group of seven children into the mists, and beyond where they have stopped before, we find ourselves curving back to arrive at its muddy slopes.  Lots of the children are already making their ways up, improvising with sticks used as walking poles to arrive triumphantly at the top.

I am with Oliver who at first said oh no this is where the path ends as we reached the limit of one of the tracks.  But having come away from the track and back into the woods, he discovered thetreasure ship – part of an ongoing narrative of pirates in the woods, and then the other side of the mountain.  He had never been down the back of the mountain before, and at the end of the morning told everyone excitedly:  We went to two mountains – the one we found before and the one next to it – on the other side.

As we gathered together back in the Living Room, and listened to each other’s discoveries Ben told us of the adventure he had been on with a group of girls, through the magic space (which was a magic door last year) and into places where there areother places – another Moss Land, another Mountain, are there in these woods two of everything?  This language of ‘another-ness’ and the intriguing idea of two of everything seems a perfect way to be exploring the woods with this second class of children, this second year.

What, there are more woods? – beginnings of wild exchange.


(By Deb Wilenski) For the first time in our Footprints work we are going back.  With support from Cambridgeshire Early Years Services, CCI is working this year with our last three project partners – Cromwell Park Primary School, Shirley Community Primary School and Kidzone Childcare Services – to offer a kind of wild exchange in which educators meet without their children to talk about their experiences, listen to each other and find ways to formulate new questions, keeping core values in mind, and making this work we are so proud of visible to others.  We were really happy too that Alison Gray, education officer at Hinchingbrooke Country Park, could join us.  

Towards the end of this first twilight session Ben told us how his Reception class had reacted on hearing that other teachers were coming to talk about other children, who visited other woods.  Their reaction was fascinating.  Paraphrased by Ben as what, there are more woods? the children’s amazement was quickly followed by burning questions: do they have Long Far-Away Land, is there a Living Room, is there Dinosaur Land?… I was struck not only by the potential for exploration in these questions, but how they related to our own process of exchange.  Orientating ourselves, and wondering about similarity and difference, was exactly what we had been doing for the last hour and a half.  There is always a degree of revelation in coming together as educators – that other educators are out there asking similar questions, searching for solutions, building enquiries.  We are fascinated by what connects our experiences, and how similar they can be, as well as the striking differences.

We began the evening by sharing our collective experience and expertise: what did we already know about this work?  We used images form the projects to remind us and offered blank cards to add important things that weren’t represented.  Julie remembered Viktor’s pride and excitement in hearing his story read back to the whole class, his new sense that I am a writer.  Mark recalled having to learn to let go of children and what this enabled him to learn about their competence, resilience, and independence.  Ben had seen clearly two big changes in his children – boys becoming creative explorers of the imagination, girls growing into confident leaders.  There were many examples of transformation – children coming alive and, literally for some, finding their voice in the woods.  We all tracked significant shifts in social relationships and connections, and could describe too shifts in ourselves – a return to fundamental values, important changes in practice and understanding.​

Having mapped out some of the ‘known lands’ of our experience, we turned to the unknown. What did we want to learn more about?  There were questions of comparison – what would it be like to be in the woods for the whole year?  What languages would children develop in their wild explorations and follow-up sessions in the classroom?  Would stories still be important?  Would so many lands be found again?   And there were questions of focus – how could we enable children to explore what really, fundamentally mattered to them?  How might these children’s experiences be used to introduce other classes or groups to the woods?

Which brought us on to our final question:  who do we want to share this work with?  There is on-going communication with parents that Kidzone in particular want to develop further, and we discussed ways that are most likely to be successful – making use of short instant communication through social networking, as well as documentation to raise the project’s profile.  There were important invitations made between these educators to visit each other’s wild places – the more woods – and ground discussions in first-hand knowledge.  There were ideas about how to share our work with colleagues within settings too, and invite them to visit sessions in the woods.  And then there were the burning questions of children.  Ben suggested that children from different settings could ask each other questions – if the children in his class wanted to know whether the woods in Bramblefields have Long Far-Away Land, who better to ask than the children who go there?  Experts on wild places are sitting in all our classes.  Their conversations are likely not only to be fascinating, but to make reading, writing and communicating an absolute necessity.  And we might get to find out why their woods are small, why there are more woods, what happens when we let children share stories, what we can learn when the questions children really want to ask are put at the heart of our explorations.


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