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Unlocking Kinder Croft; Learning, Growth and Creativity in Uncertain Times, by John Woods

I would imagine that I am not alone in admitting this, but for a while Coronavirus seemed to be something occasionally mentioned by the media that was happening somewhere far, far away. We simply had no idea that it would arrive here and come to prove so disruptive. I remember thinking ‘oh…something is happening, and it seems to be quite serious’, and then suddenly we were closing on the Friday and potentially not opening again until after the summer holidays.

During these final few days Stephanie and I tried our hardest to project an air of calm professionalism, but it was difficult as we both found the uncertainty quite unsettling. I, perhaps a bit optimistically, tried to convince myself that maybe it wouldn’t be that bad, and things would start looking up pretty quick.

However, on top of our personal worries, deep down we both feared that the farewells we were saying to the children that day might well be the last ones some of them heard from the staff at Kinder Croft. We were closing for the foreseeable future without ceremony, and the occasion of our very first cohort of children moving on was marked by no formal ritual of passing. And who ever heard of a forest without ritual? Not how we imagined it at all!

Added to this was the feeling that the departing children would miss out on the approaching springtime at Kinder Croft. Whilst the winter wasn’t particularly cold, it was pretty miserable. Lots of wind and rain, very few dry days and almost no snow; it was a winter barely worth the name. As many insects and animals hibernate during this time, so were the bulk of our activities devoted to generating and retaining warmth: movement games, running around, excursions, sourcing, collecting and chopping firewood, fireside games, stories and singalongs and piping hot concoctions of this and that. Not to mention of course the endless sock and boot changes.

But we toughed it out, and spring, heralded by the imminent bud-break on the Alder’s purple buds was just around the corner. Dormant life would re-emerge, imbued with a slightly intoxicating and inchoate sense of possibility, and would once again become that joyous dance of whim and caprice.

This is of course was not to be, and we found ourselves taking an earlier spring-break than we had expected. Alongside the rest of country, we soon found ourselves with lots of time on our hands, whilst the possibilities for rest and recreation had been radically altered. For those fortunate enough to not have worries about livelihoods, families and themselves overwhelm them at that time, what seemed to follow was an unprecedented outburst of creativity and autodidacticism. The world discovered it’s passion for making cookies and all sorts of exotic breads, TikTok videos abounded, language-learning apps were downloaded, instruments dusted off, fallow gardens beds cultivated, and an infinite number of ways were found to connect with others, and to also document and share this creativity. All of this seemed to confirm Wilhelm von Humboldt’s claim about human nature, in that ‘to enquire and create, these are the centres around which all meaningful human pursuits more or less directly revolve’.

Human creativity has fascinated people forever and the sudden flowering of it got me thinking about the conditions underpinning and nourishing it. The answer that initially came to me was ‘freedom’, but at first blush that seemed a little facile. Of course, people now had a lot of time on their hands, and so were free to experiment and create. They had also been temporarily freed from some of their obligations, such as their professional ones, but in what sense were they free if they were confined to their homes? On top of this, access to resources was precarious, for some more than others may I add, and people’s mode of living had been severely disrupted. When that happens so abruptly it’s bound to be psychologically disorientating. People were also in general very worried, but freedom from want and worry was clearly not uniform.

It seems to me that there was a strong element of necessity to it; you know, backs to the wall sort of stuff. People began to grow vegetables and make bread and to cut their own hair because the availability of these things had suddenly been called into question. And providing us with an example of creativity in the social sphere, they recognized new obligations and responsibilities; certain things had to be done and done independently. The phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ comes to mind, but that doesn’t quite capture what went on. More appropriate I think is the example of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and of the forge. He was lame, but rather than being paralysed by his brokenness it provided the catalyst for his creativity. And although I think it would be jumping the gun to say that a new society had been forged, I think it is true that a new vision of how things could be had indeed been forged in the fire.

Anyway, these questions and concerns were still on my mind when we at Kinder Croft answered the call to open as a hub for the children of key workers. And now it would no longer just be Stephanie and I at the chalkface, but there were now two additional members on the team. Arran Macdonald has joined us as new practitioner, whilst Merlin has also joined us for a bit of relief work.

After so much uncertainty about the future and what it would hold, we all felt that it would be great to get back to work. I for one felt that it would be good to have a bit of structure to my day, and I welcomed the prospect of some social interaction. But when the moment came it was slightly bittersweet: the voices and chatter of our usual ‘gaggle of exuberant children’ were absent from the forest, and so we were prevented from sharing with them the delights of spring.

That aside and mirroring what had happened in the wider world, what followed at Kinder Croft was a rush of learning, growth and creativity; it was truly a time of transformation. The budding and flowering of the trees and plants made them more readily identifiable (to us novices at least!) and allowed us to put our research into practice and to properly situate ourselves in our own particular ecological niche.

We also began to develop for ourselves and enjoy the fruits of that niche: comprehensive compost and wormery systems were created out of scrap wood, trees were tapped, bark stripped and cut and put to various uses, raised beds were built, soil sifted and seeds planted, trees transplanted and placed into strategic locations.

As well as this there was also a spot of civil engineering with a collapsible viaduct created to help us irrigate our plants and trees, some landscaping, an extensive program of deadwood clearance and invasive species eradication (Rhodendrons are public enemy number one at Kinder Croft!). Pathways, fences and stone stairways were also built for our smuggler’s run, which of course wouldn’t be complete without a vessel with which to smuggle in. Here, Stephanie, revealing herself to be not just a talented nursery teacher and manager, has built a pirate boat out of little more than screws, string and some old pallets: I’ve heard that it’s the talk of Ullapool, and it truly stands as a monument to these times!

In this the midst of this creative period I considered the questions relating to creativity that had animated me before. To what extent were the imperfect answers I had formed to these questions relevant to our experience as educators? Our aim here at Kinder Croft is to co-create and manage an environment that allows child-led play and creativity to flourish. But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and if we are to do this to the best of our abilities then we must determine the optimal conditions which will allow it to thrive and seek to create, sustain and replicate them.

The fact that it was springtime was an obvious spur to our creativity in the forest. The change in seasons brings about a lightening of the mood, and the energy arises to put flesh to the bones of plans conceived in the depths of winter. I suppose most people feel this every year and I know I do, but undoubtedly there was more to it than that. If I were to put my finger on it, I would say that it was the main factors were time and the environment.

One of the key reasons we had more time is that the numbers of children attending the nursery was now very much reduced. We were looking after three children maximum, and some days maybe only one. There were some clear benefits to this. It reduced the likelihood of conflict over roles and resources. If, for example we were digging and one child wanted to dig with the big trowel, then it became a whole lot easier to manage if there were only two or three children to alternate between. And in general, it made the management of tasks easier. In fact, it made it possible to manage tasks and at the same time still actively participate in them without losing any momentum, thus also making it more of a collaborative venture.

Also, should the children’s attention move onto something else and it’s what the children wanted then one adult would be able go with them whilst the other stayed to continue the initial project, again keeping the momentum going. There’s an interesting dynamic at play here which deserves further exploration, and I guess it’s to do with the tension between the educational value of the journey/process as opposed to the product. I think both are important. For us the end product is important because generally, we create things which directly enrich our environment and are for us to use and this is usually enough of an imperative to get them completed. Finished products are important too for developing the faculties of judgement and appraisal and provide their own opportunities for discussion and learning from each other. As well as this of course there is the simple joy of completion.

On the other hand, it’s a great thing about forest school that we can all start and finish tasks at out leisure and that there is always a diverse range of projects on the go which keeps things fresh for everybody. It’s a great thing to walk into work and say, ‘what project shall we work on today?’. I think it was Ralph Emerson that said, ‘all of life is an experiment and the more experiments the better’, and we agree! However, in some educational settings it is often external demands such as the allocated ‘time on task’ or assessment needs which dictate the need to have a product or a project finished within a certain arbitrary timeframe. In general these are the needs of adults, and they may or may not correspond to the interest or energy levels of the children at the time. We consciously try to keep these constraints to a minimum.

Another reason we had more time was that we had to some extent been freed from some of our professional obligations. Normally we had an allotted amount of time per week to cover our varied paperwork duties (‘non-contact time’ in the jargon), but we were to lose this as were now open as a hub full-time Monday to Friday. However, this didn’t present a problem as we had been advised that our primary responsibilities were now the children’s wellbeing. Although we were now obliged to keep abreast of the current Covid guidance and to implement and maintain appropriate risk management systems, the vast majority of our time on site we could spend just being with the children; creating with and for with them, and making sure they were safe, happy and having fun. And although of course in actuality we were planning and assessing the children’s learning, we were now relieved of the obligation to meticulously document it.

This refers to the distinction between doing something and be able to prove to someone higher up the chain that you are indeed doing it. It’s a thorny issue and goes straight to the nub of educator’s conceptions of their own professional agency, and also their views about the purpose of education. In my opinion forms of assessment that don’t directly impact the growth and learning of a child at that particular time serve institutional and bureaucratic purposes and should be treated with caution. According to surveys, the majority of Early Years Practitioners believe that the amount of paperwork they are expected to do is burdensome, and if this so then it follows that this is time which could be spent could be spent better things.

This brings me to the other aspect giving rise to the creative outburst at Kinder Croft: the environment. Now, when I was thinking about ways to characterise this, it was the ideas of philosopher John Dewey that came to mind. He had lots of interesting things to say but one of the things he believed was that the task of an educator was the protection, sustenance and direction of growth.

This didn’t just concern the growth of individuals as individuals, but both the growth of individuals as members of a community and of that community itself. And to be more specific, this didn’t just concern physical and material growth, but also ‘spiritual growth’ and I suppose what may be loosely called the ‘enrichment of life’.

How does this apply to Kinder Croft? Well, natural settings lend themselves easily to metaphors relating to growth, and I think Dewey would agree that there is no more an appropriate place to grow than in a school situated in a forest. But the thing that makes Kinder Croft perhaps a bit different from other outdoor schools is that it is actually situated in a community, admittedly a small and growing community, but a community nonetheless. Crucially, it’s also a working forest, which evidently helps to sustain the life of it’s inhabitants and as such provides an example that genuine forest living is a viable endeavour.

Speaking perhaps a little more concretely about this aspect, a walk around the forest with the children might result in us attending an impromptu chainsaw sharpening tutorial. We may end up delousing the chicks, collecting berries and plants, or doing any number of things which alter the wider environment and increase our enjoyment of it. There is also construction business situated in the forest which may lead to us going on an excursion to get tools and supplies and to scavenge waste wood for our projects. As well as this, we are in constant dialogue with them about helping us to implement some of our more ambitious and labour-intensive ideas. There are diggers and dumpers often at work around the site too, and from our safe vantage point this fascinates the children no end. The point is that it is visibly a community of self-led transformation and working at or attending Kinder Croft means that you have now become a part of this community. You become both witness and agent to this unceasing process of constant transformation.

Which I guess brings me to this end of this post. My hope in writing it was to both give people a flavour of what has been happening at Kinder Croft, and to try and flesh out and record my reflections about this unusual period, dimly hoping perhaps that someone may find them useful. In the course of writing however, I realised that I had another motivation for putting pen to paper: I wanted in some way to commemorate the period, but more importantly, also the people involved. From the children who have been awesome in what has clearly been an unsettling and confusing time for them, to the wider Kinder Croft support network and crucially, to the day to day staff. In an educational environment, opportunities for creativity ultimately stand for nothing if people are unable to grasp and capitalise on them, and that is exactly what the children, staff and wider network have done.

We have now opened back up for our non-hub children and it’s delightful to have them back. There has been a flood of positive comments about all the changes on site, but the thing that stands out the most is the unbridled enthusiasm of the children. They are clearly very happy with how things have progressed, but more importantly, they themselves are grasping and capitalising on the opportunities presented to them, and that is ultimately what it all about. Their energies are of course infectious, and it’s obvious how much we all missed each other. As the staff contemplate how the site has developed with the quiet confidence and humility of pioneers finally coming to grips with their environment, we begin to wonder if perhaps that guarded optimism I confessed to at the start of the piece wasn’t indeed unwarranted.

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Jul 12, 2020


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