The project was a whole week residential for a group of year 4 and 5 children at Dunkirk Primary School (aged 8 – 10). None of them had been there before although a few of the children have siblings who came away with us there in March 2015 as part of a week long residential Erasmus funded camp with Dunkirk’s link school in Finland. Dunkirk is situated just on the edge of Nottingham city centre and although Derbyshire isn’t far really, most of the children haven’t explored Derbyshire and it was another world entirely for them. Lockerbrook Centre (see link here) is high up in the Dark Peak area of north Derbyshire, an area of high hills, wild moorland, strange eerie rocky outcrops, vast reservoirs and little farm tracks.
There are captions on each of these photographs I took which give a little bit more detail about the project.
The timetable for the week consisted of a real mixture of opportunities for exploration and learning and we layered so much into everything we did. There were walks, morning and evening yoga, den building, working outside with clay, stories, cooking on the fire, songs, time to make books and draw and lots of time amidst all this to let the stunning landscape seep into you. Everything was thought out to provide deep learning experiences, opportunities for rich conversations and language development and endless opportunities to enhance self esteem and confidence.
We built a daily routine to hook everything on – getting up, dressing, breakfast together, clearing away, making packed lunch, morning yoga followed by a day of various creative work outside and then the evening meal and eventually bedtime yoga to relax and be ready to sleep. Of course, as anyone who has worked on a residential knows, all this is then followed by ensuring the children are in bed, helping anyone who might feel a bit strange away from home, checking on the children constantly and then making sure all plans are ready for the following day. For adults it’s a wonderful week of work but incredibly long hours with no down time at all.
We were well prepared for wet weather but actually it was hot and sunny all week – which showed off the amazing views brilliantly and also gave us a chance to connect with the local population of midges… (maybe that bit of wildlife wasn’t quite so welcome!).
Lockerbrook is situated on top of a steep hillside above Snake Pass, so it involves a walk up through a beautiful wooded hillside to reach the centre. Once up there you can walk for miles along the hills and we were totally spoilt for choices of routes. On the Tuesday and Wednesday we undertook two walks to take in a variety of different views, history, geography and stories. One walk takes in the stunning landslip that forms Alport Castles, the other walk took us past Crook Hill and through the wooded hillside to the reservoirs where we could explore stories of the drowned villages. Each of these walks was about 6 ½ miles, which is quite an undertaking for most of the children; we allowed the whole day for each walk so that we could ensure there was time for breaks along the way: time for stories, for gathering ideas, for making things and sharing thoughts – and also ice creams at one point…
On the Thursday we decided to use the children’s intense fascination with the villages underneath the reservoirs and enable them to explore their ideas around this. Its been a strong feature of the way we have worked with the children at Dunkirk over the years that we ask them big questions and give them a real chance to shape their learning. It’s also so touching and wonderful how the children use this to explore some very strong and powerful world issues. For me too, the fact that last years Protest Art project fed deeply into their thinking on this project was really important. Some of the children wanted to make model villages to try and flood to see what would happen, others wanted to know what would happen if they tried to create a way of diverting the water so it didn’t flood the villages and another group wanted to make placards, banners and model people to stage a real protest about flooding the villages – they wanted to know what would happen if people were given a voice.
Each evening there was time for reflection and to imbed what had happened during the day. There was drawing, guided visualisations, making books, sewing (making puppets and more), time to read, time to chat, time too for table tennis and football. I lit a fire (in my favourite spot over looking the reservoir) and we all sat around: we cooked, we sang and we shared thoughts. Event the night when the midges were at their most active we still sat out (if briefly) with midge hoods on – rather a strange sight!
There was yoga each evening before bed (as well as each morning) led by drama / yoga practitioner Parmjit Sagoo, its such a powerful and wonderful way of the children finding calm, gathering thoughts and winding their energies into either a place ready for work or a place ready for sleep.
A huge driver in the work I do is about finding places for stillness and contemplation in nature – and thereby ways of igniting curiosity. This is crucial for my own practice but I think its vital too for children and adults who often are pushed in a fast paced education system full of intensity. Its often incredibly hard to find places where you can sit and think and observe – and in most school days this is very rare indeed, yet learning and imbedding of knowledge come through times to consolidate and through tactile connection with the world. It’s a kind of mindfulness that is central to well-being.
On our first day whilst making dens, two of the boys discovered fallen fresh pine needles – they were totally fascinated “look at these claire, what are they? They are like little hedgehogs, they’re bright green and they smell good and they bend and they are all a bit different – and here’s another and another… look… more of them…” Their den making turned into a wonderful exploration to hunt and gather fallen pine needles and we had a great discussion about why it had to be the fallen ones they collected and not those still growing on the trees. Because we were there all week they were able to keep revisiting this, they carried a selection of the pine needles around with them all week, they kept finding new ones and thereby making all sorts of amazing observations about trees and soil types – and from high up on the hill tops where they could look down onto the woodland they were making some great discoveries about the trees in the wood, how the land was managed and why… it went on all week with more and more observations and questions. By the last morning they were still picking up fallen pine needles and comparing them – it’s an utter delight to be on a journey of discovery like this with children. I think as adults it can be all too easy to dismiss the small details that fascinate children – and if you don’t stop to look and question you miss SO much. But if children are surrounded by adults who DO stop, look, value the tiny details and share the wonder, then they receive a message that their curiosity, interest, ideas and questions are valued.
Another example of this was the reeds growing in many places around the centre. Again, on the first day, when a child had found one I showed them how you could carefully peel away the outer green coating to reveal the wonderful white inner spongy world of the reed – and we talked about how people had used these as candle wicks. The challenge to peel them caught the interests of several children but then also they discovered so many sculptural qualities of the reeds and spent ages looking at different ways they could link together. This was still going on by the last day with more and more new discoveries being made.
One of the class teachers who came along made the observation about how you see such different qualities in the children on a project like this. That it’s often the children who might struggle to sit behind a table all day and focus on desk-bound tasks (and thereby be seen as struggling in a classroom) who totally shine out as enthusiastic learners and who are completely focused on the world around them. I feel very privileged that over the years I’ve been able to work on creative projects which enable this side of children to shine out.
There was a cuckoo calling early in the morning near the centre too, a sound so familiar from my own childhood but now a rare sound - and for very many children it isn’t a common feature of their childhood.
At dusk bats were flying around and a woodcock roding too… and as darkness fell tawny owls called loudly (the children were asleep by then!).
All sorts of tiny and intriguing insects were around and I was delighted to find an elephant hawkmoth drying itself out on the grass on the last morning. A couple of the children caught sight of a lizard out on one of our walks and they were totally fascinated by this and desperately trying to find more. We could have spent the entire week searching for creatures and only scratched at the surface of what was around us.
I’ve been resident artist / forest school leader at Dunkirk for 9 years, which has involved many different projects and partnerships and for the past few years has involved being at the school 3 days a week working with many classes on a number of initiatives. It means I know the children and staff well and we have developed an incredibly strong working relationship and it has meant that creative projects like this can be cross referenced with all so many other strands of work at the school. My time at the school is now changing but hopefully there will still be opportunities to work in this way with the children and staff. Its been an incredibly special journey and I’m endlessly inspired by the ways the children are fascinated by the world and by the questions they ask.