Stop fixing and start building

I have a friend who is deeply entrenched in the state school system. He firmly believes that the system that we have, being the system that we have, is the system within which he needs to prepare his socio-economically deprived cohort to function. And so he upholds the system, he tweaks what he delivers to make it better for his kids and he does his best for a group of kids who deserve someone doing their best for them. He’s awesome.

The exams, the university placements, the work experience, the need to do homework so that they can get used to doing homework. For him, these tasks are not only necessary, they are the fundamental tools that he is morally obligated to provide his pupils so that they can go on to find their place within our society. I get it. And the world needs folk like this. But he’s wrong.

The idea of educational reform is that whilst the folk like that are teaching the kids like that to do the stuff they need to do to one day be the folk like that, there’s also got to be some folks who don’t buy it, who won’t countenance it any longer and who genuinely and passionately believe that it is possible that we can create a better educational system for our future generations.

Yet, there is a difficulty in getting people to buy into something that cannot be guaranteed. No doubt every one of you can look back on your life, at the opportunities that might have been, the things that would be different or the decisions that didn’t get made because it was easier to just leave things how they were than to upset everyone and try to start again. The risk of saying that thing or forcing that change or suggesting that new route is that it could all go wrong. You might get embarrassed or worse, it might completely fail and ruin someone else’s life as well. So it’s easier (and safer) to just keep doing what we’re doing – maybe with a few tweaks along the way.

Our education system has, for too many years, been being tweaked by people too afraid to throw in the towel, admit defeat and agree to build something entirely new. Yet I’d argue that the only way to create a new and better educational future for our children is to do exactly that. We are going to have to stop building additions and finishing the basements and instead get a new plot of land, a new set of tools and really commit to making decisions based on research, psychology and the desire to put the best interests of our children over other (economic) concerns.

We are all watching the climate crisis unfold under our watch and there are many voices out there who are willing to admit that we’ve got it wrong and are going to need to start again. Maybe we can tweak cars and make them electric and maybe we can convert our home boilers to run on renewables, but anyone who knows what they’re talking about on matters of the climate knows that we are going to have to realise radical, wholesale reforms not just of our society, but of our economic and political models as well. Buying electric cars is a plaster that may give us a few years grace, but a conversion to mass public transport, walkable cities and more integrated societies are necessary if we’re going to last not just past 2100 but for a good long while.

The same is true for education. We’re going to have to abandoned our tired old notions of ‘curriculum’ with testing and standards being thrown out the window and replaced with the encouragement of real thought. We need to promote ideas, creativity, resilience and focus. We need a schooling system that serves as a place for minds to meet and ideas to evolve. We need to reject the notion that getting everyone to ‘learn’ the same things and then prove they know the same things on tests is somehow preparation for the ‘real world’.

We’re going to have to get rid of our curriculum and start talking about the qualities and attributes we want to develop in humanity. We’re going to have to stop expecting everyone to learn the same things according to the same timeline and instead accept that they will all, in their own time, come to the fullness of understanding that they require in order to answer their own curiosities and develop their own minds. And for that, as a society, we are going to need to learn to trust in children. But that’s a thought for another day.

You can’t say ‘you can’t play’

We have an ongoing problem in our setting. It’s a problem that gets mulled over, discussed, argued about, decided upon and then mulled over again. No matter how much we talk it through we just can’t seem to get it right.

Let me explain. Some of the absolute bedrock beliefs that I have about education, and childhood in general, is that in order to facilitate the development of empathetic and mature human beings, children must be treated with empathy and maturity. Lightbulb, right?

Anyway, in order to create an environment that allows for empathy and maturity we leave kids to sort out a lot of their differences without adult interference. We encourage talking (till the cows come home) and we place an equal validity on everyone’s version of the ‘truth’ – no matter how incompatible with reality it may seem to our adult senses. we also allow the kids a huge quantity of freedom – both in their choices of activity and in their friendship associations. We trust that when given the right amount of space that decency and compassion will win the day.

Yet we have a problem. And it’s one of the biggest issues we face. Because within this arena of freedom and trust is the understanding that some people are going to like some people more than other people. And sometimes you just don’t want to hang out with that person.

Maybe that person is the one who tries to change the rules the moment the join the game. Maybe that person is the one who bosses others around. Maybe that person is the one who never has any new ideas.

Maybe it’s just a game that works better with two than three. Maybe it’s a project that three people invented and they don’t really need or want any help, thanks anyway. Or maybe there’s a group of kids who just want to feel secure in their own secret club with their own secret language.

Or maybe those kids really are just being exclusive. Maybe they do always leave people out. Maybe they do make kids feel unwanted or unneeded or unskilled. Maybe they are being bullies.


The question is – do they have the right to tell the others they can’t join in? Does every game have to be open to everyone? Do we need to force them to draw others into their private play? Don’t they have the right to privacy? And secrets? And best friends? And the freedom to choose?

How do you handle this in your setting? What strategies work? Or what I you think we could do better? I’d love your thoughts.

Axe wielding as danger-avoidance

“Deciding whether or not to trust a person is like deciding whether or not to climb a tree, because you might get a wonderful view from the highest branch, or you might simply get covered in sap, and for this reason many people choose to spend their time alone and indoors, where it is harder to get a splinter.” 
-Lemony Snicket

I often find it difficult to tell whether the look on someone’s face is disappointment or anger, frustration or just plain contempt. And I don’t think it’s because I’m a particularly bad judge of character (though some of you may suggest that there is at least some evidence to the contrary). Rather, I think it’s because within our society we have been so conditioned to not upset or judge or criticise that we have to suppress our natural and instinctive reactions to situations where we feel very strongly.

So I’m not sure whether it was disgust or disbelief that graced this dad’s face as he approached me and asked, ‘what is your policy on running around with axes?’. I also wasn’t sure whether it was a ‘somewhat satisfied’ smile or a grimace of ‘complete and utter despair’ when I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘I don’t really have an axe policy.’ (That’s a joke, insurers, I swear it’s in the risk assessment!) Also, they weren’t really running, I think they were walking quickly – and they had the head pointing down like you do with scissors.

But really, I know this is going to seem like I’m being blasé – and maybe I am – but I really believe that any policy I have on axes is an exercise in keeping certain members of certain public bodies in the job of checking to make sure my risk assessment covers Every Eventuality rather than a document that might in any way illuminate or safen-up the kids’ play. (Is that a word? Whatever. It should be.)

Because if I am going to allow for true freedom, I cannot supervise children every minute of the day. In truth, I don’t want to supervise them every minute of the day because they do loads of stuff that makes me nervous even though I know they’re (probably) perfectly safe. (Again, if you’re my insurance company, I’m joking. Still.)

What I can do is talk to them about risk assessment. I can help them to evaluate their options, encourage them to reflect on their choices and assume that they are capable of using these skills when they are not being micro-managed by meddling adults who are constantly saying totally unuseful stuff like ‘be careful’. (Again, I know that’s not a word. It’s fine.)

I can’t supervise anyone every minute of the day, even if I am being paid to do that, so I need to make sure that the children are empowered to make decisions for themselves about what is a good idea and what would be a Very Bad Idea. The stakes are low out in the forest- sure there’s axes and fires and drills and enormous holes and trees with brittle branches that break unexpectedly – but this is the staging ground for the real world and this is where they’re learning to learn.

We want our kids to grow up to make good choices. We want our kids to have the courage to say that it’s not a good idea to get in a car when someone’s been drinking or to have the strength of character to not take that ‘whatever’ even though everyone else is doing it and it looks like fun. Learning to assess risk and evaluate the potential outcomes of any decision is one of life’s most important skills. And every time they have to decide if they should chop up a log or off some kid’s fingers, they are learning about the power they have to make decisions that are not just good for themselves, but also for everyone in their community.

So if it’s necessary to look on in horror/wonder as a ten year old and a five year old learn to manipulate an axe together to help them grow to be competent and confident adults, then we’re going to have to do that. And even though sometimes I see these parents’ faces betraying a wonderous mix of disgust/delight/dread, I know that this is the right thing for these kids to be doing.

You’d be surprised at how responsibly the mice will act when the cats are all away.

Rainbow Collection Walk

In the depths of winter it’s easy to get bogged down by the greyness engulfing the world. It infiltrates the mind and soul and leads many to a profound sense of sadness. Which makes it the ideal time to put maximum effort into finding the glimpses of beauty and joy that are still hiding out there in the natural world.

If you’re aiming high for your rainbow collection, a paper plate covered with double-sided sticky tape will make a perfect base for sticking on all of the treasures you find. But just filling your pockets as you go will still give you plenty of joy when you unpack it all at home.

Go for a walk in your usual forest spot and consider how grey, bare and bedraggled the world looks. Then you need to start looking low, looking high and looking in all of the nooks and crannies that your eye usually glances over without much thought. There you will find bright green moss, yellow leaves, orange seeds, purple berries and red stems. You’ll discover that you don’t even need to look very hard before you realise that actually, the world is still full of colour and life.

If you were keen and brought a taped-up plate, you can arrange things onto it as you walk, creating a mandala, a rainbow, a spiral or just a mishmash of colour. If you’ve just been stuffing your pockets, do yourself a favour and be sure to get it all out when you get home. Lay out your treasures in a little rainbow on a window ledge or on a dresser top.

Then, on your grey days, let your rainbow collection serve as a reminder of all of the beauty that is still to be found in the world.

This text is extracted from my forthcoming book, 100 Things to do in the Forest. Full details of the book can be found on Laurence King’s website. The text remains copyright of Jennifer Davis and Laurence King and may not be reprinted without permission. The hand drawn images are copyright Eleanor Taylor and Laurence King and may not be reused without permission. Pre-orders of the book are available on Amazon UK and Amazon in the USA.

Shadow Tracing

The aim of this book is to get you outside and absorbing the beauty of the natural world. And shadow tracing is as peaceful and satisfying an activity as you could do on a sunny afternoon in a woodland glade. But luckily, it is also one of those activities that you can do in a park, at a bus stop or even sitting at your desk at work (providing you’ve got a window nearby).

Find a small tree, a bush, a flower or a stick which is casting a shadow and lay a piece of white paper down on the ground or your lap so that the shadow is lying fully on your paper. Now trace around the edges of the shadow, examining its nooks and crannies, and making sure to trace every detail.

On a winter’s afternoon you could bring a long roll of paper and trace out a whole tree; on a hot summer’s day you’ll find tracing wildflowers wildly satisfying. If you do happen to be sitting at a desk all day, you could trace the same plant at three or four different times of the day to see how the changing light affects your drawing.

The meditative effect of focusing on the small details of your tracing will keep your mind as still as it is when you’re doing adult colouring, but with the added gratification of producing something that looks like a genuine piece of art when you’ve finished. And don’t worry if your boss catches you drawing at your desk – you can give it to her in a frame tomorrow and all will be right with the world.

This text is extracted from my forthcoming book, 100 Things to do in the Forest. Full details of the book can be found on Laurence King’s website. The text remains copyright of Jennifer Davis and Laurence King and may not be reprinted without permission. The hand drawn images are copyright Eleanor Taylor and Laurence King and may not be reused without permission. Pre-orders of the book are available on Amazon UK and Amazon in the USA.