Saturday, 22 June 2013

The cob oven is fired up for the first time…

We used the cob oven this week for the first time – very exciting!
We’d had some really sunny and dry weather but I knew that the oven was going to still need a lot of drying out time, so I wasn’t sure how the first fire would go…  It was an exciting experimental process and part of the discovery of getting to know the oven!
I was with Oak, the year two class at Dunkirk, all day, with their teacher Mark Woodings and their teaching assistant Michelle Loach.  Between the three of us therefore we were able to facilitate a whole set of things happening in parallel with the children.   Whilst at the very start of the morning I worked with a very small group to sort fuel and light the fire in the oven, the rest of the class had a wonderful telling of the Little Red Hen story, complete with lots of visual and tactile props.

Throughout the day, the class all made bread dough in groups – it was important they all had a chance to explore this (the whole school does a lot of cooking all year round, so using the oven is just a part of a much wider set of on-going activities).  We’re also hoping to have a bread week at school in September, where all classes can make a whole set of different breads and test out lots of different methods used around the world to bake and share bread.
Oak class have been exploring their self-generated  question of “how things move” and also recently been looking at space.  So as a brilliant hands-on way of exploring this they all worked in small groups to build rockets from old carbonated drinks bottles, which were then test-launched with Mark’s foot-pump.   It meant that we were launching rockets and firing the cob oven all at the same time (all whilst little groups also made dough and looked at yeast rising etc).   The rockets worked really well, some went incredibly high and I loved that happening whilst we cooked
Because we were on the school field and Discovery Garden (they are all part of the same area) all day it meant there was exactly enough space for all of these things to be happening alongside each other.  There was a wonderful host of questions, observations, thoughts and ideas all being exchanged.   The children could watch what each other were doing and had the physical space they needed to do this. 
So as I stoked the fire in the oven and cut firewood with some children, there were rockets being fired nearby and really interesting discussions amongst the children.   
There were also lots of loose parts being turned into potions, concoctions, images and stories…
It was wonderful to finally light the oven, the fire got going well but did need to be stoked a lot.   I didn’t want to make a big fire in it and I was wary of causing cracks with any sudden changes in temperature.  We had the oven lit all day and it did take at least three hours to get hot enough to begin to cook bread.  Its all an experiment and so important for the children to see adults willing to test and not always know how things will turn out.  The first batch of rolls came out a bit soft (“I’d like some dumplings” one boy said!) but were cooked through and had a great slightly smoky taste.  By the end of the day the oven was cooking the little bread rolls really well and had built up a great amount of heat.
You have to “soak” the oven through with the heat, it works as a heat-retaining chamber and it’s the residual heat that you cook with.  Its was really interesting seeing how hot the different parts of the oven became and which part held the most heat – and that’s important in helping us to learn how to cook with it.   Every clay oven is slightly different and I like the idea that you have to get to know your own oven!

We’ve not had a chance to make a door for the oven yet and I used a set of bricks to close the doorway (and thereby retain the heat) whilst we cooked with it – this seemed to work fine.  I liked the little bits of smoke emerging from the doorway, especially as they swirled around the little character that sits just about the door!
In terms of using a cob oven in school, it does need an adult with it throughout and there’s loads of practical aspects that are crucial – especially as you are using fire.   (One of the really important elements of my Forest School training was the health and safety aspects of making and using fire, safely, with children.)  The school needs to be committed to using the oven and have enough members of staff willing to do this – and that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about our cob oven at Dunkirk.
Building and using a clay oven in a school does feel a process that is making several important ethical points.  It’s about making things yourself – not buying them in ready made.   It’s about slowing down and understanding that things take time.   It’s about cooking and sharing food – and creating a social and community space to do this.   It’s about the ecology of the way we cook and use fuel and it’s about understanding where our food comes from.  It’s about the spaces we give to our children and to ourselves as adults.

Whilst we ate our bread we were able to take in all the other aspects of the natural world around us.  Damselflies are now busy in the Discovery Garden, as well as many bees, beetles, butterflies and so much more.  The pond has many small creatures in it.   Flowers are out, many different kings of leaves are about, there are very visible signs of the cycle of life – cuckoo spit, leaf-galls of various kinds are plentiful as well as some small remains of a couple of dead birds killed, we think, by a sparrowhawk (the children don’t touch these but are really interested).   These things provide crucial points for discussions about the natural world.

So, we hope to use the oven again at least once a week for the rest of term and we’ll get to know it more and more as we do so.   Its providing such a wonderful talking point and we’ve had some very inspiring conversations with families about cooking traditions around the world.   Many of the children at school come from a whole host of countries and either they or their families have first hand experience of cooking in many different ways. 




Monday, 17 June 2013

Mud as a valuable learning tool...

What treasures might lie buried in the mud?  I found this at very low
tide on a beach in the Scottish highlands…
I began a blog post about mud and why it’s a rich resource – and as I compile it, I realise that there is SO much I could say, that its best spread over a couple of blog posts…
It’s very soon International Mud Day.   I know loads of settings where mud is used wonderfully and seen as a brilliant resource.   There are some brilliant information packs and examples all over the web, such as:

Mud can be many colours and textures…  and invites you to draw in it…

I really adore mud as a rich resource to work with – in so many ways.   Clay, soil, sand, compost – and all the many variations of earth are so versatile and yield amazing discoveries.   I’ve used mud in many projects over the years, with many age groups and by myself.   I worked with clay extensively on my art degree many years ago and loved all the various experimental – and elemental - processes this brings. 


With children I’ve been using clay in projects for many years and mostly now use this as an experimental and exploratory material, so it’s rarely fired.  But clay is also wonderful to fire and the process of changing it through heat is quite magical.   (Plus I’m rather addicted to the textures and colours of fired clay, the alchemy of it all is wonderful).   I adore “real clay” (rather than air-hardening clay which has lots of fibres added and is much harder to manipulate I think) and the different textures that can be explored through mixing clays with water and sand etc are gorgeous.   It’s a rich material for language development.
Clay is great inside – but clay and mud outside are even more amazing…   You can add endless loose parts / natural materials - and become lost in your own world as you create clay heads on tree trunks or fill a grassy nook with imaginary animals…


On our Discovery Garden at Dunkirk Primary and Nursery, one of the areas that is returned to over and over – by all year groups – is the mud pie and potion making area.   It’s a big space and often ends up with the equipment being taken to lots of different corners and nooks of the Garden as groups and individuals experiment with natural materials.   The resources are stored in a central space so the children always know where they are – but I think it’s the ability to take them to your own chosen space that also adds to the appeal.   Children will sit concentrating for long periods of time in one of the willow domes for example, or on top of the “mountains” (when you are young a small hill in a garden is a perfect mountain)...


I love observing the different spin on the resources that each group of children brings.   I’ve seen the same set of equipment being used to mix magic potions, make hot chocolate, mix mortar and build a wall, build a moon surface, make all sorts of food, make cement, make a giants cake, make “our own toys”, make ovens, create homes for birds and insects and so much more …   This has then led to the writing and illustrating of wonderful recipes, short films about mud, the recording of sounds and the creation of songs.   Its involved copious measuring, estimating, counting and huge observation of the changing states of materials.


We stoke our mud area with an assortment of loose parts such as metal pots and pans (sourced from charity shops, pound shops and commandeered from things destined to be thrown away etc), wooden spoons, vegetable mashers, ladles, rocks, logs, bricks, stones and pallets used as surfaces...
Its vital to have the long grass, the abundance of flowers such as daisies and dandelions (which its ok to pick and use) and a good supply of mud…   And also all the other spaces to retreat into as you experiment.    It’s also crucial to be able to be outside in all seasons.  Mud pies in the winter might freeze – which brings a totally new dimension to the summer when mud pies possibly dry out or warm up…


Really one of the key things in all of this is having an area to interact with natural materials without feeling rushed or squashed – and by doing so this brings opportunities for reflection and also observation.   Whilst discovering, for example, what happens when you mix dry mud with water you become lost in a world of textures and this takes you to a place where you are more alert to both noticing things and to thinking.
Who might live here…?   I’m always intrigued by little holes in
the woodland pathways… who has made a home here?
I’ve seen amazing discoveries about the properties of mud and grass and other natural materials.   A few days before we built the Cob Oven at Dunkirk a small girl presented me with an amazing solid ball of mud she had spent an hour creating.   It was a self-directed project and she’d worked really hard to get the mud to a certain consistency so that it would hold its shape; needless to say when she then came to work on the Cob Oven she knew exactly how to work the clay and sand into a wonderfully building material.

“The more you pay attention, the more beauty you’ll discover.  Mud is lovely and easy to work with… earth is the most common construction material on the planet.  For comfort, beauty, availability, ease of use, ecology and economy, it beats most other materials hands down…”     Kikko Denzer

More to follow…

Saturday, 8 June 2013

cob oven build - get your feet in the mud!

We are so excited to have been building our cob oven this week at Dunkirk Primary School.    It’s a really exciting development on the Discovery Garden and all year groups (and staff) are involved in creating it.
I used clay in-depth on my fine art degree many years ago and ever since I have used it in projects whenever possible.   I adore clay – and mud!   Its such a versatile material and has the possibility to transform when heated and / or other materials are added.
Lisa Hayes, who teaches Apple Class (reception) and I learnt all about cob building at the Derbyshire Eco Centre a couple of years ago when we took part in building the cob oven there.   Ever since we’ve been itching to get one built in school.
Cob is an amazing building technique; its used all around the world and has been used for centuries.   It’s a mix of clay, sand and straw which is compacted to form dense layers in the wall of the structure you are creating.    Cob bread (or pizza) ovens have become a more common site recently in all sorts of places (we know of several in Nottingham) but cob is also used to create buildings, sculptures and outdoor features such as benches. 
Our cob oven on the Discovery Garden is intended to complement the cooking that we do on the fire there – but also ALL the wonderful cooking that takes place throughout school.   Creating and sharing food together is a key thing and it touches all of us.
The entire school have been involved in building the Dunkirk oven, all classes from both campuses (the school has two buildings) have come along at various points and got stuck in.    Its meant that every child and adult has had an input and thereby forms a connection with the oven.   Its about building community and creating a space for sharing food, for conversations, for discovery and for friendship.
The oven got underway on Tuesday (June 4th) with years 5 and 6 creating a sand former whilst also mixing up the cob with their feet.   They got stuck in and asked some wonderful questions.    We got a layer of cob onto the oven in the afternoon, which felt great progress for day one.   The children talked lots about the word cob and what it might mean – we talked about cobble stones, cob rolls (round bread rolls): cob comes from an old English word meaning “lump”.  We also talked lots about other building techniques with mud such as adobe and wattle and daub…  
The sand former became covered in more and more layers of cob as the week went on - each layer has a different combination of clay / sand and then also straw in the last layers.   We finished with a “plaster” layer of cob and the doorway was cut out.   The oven is almost done – the last task is now to remove the sand former!  When it feels dry enough (hopefully next week), the sand will be removed, leaving a void which becomes the oven space.
Its been an amazing project – I’m so inspired by what I’ve seen as the children and adults have found so many aspects of the whole project to engage with: they’ve been so absorbed with it.  
The sensations of mixing the cob and touching it have been really interesting to watch.  Its sat with people in lots of different ways.  The older children who started the project with us were quite reticent at first to mix with bare feet and we did have a set of wellies they could use.  However, one group wanted to get stuck straight in with bare feet – and the welly-wearers looked on as they realised the bare-footed group seemed to be having a really amazing time.  We let them work it out themselves and within a short space of time the wellies were off and everyone was mixing bare-footed!  This produced wonderful dance movements and discussions about the best way to mix and scrunch it together.  
I’ve noticed a lot of body awareness and new tactile sensations as children (and adults) have discovered what it feels like to mix cob with your feet, to dance on it and to then pick it off your toes!     Children have devised games to run on the grass to get the cob off or they have just not wanted to stop mixing it!  I’ve seen them comparing their feet with each other.    The language was amazing.
Its such a tactile process and the children who are really kinaesthetic have instantly understood the way to mix and the consistency the mix needs to be.  Interestingly, because there is a recipe and clear instructions to follow when using cob (its not an “anything goes” process), the children who like rules and tight formats have really understood that too and its appealed to them.
One of the delights has been all the varied things going on around the cob oven – the peripheral activities have been so wonderful to see.    The children all know the space really well and we have a set of loose-parts /  activities that they can return to each time they come to the Discovery Garden; they revisit things such as potion-making, digging, mini-beast hunts, land-art etc over and over and they put a new spin on it every time. 
With the cob oven project it was wonderful to see how the oven inspired them in different ways in terms of all the other things they did and created.   We had plenty of spare bricks and found several children using these to arrange them, to make little walls and to make their own mortar from mud and water.  One group did a really amazing job of creating their own oven, they spent a really long time working together to move bricks and build a low wall with “mortar” they mixed themselves – they used the metal pots and pans we have for mud-pie making and these were soon in their oven, cooking…  Their conversations with each other were stunning to listen to and they were totally lost in the world they were creating.

Stick peeling is another activity that I find children want to return to over and over and each time they find new ways to use and create with the sticks they have striped the bark off.  We use vegetable peelers and they notice so much as they strip the bark off, smell the wood underneath and discover the different properties of various sticks and different types of wood.  This week we had lots of peeled sticks being painted and used with bricks and mud to create things.   Its also so interesting watching how deep the concentration is with something like stick peeling – and how it also lets you then take in other things around you.
It wouldn’t have been the same at all if we’d been inside making the cob oven; there was so much going on in the natural world around us that everyone was constantly noticing and commenting on things they could see.  The canal at the back of the Discovery Garden was really busy with boats, our pond is teeming with life, bees were busy everywhere, various interesting beetles, hoverflies, spiders, butterflies and so much more were all subjects of intrigue.   I don’t think it would be the same either in a more sterile outside space – it’s the fact that the oven is in a garden area in which wildlife is encouraged and the grass is allowed to grow long…
Making anything can give rise to interesting conversations and the cob oven was no exception.   Wonderful chats were happening as people worked together, I noticed some deep and heartfelt discussions about all sorts of issues, hopefully because making puts you in a relaxed frame of mind that also allows reflective thought.   It also illustrated the amazing diversity of the children at Dunkirk – we had conversations in many languages going on and at one point there was a particularly interesting discussion about mud in Russian!
The international aspect of the school also meant the children and adults reflected with first-hand experience on different cooking methods and various outdoor ovens they had seen and used.   We had wonderful suggestions for recipes and we really look forward to compiling a cob oven cook-book in which families can input lots of ideas.
So, we have left the oven to begin to dry over the weekend – and we hope that we will be able to remove the sand former next week…   Fingers crossed then, that the cob oven holds up by itself when the sand is removed!  We are really excited to start cooking with it and have lots of plans for various breads, pizzas and more.
I have to also mention the wonderful book “Build Your Own Earth Oven” by Kikko Denzer; it’s a sort of cob oven bible and I love the text and illustrations inside.   Its written in a warming and encouraging way – with loads of technical detail and clear recipes for cob building (and there are guidelines you need to follow for the oven to work), but its full of test-it-out-and-see information, loads of tips on what to do if things such as cracks appear and ways you could try things differently another time.   It also talks wonderfully about the deeper emotions involved in making things with mud and in making bread – about the time involved, the hands-on tactile nature of all this and about why its crucial for us as humans.
Cob is a wonderful material and I'm quite addicted – it does take a lot of time, so maybe I need to start now if I want to build a cob house…
“Building and baking in a wood-fired earthen oven restores beauty, savor, and real bread by restoring the essentials: earth, water, fire and air.  And it requires you to participate.   In most modern kitches you don’t have to feel the heat, watch the fire or grow the ingredients… But if you don’t have to pay attention, you can’t participate, and if you don’t participate, you can’t know.”       Kikko Denzer