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




  1. Fantastic blog post. I think every school needs a cob oven especially made this way!

  2. Thanks so much Juliet. We’ve had really great conversations and feedback about the whole project. And I was delighted today when we removed the sand from the inside of the oven and it all held together well!