Monday, 23 September 2013

Do trees have passwords? Do trees go to fancy dress parties? And other important Big Questions about trees…


September is firmly here and as autumn begins we’re starting a new investigation as part of the on-going Comenius link project at Dunkirk school.

We always work on projects that explore Big Questions with the children, and this takes many different shapes and formats, but we aim to be as child-centred as possible and for the children and staff together to really ask searching questions and explore many different avenues of enquiry.
As part of the Comenius Project we are exploring issues around ‘Why Are Trees Precious’; with ideas, resources, work and impetus being shared between all the linked schools (Norway, Finland, Italy and ourselves).
I’m excited always by children’s questions and lines of enquiry but looking at trees in this way is especially wonderful, I’m deeply drawn to trees and woodland – so to look at this afresh with the children and staff is really inspiring.

We’ve been exploring the trees local to the school – something we do all the time anyway but this now takes on an additional emphasis.  We’re lucky in having quite a lot of trees within an easy walk of the school, we’ve visited them with the children and we’ve held staff planning meetings under some of them (complete with a picnic).
 We’ve begun to ask questions – the children have generated some brilliant lines of enquiry so far and much more will emerge.  They've been thinking about the questions they would like to ask a tree.   They’ve been talking about what they know already about trees and what they would like to find out.  We’ve had various wonderful scientific questions but these also enable a deep philosophical angle to be explored.  There are stories waiting to be created, all sorts of things to be made, songs to be sung and experiments galore to be undertaken…
Just a few of the children’s questions:

 Do trees like drawing?
Do trees fly?
Do trees go to school?
How do the trees make their leaves fall?
Do trees have to sleep?
How many trees are there?
Can trees learn all about playing?
Trees and woodland are one of my favourite things to work with - as a subject matter in photographs, prints etc, in terms of story-generating and in terms of materials that I use.  I also turn to woodland as an inspirational, soothing, calming and rejuvenating space.  I’m lucky to live close to some incredibly stunning ancient broadleaf woodland in Derbyshire; its rich in wildlife and also in stories of human history (traces are evident through from ancient history, Roman workings to the Industrial Revolution and well beyond).
So, as I watch the leaves turn from green to yellow to gold to orange and begin to twirl off the trees and onto the ground… I also want to know if trees go to school, or if trees have a best friend, or whether trees like to play hide and seek…


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The discoveries of late summer…

September is upon us and the school year has begun again.    As sessions get underway in schools for me it’s a time of year when lots of reflection seems to happen.
Despite it being very (very) many years ago, I still have the feelings of being at school myself and the sense of “new beginnings” – with new pencil cases and school books.   There’s something “in the air” as summer draws to a close and autumn starts to make its presence felt (“back-endish” as a friend of mine would say!).

I love September, the temperature is usually wonderful for lots of long hours of work outside, there are (hopefully) berries in abundance and nuts and seeds are beginning to be very apparent.   It also feels a wonderful time to light fires and share stories, to gather natural objects for creating images and of course to find ways to make use of blackberries and all the other hedgerow abundance…

Blackberries must be one of the first ways many people start to forage for wild food (perhaps its also the only foraging that many people do).  They are a wonderful food – easy to find and as long as you follow a few simple tips (e.g.: don’t pick from road verges because of traffic fumes / residue and always pick above “dog-wee” height!) then you can have a wonderful supply of fruit to cook and create with.   The berries, leaves and canes of brambles make a good natural dye... 


 Apparently it’s also a cure for a child with whopping cough if you pass them (several times) through an arch made where a blackberry shoot has rooted naturally at either end…  My wonderful book “Discovering the Folklore of Plants” (Shire) says the patient should be eating bread and butter whilst this happens! The bread and butter are then fed to a passing animal or bird and the cough would disappear…   The book also mentions an old tradition that blackberries should not be picked after 29 September (loads of time to go then), Michaelmas Day, because “the Devil variously ‘waves his club over them’, ‘spits on them’ or ‘curses them’ "…

Last year the children I work with were so excited by all the blackberries in the hedgerows around schools – they used them as paints as well as eating them in various recipes (and of course tasting them straight from the bush too).  They were transfixed and as these were inner-city children it’s a wonderful reminder that hedgerow foraging is just as much an option in urban areas.

It was really interesting to see some of the same children looking for the berries again earlier this summer – they were confused about why there were none: so it was great to be able to look at the flowers on the brambles and talk about how these would turn into the blackberries (with the help of bees too). 


The rowans and hawthorns here are laden with berries at the moment.   Gathering the hedgerow harvest is a wonderful thing and it also provides an important connection with the past I think.   This goes hand in hand with the sense that the nights will soon start to draw in and a desire to stock the store cupboards (my freezer!) with foraged goodies.


There are many exciting mini-beasts to spot  - and some stunning dragonflies on the wing (we would love it if some laid eggs in our pond in the Discovery Garden at Dunkirk).
There are so many interesting natural textures to explore and intriguing sights spring up - such as various fungi, which really intrigue the children.

There is much seed to be gathered and stored (so making labels and decorating paper bags for this is very much on the agenda over the next few weeks).   We planted lots of wildflower seed this year and that seems to have done really well (possibly we have the right soil for this in the Discovery Garden) and we aim to collect as much seed as we can.  We’ll also store any beans and peas that have “gone over” so that we can plant them next year.

The light is also really special in September, the trees and hedges are laden with leaves still but the angle of the sunlight drops at certain times of day - so that long shadows are cast and the sunlight glistens on golden seed-heads and through leaves... 



   The sounds of the natural world change so much throughout the year.  In September the birds begin to gather and flock and call in a different way (although only very recently I watched recently-fledged sparrows being fed in my garden) and I’m always very aware of the absence of the swifts, who left much earlier in August.  

I adore autumn – but this part of the summer feels really special; summer is still here but not for too much longer, you want to grab every moment of being outside, of gathering fruit and vegetables, of soaking in the heat of the sun… of making paint with blackberries and watching the house martins swooping overhead…