Mud and good companionship

We all know that feeling and showing gratitude is both good for you and motivates positive action, and that regularly noticing and being thankful for small things is just as good – quite likely better – than less frequent larger scale events.  Daily experience of gratefulness for what you have can generate wonderful feelings of abundance and having everything you need, so this is an important component of a sustainable life-view and way of living, as well as being very valuable (and actively therapeutic) for mental wellbeing.

So, shouldn’t supporting this disposition and mindset then be an intentional part of early childhood pedagogy?

We all also know just how much nature has helped to keep everyone going through the pandemic, and how often people have said that they’ve noticed so much more in their environment as a result of the restrictions.  This Sunday 4th July is Thank You Day, and of course this year’s focus is thanking the people and things that have kept us going over the past 16 months.  Keep Britain Tidy is encouraging a UK Power Hour (at 11am) “to say thank you to your local environment for keeping us sane during lockdown”.

I’m proposing a wider Big Thank You to nature for everything it does for us, all the time, no matter what.  Noticing and being grateful for endless small things in and about the natural world every day has certainly sustained me all through my life, but I’m so much more aware of this now: dandelions, soil, water, mud, rocks, trees, ants, rain, breeze, sticks, birds, peas, nasturtiums, foxgloves… the list goes on, and everyday there is something new to appreciate and fill us up.

This week’s post from Robin Duckett makes an excellent contribution to this theme and also times well with last Tuesday’s International Mud Day.  What better than the combination of mud and good companionship to make us feel that life is good, that we have what we need and that we are where we belong?  Robin is Director of Sightlines Initiative, following ten years as a nursery teacher.  As he describes, he is at home in sun and rain, woods and mountains.

I have been excited, impressed and enthused by the work of Sightlines Initiative for a very long time, especially by the deeply thoughtful and careful approach to working with natural environments begun in 1999 with the Rising Sun Woodland Preschool Project and continuing to develop all the way through to the magical 4-year Early Learning in Nature project funded by Access to Nature (Natural England/Big Lottery 2009-2013) and beyond.  So I’m really pleased to be able to express gratitude to Robin and all involved in Sightlines Initiative’s two decades of work illuminating the way to ‘do the right thing’ in nurturing young children’s deep encounters with the world, and to encourage you to explore the materials they have published over these years.

Thanks very much Robin!

Mud and good companionship by Robin Duckett

[This condensed article originally appears in Environmental Education Vol 126 Spring 2021 and is reproduced here with kind permission.  I also recommend reading the full version of Robin’s article, Elemental Materials, which can be found in Refocus Journal issue 04]

‘Hey! We just realised how absolutely brilliant mud is.’  The educators at Walkergate Early Years Centre in Newcastle had been venturing into a woodland preschool one recent spring and mud had been a big feature.  The ‘mud-ludder’ children jump and squelch in it, getting stuck, feeling it, moulding it, churning it, finding worms.

This is all part of the lovely mix of exploring, climbing, collecting, and making dens. Sticks can be living, dead, dry, wet, brittle, rotten, strong, long, for helping, carrying, building, sticks with fungus on, sociable sticks, power sticks.  They are limbs from the trees the children were playing amongst, in the mud, down where the mud monster scared and fascinated them and was their friend.  The leaves and pine-cones, feathers, all with their insistent tales of mystery and imagination, are waiting to be picked up, interpreted, re-told, re-invented, with a deftness of curiosity that connected children to one another and with the world all around them.

Back at nursery, lucky children, they explore again inside and outside with clay, soil, compost, in the natural and vibrant ways of exploration and exchange they’d naturally moved with in the woods.  Why lucky?  They had good companions, who made time and space for them, their interests and the mud.  It isn’t always the case that adults in education are ready, willing and able to see and respond to the simple enthusiasm of their children.

Inside connected with outside

Our children spend too much time inside, separated from the world, but nevertheless the domestic shelter of the classroom can be a good place, so long as it relates to the primary experience and stuff of the world.  Space outside, whether woodland or nursery garden, seems to be the place for relationships, exchange, delving and exploration, it is after all our elemental home.  The inside space, the classroom, seems more the place of reflection, recall and imagination, alongside the sensory encounter with materials.  Here materials have a life away from their home, in this artificial, domestic, studio space.

Being there

Working with elemental materials reduces our dangerous adult cultural separateness from the living, sentient world and brings the possibility of a better understanding and alignment in our children.  There is an inborn sense of wonder, an easy and rewarding sense to nurture.  This is not simply a matter of stuff; it is a matter of speed and intent.  Tasks, goals and achievement need repetitiveness, efficient ways of doing things, lowest-common-denominator simplicity.

Enquiry needs fascination and engagement; a different understanding of time.  The point is not to get somewhere else, but to be exactly where you are, switching on senses, thoughts and feelings.  To be good companions with children, we need to rekindle, to cultivate in ourselves, the habit of walking in the unknown – and listening.  Carlina Rinaldi refers to a pedagogy of listening: listening not to what we expect or even seek, but to what is, what we see; to listen to ourselves listening.

Sometimes we are encouraged to ‘think outside the box’ but can we more courageously learn to be aware that the box itself is a figment of our imagining: it does not really exist at all anyway.  Step out of the box, walk a few paces, turn around – pam!: the box simply isn’t there any more.  Can we notice the complexities of the forest instead; learn to live and be amongst the trees?

Can we ‘good companions’ learn to cultivate this being in complexity?  Can we encourage children’s natural sense of enquiry in which thought, feelings and senses are passionately engaged?  We talk of ‘researching the children who are researching the world.’  We need to be ready and to make our settings ready for their researchfulness.

We need to learn to get off the beaten path, to walk off the track and into the woods.  It took me years to walk off the track, to remember, to decide to let my feet follow inclination, to dare.  But once you walk into the woods, wait and let the woods come to you.  It is not a matter of being lost but of being there, being in uncertainty.

I do not mean being tremulous, indecisive, lost, fearful: it is being ready to listen well, without needing to explain or dissect, to be ‘in tune’, so that senses naturally attune to the patterns, the orders, intricacies and relationships of the world.  We are ourselves, animated, vibrant, rhythmic, perceiving and related to other animated, vibrant, rhythmic, people around us.

I think this is something of the vital ‘sense of wonder’ of which Rachel Carson writes so eloquently, and which we cannot have if we separate ourselves from sticks, leaves, feathers, shells, clay, water, wood, wool, stones … or from air, mountains, woods, rivers, fields, seas.

There are simple, humane starting points from which to imagine and create educative spaces in which children can explore and learn in joyful, vibrant, meaningful ways.  If we choose, we can focus on making places which speak of the ‘pulsing of life’: places which celebrate our encounters with the stuff of the world.

Reference: Carson, R. The Sense of Wonder (HarperCollins 1998)

Highly recommended resources from Sightlines Initiative

Sightlines Initiative has been digging deeply into pedagogy for many years and promoting creative and reflective practice in early childhood education (they are also the UK reference for Reggio Emilia’s preschools).  Along the way, they have published several very useful investigations into learning in nature which are all highly recommended (and available through their online shop).

DVD’s exploring what it means to work with young children in the outdoors:

Rising Sun Woodland Preschool Project (Look! Look! The tree’s on fire!) and follow-on project Doing The Right Thing: working with children in a natural environment, early childhood educators re-evaluate their theory and practice.

Books sharing the investigations within extensive pedagogical projects:

Adventuring in Early Childhood Education and the book from the wonderful 4 year project, Early Learning in Nature, Learning to Learn in Nature (I contributed a piece to this book on ecological identity, which I could see was strongly nurtured through this project)

Booklets telling stories of children’s enquiries:

Feathers and The Mouse House

All images are copyright and must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors

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