I did not go the ResearchEd event in London this weekend. Neither did I spend the day watching the live stream, or reading about it via my tweet mates insights. Yesterday, I went on an entirely different kind of trip. My sister has come to visit for the weekend and, together with her kids, my kids our husbands and my mum, we went out for the day. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money going to visit some stately home or another where we had to watch them (ages ranging from little to big) like hawks and warn against touching anything for fear of a bigger bill than any of us would like to imagine; no, instead, we got in the cars, travelled for a bit and went to a (reasonably) local wood.
Now this wood is a truly magical place. You step through the gate and it is as if you have entered a different world. Paths lead around corners festooned with emerald moss, logs step across rust coloured swamps, and along the way, up and down mud-slicked stone steps, you bump into elf-brides having their wedding photos taken and increasingly sheened parents searching for the way out. We had a great time.
And afterwards, while the kids ran around an indoor maze, my mother and I headed for the cafe, a sit down and a chat, and the teacher in me got going. You might think that she would have made an appearance earlier in the day making sure I spent my time pointing out the different species of trees, feeling the difference in texture between the moss and the bark, looking at signs of erosion and talking about the history of the place, but she was rather more engaged with not slipping over and spoiling her favourite yellow shoes, caught between hoping her mother didn’t get into difficulties with her stick and not losing the children.
While we sat there, a couple of teachers, albeit from different generations, I thought about how much I would want to base some class work on that wood, if I ever had the chance. For a start there is all the practical stuff, the geography, the history and the science. Where is it? Why is it like it is? How did it come to be? How fragile an environment is it? Who and what lives there? What is it like to be there, under the deep cover of the trees? My measuring self would have a field day.
But it is your senses that are so assaulted in a place like that. Outside the wood, all is hustle and bustle, hot sunshine, the animals in the farm, children zipping about, going through turnstiles the wrong way. Inside, the temperature is cooler, damp. The real world fades away; the light is tinged green and red rust brown. What kind of music would you make, after going to a place like that? When you saw a fairy ring of mysterious fungus, how would you express that in sound? What kind of bells would you use?
And the art. I took some photos on my phone, of which I am rather smugly pleased. No doubt I will instagram them to within an inch of their lives, and then delete all the effects because it’s difficult to go there and not take a good picture. The wood has been used for filming Dr Who and Merlin for good reason. In fact, the last time we were there there were cables all over and patches of glitter, and people dressed in black were setting lights up here and there. But I wouldn’t get children to take photos, no siree.
For a start, I wouldn’t want them tripping over while holding equipment, but more than that, I would want them to immerse themselves in the experience, to feel it, to live it, the way my children and their cousins did yesterday, not see it through a lens or a screen. They have enough of that in their ordinary lives, after all. No, I would want children to paint it, to draw it, make some sketches while they were there, some rubbings, something to remind them of what they had seen and felt. And the clay. The soil is rich with it. Roots curl out of it in swirling shapes that inspire the mind, make the fingers itch to recreate.
Of course, in typical fashion, my own children had not the slightest interest in the visual aspects of the place. They haven’t demanded the drawing pencils or the felt tips upon their return to relative civilisation. Instead, they were fascinated by the journey, the adventure. How could they find their way to that exciting looking bridge, and later, how to find the way out? The feeling that they had somehow stepped into some sort of computer game was palpable. Had I not been caught by the twin concerns for my mother’s knees and my shoes, and the rather surprising experience of sucking my son so far into the introduction to Roald Dahl’s The Witches that he goggled at me when I got to the part where the nice lady reading the story might well be one of those creatures, I might well have joined in, but I didn’t really want to have to deal with wailing and shrieking.
But what an opportunity for story writing. Who might live there? How might children have come to be there? Which path should you take? Where might the wrong path lead? I love the notion of journeying in stories; where might your characters have been going when they came into the wood? How long were they lost there? And, of course, poetry. How could we express what we saw and felt in a poem? What flights of description could we take?
And places like this are accessible on all different kinds of levels. It reminded me of the time I took them to the Roman Bath in Bath, and they charged about, enchanted by the channels the bubbles, the colour of the water, the coins in the pool, utterly ignoring the audio guide, refusing to conform to an adult expectation of what children might get out of the visit and I, their mother, happy to follow their lead, to send them searching for a dragon, or a lion in the wall, to help them to experience the place in their own way, at the edges of their own understanding. Yesterday A, at 11 years old a voracious reader, was delighted to know that Tolkien had spent many hours wandering around the wood; Sam, who doesn’t share the same interests, loved the pathways, the adventure, connecting with the mysterious nature of the place. The last time we went, four years ago, he cried when we found our way back to the gate. He didn’t want it to be over. Me? Well, you never know, maybe one day I’ll write a children’s book.