Here in the office at Thrive HQ, we don’t always get the opportunity to hear about all the creative learning experiences going on in Thrive settings up and down the country. We were therefore delighted when an email dropped into the Member Services inbox, inviting us to come and visit School’s Company’s Totnes Field School and contribute to the build of their fabulous new cob oven.
I was looking forward to a morning meeting the children who use the space at Totnes Field School and the inspirational practitioners who run it and as I arrived on a beautiful, late summer, sunny morning, the school looked like a veritable oasis, filled with groaning fruit trees, a host of wildlife and even a beautiful little wooden classroom.
As I was shown around the site by Laura, the Trust’s Primary and Secondary Phase Environmental and Land Base Studies Specialist, I soon understood the passion and planning that has gone into the creation of this outdoor classroom. In setting up the Totnes Field School, School’s Company aims to increase the self-esteem and self-reliance of the children and young people in their care by developing a stronger connection to themselves, others and the surrounding landscape.
As is often the case, it is the unending enthusiasm, patience and wealth of knowledge brought by the staff that makes this setting a real success. Laura, Dave and Sam from School’s Company obviously have fantastic relationships with the children and young people who use Totnes Field School and this showed through the sheer range of activities I saw going on during the morning. Under the guise of picking and watering plants, tending to the grounds, making fires, sawing wood and, of course, helping to build the cob oven, the boys attending the Field School that morning learnt about maths, safety, teamwork and the power of perseverance.
There were many opportunities for periods of high activity, with stamping on the clay and heaving around the heavy bags of sand. This was balanced by some stillness - something not often given much stock in the modern classroom - experienced when the boys noticed the school’s resident robin and the host of butterflies settling in the fruit trees.
When learning outside, there is, of course, always time to get good and messy. Building a cob oven was a perfect opportunity for this, with lots of sensory stimulation. Despite protests of not wanting to get clothes and hands dirty, in the end everyone mucked in with smoothing and patting down the inner block of sand, wetting the mound down with the hose and squashing and splatting the clay into place.
According to the OPENspace Research Centre, there is considerable evidence suggesting that time spent in nature increases life expectancy, improves wellbeing, reduces symptoms of depression and increases the ability to function in school. The outdoors is therefore an ideal location for carrying out Thrive work and provides a wealth of opportunities for both open-ended and structured learning, as my experience at Totnes Field School illustrated.
The diversity of shapes, colours and textures afforded by outdoor landscapes offers abundant opportunities for open-ended sensory and messy play, while the challenges of uneven terrain give children the chance to explore their physical boundaries. More structured, creative activities that involve relating directly to aspects of the natural world through craft and music give children the chance to establish meaningful and respectful relationships with the more-than-human world. These relationships can be extremely powerful, particularly for children who may have experienced trauma at the hands of other human beings.
And I’ve been promised a slice of pizza when the oven is up and running, so watch this space!
Grace Melsher, Member Services Co-ordinator
If you’d like to find out more about School’s Company or arrange a visit to the Totnes Field School then please contact Sam on firstname.lastname@example.org.