My mother spent many of the final years of her teaching career in trouble with Ofsted, the UK governing body. Her teaching approach was unconventional but she believed that children learn best when it’s contextualised in meaningful ways and when they have a sense of ownership. This involved unleashing their imagination to the full every day: lots of mud and games and the occasional dead badger. She was a playgroup teacher for over 60 years, teaching generations of children who lived in and around the village of Holmbury St Mary in Surrey.
Before she died in a horse riding accident in 2018, she wrote the following post on Facebook, passing on her experience. There’s an unstoppable energy and urgency to the way it’s written; like it’s told in a single, excited breath. Or like it was the end of an era and she knew the clock was ticking. I thought Mother’s Day would be a good time to share it with you, especially as the coronavirus means you’ll be spending plenty of time either thinking about or with your family.
We did it for love, not money: The majority of the staff were not “qualified” to today’s requirements but what they lacked on paper, they more than made up for in energy, enthusiasm and warmth, and children respond to those who love them. Here are some of our wonderful experiences and what we learnt together.
Nature and Science
- When asked for their strongest memories, top of the list for our Alumni: “Dead Animals”. If not squashed, road kill provides excellent observation, does not run away and teaches road safety; what’s more it can be eaten (pheasant, rabbit) though we also went fishing or used fresh fish from the market.
- Second for the staff comes Mud. At first we had to teach mud pie for Captain Hook’s cake, with green poisoned icing. In the end our children were rolling in it like a herd of Piglets.
- Dinosaurs! Expeditions to the clay pit where a Barionyx Walkeri was discovered. Making a 4-foot T Rex out of the local clay. Young palaeontologists discover real dinosaur bones (planted earlier in the bank up to the cricket pitch): disaster! We cannot find one and they belong to local collector Jonathan Andrews.
- Space: trips round the solar system in our homemade big box rocket, visits to MSSL to discourse with learned Professors and blast off water rockets.
- Water: trips to the watercress beds where the Tillingbourne meanders at Crossways Farm. Weather: daily recordings on our chart for temperature, wind direction, precipitation, cloud cover, suitable clothing, signs of spring.
- Antarctica: penguins and whales, visit from Tess to describe the challenge of walking to the South Pole (she made it.); you need a lot of chocolate.
- Sharks and underwater life experienced in our homemade Submarine.
- Steam engines: Pistons, firing up the stationary steam engine, and experiments with water, steam and ice.
Music and Dance
- Top of the memory list comes the “Nutcracker”, culminating in a visit from a real Ballerina: the Sugar Plum Fairy: first Jessica and this term the lovely Lily. Noyes Fludde (Benjamin Britten), we paint a huge rainbow. Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat; we make pyramids, mummies, sarcophagi and paint wonderful images of the Egyptian gods.
- Oliver!: Singing along to “Consider Yourself”, “Food Glorious Food”.
- Dancing to “Swan Lake” and “Coppelia”. “The Firebird” (Stravinsky) dancing Princesses and Monsters and the death of Kaschei! “The Cunning Little Vixen” ( Janacek): sniffing out and finding a fox’s earth.
- We have taken part in the Children’s Concerts at Woodhouse: – Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland, Peter and the Wolf, the story of Babar (music by Poulenc), Mother Goose Tales (Ravel). For all of these the children painted scenery and learnt stories and music.
High on our priority list comes ADVENTURE!
- We’ve been to the Neverland, rowing across ponds to rescue TigerLily, learning to fly by jumping out of Louise’s window, discovering an Underground Home in the bluebell woods and fighting on the Pirate Ship.
- We make a big box Wardrobe and crawl through it finding it’s full of fur coats, to discover Narnia; we make clay figures of all the characters.
- We make books and act out all of these great adventure stories. The Jungle Book: we collect clay to make fire pots like Mowgli. Dr Dolittle and the Pirates: we make a big pirate ship and play Pirates on the climbing frame.
- We play treasure ships and storms. Swallows and Amazons: we go camping and learn to rig the Palmer’s sailing dinghy “Ready about- Le’o”; best of all we play walking the plank.
- King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: we extract Excalibur from the village pond, visit the Lady Sharon (Oliver) who happens to have a suit of armour, make glittering swords and practice Tilting.
- We play out the story of the Loathly Damsel and the ferocious Sir Gromer Somer Joure! The Railway Children: much to learn about being poorer, the landslide episode and working together to save a disaster: red flannel petticoats off, Phil and Bobby.
- Wind in the Willows: Mr Toad (Dave Biggins) gives rides in his splendid motor – Poop Poop! The Wildwooders invade Toad Hall (Homedale kitchen) and are evicted by the valiant four, creeping in through the butler’s pantry.
- “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, Ian Fleming’s original story; out go the sickly Truly Scrumptious and the horrible Child Catcher; they are replaced by far more engaging villains, Joe the Monster and his sidekick Man Mountain Fink!
- But the greatest Adventure of all was “The Hobbit” centred on Middle Earth (the Hurtwood). The children make bows and arrows and practice shooting. We set off avoiding the poisonous spiders in Mirkwood, camp out fooling the Trolls and hiding from the Thunder Giants; we recover in Rivendell before continuing. Bilbo meets Gollum and discovers the Ring. Where is the Lonely Mountain? Sandra Littlewood joins the adventure again; the children make an enormous Smaug (wood and scrap) and he presides on the top of Homedale Tower. The children creep round the secret passage, Smaug comes roaring out and they shoot him with their bows and arrows. That Christmas we are visited by none other than Lady Aowen and the Lord Elrond who displays his skill with the longbow by shooting balloons tied to the gravestones in the Church yard. What Larks!
Countries and Languages
- Spanish: Cervantes Don Quixote – crazy adventures and tilting at windmills, tile mosaics inspired by Gaudi and big textile collages inspired by Miro.
- German-Hansel and Gretel the Humperdinck version, making gingerbread houses, witch models and besoms.
- French: “Le Petit Prince” ( Saint Exupery). The children make model biplanes and their own planets on balloons covered with papier mache. We learn about looking after our planet.
- In each language children learn counting, please and thank you, and how to ask for milk or water. Africa when we are doing Babar: drums, a shared meal from The Gambia, tie-dying , animals of the Rainforest, Grassland and desert.
- India: we have an Indian family. Hema and Shriya wear their beautiful saris and help us prepare and eat an Indian meal. That term our story is the exciting epic, the Ramayana; we make models of the hero Ram and Princess Sita, the Demons and the Monkey God, Hanuman.Other Stories and Themes: – the Circus (inspired by Gifford’s) the children play funny clowns and practice balancing and acrobatics.
- Pinocchio: making puppets and learning the songs “Give a little Whistle”, “When you wish.” “Got No Strings”. Jack and the Flum Flum Tree, the climbing frame becomes the Island of “Blowyernose”.
Other magnificent activities
- Hospitals: Sonia and I are squeezed into rather too tight nurses uniforms when there’s a knock at the door; I’d forgotten it was the day for the visit from the Fire engine; S and J “hello… we’re playing doctors and nurses”, two large macho figures; “Ha Ha! we’re playing Firemen!”
- Winnie the Pooh: the Glade is transformed into Pooh’s Forest and we dig Heffalump traps, play Pooh sticks and rescue Eeyore as he floats down the Tillingbourne.
- Dogs and Foxes: a visit from a blind friend with a Guide dog.
- Charlotte’s Web: learning about spiders and a visit to the pig breeder: a Sow has a new litter of piglets and there is a runt who doesn’t mind a cuddle! In the field the children narrowly avoid a dead rabbit splayed out to reveal it’s guts; good knowledge as next day we make some pork sausages and guts are used for skins (sheep’s not rabbit’s).
Restaurants: the children prepare, staff cook, and having laid the tables, children serve a three-course meal to their parents with great care and pride.
- Beatrix Potter Tales: shining torches up the huge chimney at Upfolds Farm and seeing the ledge where Tom Kitten would have jumped.
- The original Mary Poppins, an enigmatic character, quite fierce and unlike the Disney version but appealing to children because she restores order to a dysfunctional family. There are no “spoonfuls of sugar” and no nonsense; Marvellous Magic happens when least expected, and must never be commented on.
So: What else did we do? Gather hurts for making crumbles and pies, sewed clothes for our dollies and teddies, “wrote” letters, stamped and posted them home, spent happy hours fishing and sailing our woodwork boats in the local streams, held German Market and French Cafe weeks, nearly lost Becky and Elizabeth in the bog… We did so much in the early days because children started when they were three and did not go to school until they were five; however with the younger groups we’ve never stopped exploring and learning from Nature.
This letter comes with love from all our Staff, past and present, to all our Children, past and present knowing that you will continue with our aesthetic values, high standards and IMAGINATION!
In memory of Jane Biggins 1942-2018
Sending love in the time of coronavirus
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