As I get older, the transience of life is increasingly becoming a stark reality. I’ve moved out of the ‘friends having children’ phase and am being invited to less and less weddings. Nowadays it’s the funeral phase and the lasting sense of grief and loss that marks it. A wedding or a birth are great but the hangover from these is gone within a day (or two depending if the wedding has the foresight of a free bar). The ‘hangover’ following a death is absolutely something else and beyond a hair of the dog.
Children on the whole live in a bubble away from this - their world isn’t the world of ‘passing on’, ‘resting in peace’ or ‘a good innings’. That’s not to say that there aren’t many, many children who don’t experience death or aren’t affected by it. It’s just that for the majority of children they are in the ‘pure bright living’ phase of life - the realm of magic, the world of ‘song’.
So it’s extraordinary when they do come across death especially in nature. Their response, their wonder even, is something that opens up a door into their realm and it’s this door that can only be opened when we let go of ‘planning’ and embrace faith in children, faith that enables discovery and in this instance the finding of a very small but very dead vole in the woods...
We go to the woods each Friday afternoon. It’s an amazing space and as a setting we’re fortunate to have around 1/4 acre woodland on our school grounds. We don’t ‘do’ forest school. We just take our children, all 70 odd of them, and play. And by play I mean real play. Free and ‘wild’ without adult learning intentions or overt instruction. It’s an afternoon that could be lifted out of the 1970s - risk, adventure, ‘uncontrolled’. The adults are there to collaborate and co-wonder. We go with no predetermined ideas. The children are ‘let loose’.
I’m not sure that there are adequate words to describe the experience other than that both children and adults come alive with joy (unless you’re the adult who is on toilet duty perhaps!) Discovery and adventure are at the core of the afternoon and in this spirit, one of the children discovered on one of the many paths that thread their way throughout the wood a tiny vole. Very small but unfortunately very dead.
The boy who found it is, putting it mildly, quite vocal which for once (!) was ideal because it caused an almighty kerfuffle amongst the other children and within a space of a minute around 20 children had broken away from their own play to gather round to see what all the fuss was. What lay before them was a beautiful vole on one side but on the other a tangled mess of intestine bulging out of its otherwise velvet fur, tiny maggots crawling blindly before our eyes.
For many perhaps this might be too much and with a casual flick the vole may have been dispatched into the undergrowth. Yet here before me I have 20 odd children in a state of wide eyed wonder. Other than asking them not to touch it with a simple explanation of disease and, above all for me as a vegetarian, a reminder that we should treat animals with respect, what followed was around 15-20 minutes of child chat and teacher talk bouncing off one another, back and forth with ideas, wonderment, vocabulary, debate, mathematics, imagination and a sense of responsibility and decision making.
Snapshots of the conversation include: how it died, where it might have lived, if whatever killed it was still in the wood, what the maggots would turn into, was vole tasty to eat, would the vole’s family know it was missing, how many claws it had altogether, what it used its whiskers for, was it smaller than a mouse, if it met a mouse would they be friends, quite graphic descriptions of its insides and what the bits did, and finally what we should do with it now that we’d found it.
With great reverence, the vole was laid to rest on a bark bed and tucked inside a gap under a large rotting log. For a moment all 20 children stood in solemn silence as though reflecting on death itself and the mortality around us. As the adult I was thinking about how magic children are, how important it is that we let go of control and how it is critical that to truly unlock children we need to unplan their learning.
My thinking and the solemnity however was broken by the voices of two children: “When we get back I’m going to write to the vole’s family to let them know that the vole died..” - it confirmed that the adult world of writing could also be pleased, that children don’t need to be told what to write and when, that purpose should emerge from children and not be imposed.
Then the second child spoke. It was the voice of the boy who found the vole in the first place: “Can we get it out again so I can take it home and show my Mum and Dad?” Thankfully the school bell rang at that very instant so that debate was quickly resolved!
He’ll probably forget where we put the vole by tomorrow so I’m hoping it can truly rest in peace under the log in the quiet of the wood. The location of its final resting place may not stay in the boy’s mind but something has certainly stayed in mine - it’s the magic of children. That night I lay in bed and hoped that the vole’s family was doing okay and I even thought that perhaps I should write a letter to them on a little piece of paper and take it down next week and leave it for them just so the vole family know that we buried it with great respect. I wonder if I mention it to the children on Monday how many might join me in a bout of letter writing...?
Illustration used with kind permission by Esther Connon
Can I Go Play Now..? is committed to widening the understanding of the magic of children's play as an educational tool. Child-centred, play-based learning is where it's truly at....