In my last blog about my little grandson he was 15 months old and I described our time spent in the woods behind his house. Charlie is now 23 months and now when we go to the woods together I let him decide which way we should go. I ask him, ‘shall we go this way or that way?’ He looks towards the different possible directions before choosing. I give him the choice because I want him to feel independent and trusted to explore the woods and feel at home there, I want to give him the chance to exercise and satisfy his curiosity. Charlie is a regular visitor to the woods and he knows his way around. As I watch his sureness and confidence I am certain his frequent visits to the woods have enabled him to make a mental map that means he can find his way around. He negotiates his way through the paths of the wood with surety and confidence.
On this occasion I had been away for two months and I was curious to find out how he would respond to the woods – would he have changed? Certainly his curiosity had not been exhausted by his almost daily visits and he frequently stopped to examine something that attracted his interest. As he ran through the woods chasing Mabel, his dog he came across some tree branches that had fallen from a tree; ‘broken’ he said. He is just beginning to talk and mainly uses single words. Stopping he bent down to examine the broken branch and then picked it up and straddled it making noises like a horse trotting: ‘clip-clop, clip-clop’. He then put the branch down and wandered around a bit before looking intently at two pieces of branch some little distance from each other. Then he began to move the two pieces closer together, (it became obvious that once they had formed one branch) and he put them back together again. He then stood up and looked at his handiwork and clapped: he was clearly very pleased with himself. Looking around he noticed two more pieces of branch and brought these two pieces together. These did not fit, one being a quite different shape to the other. He removed the ‘odd one out’ the one that was wide and flat, not round and slim. This paddle shape branch became a digging stick as Charlie used it first to scoop dirt to create a hole and then to shovel dead leaves into a pile. Satisfied with this activity he resumed his journey through the wood.
After a short while Charlie noticed a small, white, fluffy feather from a baby bird on the path. He picked it up and began throwing it into the air and chasing it as it slowly floated down. This caused him to laugh with delight. He played for a while and then moved on. The next place he stopped was the little slope where he liked to play the ‘up-down’ game I described in my last blog. Charlie had advanced in the two months since I accompanied him to the woods. He didn’t need me to hold his hand now and not only ran up and down the slope but showed me how he can go down backwards. He is careful, he knows he is more likely to fall, but clearly enjoys this more demanding activity. We play running up and down and going ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ and sing “the Grand Old Duke of York”. After five minutes at this game Charlie sets off again.
He leads us deeper into the wood taking a narrower path. Charlie finds another little feather and this time he experiments pushing it gently into a hole in a tree. His fine motor skills are impressive as he holds the fragile feather and pushes it into the hole. He stands back and looks at the feather in the hole and then pulls it out and turns to another hole. Altogether he tries five different holes; sometimes the wind blows the feather out of the hole and with squeals of laughter Charlie chases it and picks it up before experimenting again by placing the feather in a different hole. Suddenly he appears to change his mind and decides to bury the feather with brown, crunchy leaves. We move on again.
Altogether Charlie and I spent almost two hours in the woods and then he turned to me and said, ‘Home’. I asked him if he wanted to go home and he said yes and put his arms up to show he wanted to be carried. Charlie knows exactly which direction we should go in and where we need to turn to find the gate from the wood into his house.
The next day we set off for the woods again. This time Charlie made a beeline for the common, an area of more open grass with trees around the edge. He stops for a while to run around a small track made for bicycles and then decides to head back towards the woods. On the way he notices a puddle and runs towards it to splash and jump up and down in his wellington boots. He then stands a short distance away and adopts a preparatory stance. I join in and say, “1, 2, 3 – GO!” Charlie runs and jumps into the puddle. He then looks at me and says, “No Nana, 1, 2, 3, 4,” before returning to the ‘starting line’ for his next run and jump into the puddle.
In two months my grandson has changed and developed. His vocabulary is growing but most of all he has developed his understanding of the world through interacting with it. He is now using metaphor to aid his play, turning a broken branch into a horse. He understands the concept of tool making as he uses a flat branch as a shovel. His understanding of causality is demonstrated as he describes the branch on the woodland floor as ‘broken’ and imagines what it would be like to ‘mend’ it and patiently tries to fit the two pieces of the branch together. He gains satisfaction from this activity and claps his handiwork. He is exercising agency as he acts on the world to his own satisfaction.
Charlie delights in the movement of the feather as it floats on the air and laughs as he throws it and it glides through space while slowly sinking to the ground. I think he is laughing because the feather is not behaving as a stone or piece of branch behave when he throws them and this discovery delights him. Later he experiments with placing a feather in a hole in a tree trunk. He laughs when the winds blows it out but doesn’t give up, over and over again he practices putting the feather in different holes until final he decides to bury it in leaves – I think he knows that the leaves will prevent the wind from blowing it away.
What can I learn from this experience about Charlie’s capabilities? He is obviously showing his capacity to use his imagination by playing ‘let’s pretend this branch is a horse’; he acts on the world to intervene and change it by trying to ‘repair’ the branch and by experimenting with the feather. He understands the concept of a tool as he uses a branch to dig into the ground and shovel up leaves. I believe he is demonstrating his capacity to imagine, ‘what would happen if…’ and then experimenting. He has causal theories of the world and is considering possibilities as he moves the broken branches around, or tries to harness the flight of the feather. He is entertaining the possibility of something being other than it is now – a broken branch – by imaging how it was in the past, not broken but whole.
Through his exploratory play Charlie is learning about the world. I understand properly for the first time that such play is the work of the small child. Watching Charlie in the woods I see a child that is open to all the richness of nature. He pays attention to the new and unexpected and he learns from this; he actively does things in order to learn. In the woods he is actively experimenting on the world and this experimenting will shape what he thinks and knows about that world. As he engages in his experiments he is expanding and shaping his causal understanding of the world around him. And no one is teaching him. He is following his natural instincts to exercise the gift of being human and curious.
What a privilege to be a grandmother and have the time to spend in the woods with Charlie; the time to watch him as his innate curiosity allows him to learn about the world around him. I realise that it is vital for Charlie to be allowed to gain confidence in the world outside by being in it, by experiencing the freedom to experiment and learn for himself what the world is like. And I feel sad that more children can't escape from the confines of their homes to experience the joy of exploring the natural world.