In the autumn of 1995 three families at BrockwoodPark School were discussing the possibility of providing some kindof alternative education for their children and started searching for a place where this could happen. They settled on a dilapidated building in two acres of grounds and along with friends began renovating it. Inwoods:The Children's Space was born. There are now four mornings a week on which children and adults meet at Inwoods, and a number of local families have become involved. Jordi Brito is the teacher and here he outlines some of the history of Inwoods and the thinking behind.
It seems to me than in education as in many other domains the first step towards change is questioning. Not being happy with what we are doing, seeing or observing things that we don't like is not enough, but it is a beginning. In the case of Inwoods the need to offer education to our children furthered by unease with the actual mainstream educational values in England, was our initial drive to create our own educational project. But where were we to start? Facing the uncertainty of creating something new together was, and is, a great challenge. Trusting a process whose direction is not totally certain is possible only if you take the full responsibility for it. A new approach requires a commitment different from that required to join an existing project. A new project can give rise to a lot of fears and insecurities. To see those as positive aspects, as a process of growing, is essential to the task of bringing this 'newborn' to life. Many of the educational systems in the world are based on escaping these feelings of fear, of doubt and insecurity. Everyone wants to feel secure and be sure, to have a method or a recipe. This is probably the reason why we have the same problems again and again and the reason why education is unable to free the human being from conflict. It seems clear to me that the creative process involves not knowing what to do, where to go ... a moment of silence. These you have to go through if you want to create something original not based on either memory or experience. Is it possible for the initiators to build together an atmosphere of trust that can help us work with uncertainty and insecurity, so that we can create our own educational project?
A bit of history
The Children's Space - Is it a school, a play group, a nursery school? We had to reflect why we needed a place such as this. We agreed that one of the main reasons to start Inwoods was to have a place where children could meet with other children to learn everything about life, through life. We wanted to create an atmosphere where all of us participating are able to feel safe and be open to each other; a place where we can explore and question things together.
Thus three elements interacted with each other and moved in parallel:
Reflection: silence, meditation, 'gestation', questioning, doubting. Creation: action, meeting, building, doing. Communication: sharing, moving together, expanding.
Creating a learning mileu is a continuous process that needs to be kept alive by everybody who is participating. As a first step, the stratesic planning group of students and staff from Brockwood Park School (BP) and parents started a dialogue with all the parents involved in order to fmd out about their needs, their values, their expectations.
We saw the need of sharing this project with more people so that they could join us. BP could then be more closely related with the people living in the surrounding area; it might also attract staff who might have young children themselves and would make a longer term commitment to BP. It was also a way to open up the debate about the education of young children to a larger community than BP. In order to do this we organised what we called a Parents' Forum where parents and others interested in alternative education could meet and discuss Children's Space, and education itself.
With the data from the strategic planning group, the parents forum and Andrew Alexander (a current teacher in St. Christopher School), we edited our first text about the intentions ofInwoods. We also decided to focus first on children from 3 to 5 years old. These are some of the statements we arrived at.
A rich physical environment means beautiful natural surroundings, a place where we can feel part of the environment and where observation and sensitivity can be encouraged through walks, care for a vegetable garden and exploration of different aspects of nature. It should be an environment that invites the students to be aware of ecological issues like use of water, recycling materials and using products of low ecological impact. We also wanted the best quality materials and resources that we could provide. Some of the furniture was made by the parents and educators, other furniture was collected from different sources.
The human environment is created by the quality of relationship. This must be such that the teachers, children and parents are individuals, creating something together. For this reason we consider it very important to work with small groups of children and parents. We think that in order to relate to each other in a real sense and go deeper in our relationship it is essential to keep the numbers low (a maximum of eight children, with two educators as a minimum).
It follows that we need to keep among us an open and honest attitude and a certain willingness on the part of each individual to learn from one another. On the other hand we are not simply projecting our 'wants' into the children, as we must have a commitment to be part of the process of enquiry in ourselves in relationship with the others. It is crucial that we are able to leave our 'ego structures' so that we can work as a team, moving together.
We value an holistic approach to the child taking into account the whole person, the physical, emotional, mental/intellectual and spiritual aspects. We want to create an atmosphere of affection, freedom and trust where each individual can develop her / his utmost potential in a place that is part of life, not separated from it.
It seems easy to agree with this statement but we also see, if we are honest, how difficult it is to put it into practice. The greatest hurdle is our own conscious and unconscious conditioning emerging. How are we going to help a child to be whole if we are not whole ourselves? We have to keep in mind all these elements and provide the energy, time and space to work with these other aspects that we are not so used to working with.
It is very important to be aware that the work of all the educators involved in the project is a reflection of our relationship. It is important to talk about what happens in the sessions, to have feedback from everybody who is in Inwoods working with the children. It is also important that we feel we are moving together. If there are doubts we need to be able to express them so that they do not get in our way. We need to feel that everybody is supporting what is going on. Otherwise the children immediately feel the division between us.
For a rich learning environment there is the need to have a quality of order in our lives, a balance between activity and 'quietness and reflection'. Moments of silence are valued as much as activities. We value an environment free from violence and deliberate competition. We encourage cooperation. We want children to have the freedom to explore the world at their own pace, without pressure from adults. We focus our work on the qualities of the children, not on their problems. We value an education where there is no reward or punishment, and where competitiveness and comparison, if they arise, are questioned. We do put special emphasis on helping the children to find ways of resolving their conflicts. We encourage autonomy and self-regulation. Children are encouraged to express their feelings, questions, views, thoughts, etc. Time and space is provided to do so on a regular basis.
Another aspect that we consider important is to have a multicultural and multilingual awareness - from the beginning we had children of different nationalities speaking different languages. We are aware of the diversity and differences as well as the unity of mankind.
Creativity and sense of magic - at this age imagination/ fantasy has a very important role and is a powerful drive for learning. A balance between these aspects of reality and more pragmatic ones should be found.
Structure or no structure is one question that I was challenged with by one of the BP students participating in the project. Why are we doing things as we do?
It is good to have a structure so that the children can anticipate what is going to happen, so that they can recognise it and therefore become more autonomous. The negative aspect of structure appears when that structure becomes a habit - something so rigid that it stops spontaneous manifestations of life.
Inwoods at the moment offers four sessions per week on Thursday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The following are some of the features of each day:
Arriving: The time of arrival for children is a time of transition from one atmosphere to another. Music, an assembly in a circle where children talk about the things that they wish to show others, or a game together, creates a feeling of being welcome and a 'togetherness' .
Free Play: Different corners of a room offering varied activities for children to choose from gives the children freedom to explore and direct their own learning. It allows the teacher to explore and offer appropriate feedback and guidance to the child. Some comers being developed are: language and literacy; logic and mathematics; nature; theatre; art and conversation; and perception (the senses).
Morning Jobs: Children, parents and educators participate in looking after the immediate environment. Awareness of and the need to share responsibilities makes the participant an active part of the group.
Activities and Projects: These are things you create with the children out of love for something, out of passion. Usually these are not planned ahead but take place spontaneously. It is a matter of trusting children's own capacity to learn.
Quiet Moment: At a point in the morning, all come together in silence. It is a time to attend to the singing of birds, our breath, our heartbeat, our thoughts.
Such moments of reflection could allow space for something new to happen to all of us. We grow along with Inwoods.