The "Blue House at the Edge of the Forest" site was not selected because it featured opportunities for nature studies. It held no plans for literacy, math, or science activities. It was not a classroom moved outside into the forest and yet it is very much in line with what we do every day at our school. The school is designed around destinations and the forest site was chosen because it offered multiple zones for play, because play is what we are after!
The site is tucked away from the main path. The children (ages three through five) became so familiar with the route that many could be trusted to navigate the main path to the "door" without adult instruction. The site is small. It is perched on a hill overlooking the creek. The creek is outside the perimeter. Once there, they know the perimeter. They know the edges and destinations although each class calls the destinations by different names.
The fallen and cut trees are low enough to serve as tables, cooktops, horses and also high enough to create a challenge for climbing. Many of the trees intersected which allows for raised travel around the site to avoid the lava that is everywhere (obviously).
The edges are marked on one side by a high ridge and a series of pink ribbons. The other side was marked with a line of gray rocks. The upper and lower edges are marked with logs with names like the Deer Chip log and the Bathroom Log. Over the course of the year, we added features and lost others. We created a pallet house alternately called the Monkey House or the Spy House. An upturned stump with its root system still attached withstood the hammering and shovel whacks of the children but slowly disintegrated over the Winter. While it was there, some of the children called that stump an engine, and this very thing, its "pretend this is" as well as its "thereness" and its "goneness" is what I was after in choosing a site that we would visit over and over throughout the changing season, rain, snow, or sunshine.
Not enough can be said about how destruction changes the play (from the ashes rises the phoenix). A large tulip poplar fell across the Blue House site and it changed the play. We make a study of how play unfurls, stops, and starts so it was an interesting opportunity to watch how this giant tree would change things. The most obvious thing happened first. There was a new play destination created by the hole the tree's root system left. The children called it the new "Dig Pit" or the "Mine." The old dig pit was immediately abandoned. But then the new dig pit had to be shared. It became the only way the children could get from one side of the site to the other. The trunk of the tree was too high and too covered with poison ivy and English ivy vines. I lashed together a ladder for one side and that relieved the traffic jams that kept holding up the work in the mine, but it still was not a good solution because of the poison ivy that popped up along the edges of the pit. It was soon everywhere. The tree brought it down into the middle of the perimeter.
The children reshaped their play and their play destinations. They moved to one side of the Blue House site. They added the Deer Creche and the Blue House itself to the play. They hid behind the wagon. They found new sources for poison stew ingredients. While there were still forays into the other half of the site, they only ventured to the other side in order to hold better battles -- that other half featured a bigger running space and the hill's rise. Those children instinctively knew that battles are won by those holding the higher ground. The tree made the children more resourceful and it also gave them an opportunity to more clearly define their play arcs separate from the others. There was less need for overlap and the muddiness around the edges that sometimes happens in the close quarters of our dramatic play space or playground.
In choosing a place to return to again and again, the children gained a sense of place and with this, they inhabited their play in mind and body. Their play could grow and change, responding to the marks that the seasons left and that the space allowed. This is something that hiking or traveling through the forest or occassional play in natural settings will not communicate. Travel communicates something different. Inhabiting a landscape over time creates the context and the history that will shape the play.