Spinney Events

The Spinney Wild Woods have offered us an ideal space to extend our wild explorations to the wider community.  In autumn 2014 we hosted events in the woods that formed part of the Curating Cambridge and Art Language Location festivals, and a week-long programme of workshops for families with children of all ages.

Deb Wilenski curated CCI’s first wild exhibition/exploration event This tree is bigger than earth, in which the woods were re-imagined as space to encounter and interact with the reception children’s discoveries. Caroline Wendling and Deb Wilenski devised a programme of workshops for the school’s ‘family learning week’, in which children and adults explored ways of seeing the woods together. Our discussion event Curating the qualities of wildness gathered parents, educators, and others interested in outdoor learning and creativity to discuss questions of wild exploration, conservation, adventuring outdoors and imagining wildness.

CCI artist Susanne Jasilek brought together film footage from these events and workshops to document a wonderful time of making, sharing, leading and following.  As you will see from the end of the film, we only stopped when darkness began to fall…

The process of opening these woods for others to explore and enjoy has been hugely rewarding. Here is some of their feedback:

I didn’t realise this was here…for me it was a huge shock…what an amazing experience.  There’s so much to see and do. It’s very tranquil. You could be anywhere. It’s wonderful. You’d much rather they were here than at home with their toys. (Jo)

I would like to stay here all night (Sevgi’s mum)

I’ve enjoyed just watching the children do their own thing….you don’t often get the opportunity. It’s such a community resource….it’s so good to see it used. I tend to think at home they’re playing so I can get on with daily life. Ali is a kind of ‘on the go’ boy so seeing him be thoughtful with the string was lovely. (Lucy)

I just like the sense of freedom and you can do stuff you don’t do at school. You can feel the sense of 3D, you can touch and you can use your imagination. You can’t always get in here…you just want to explore (Oscar, year 6)

The diary posts below offer more detailed accounts of our events in the spinney.  You can also read about how the work began, our projects of wild exchange and professional development opportunities in the wild woods.

As I sit…


As I sit, I wonder what the animals are doing.  I think of them going to sleep.  I hear birds tweeting, leaves crackling.  I see the orangey pinky sun going to sleep, twigs and leaves rustling in the wind, the fire glowing orange and a cobweb.  I also hear the fire crackling.
Alice (year 3)

Alice left these words at our twilight workshop for families in the woods this half-term, where we invited everyone to enjoy moments of stillness and silence and listening together.

With Marion Leeper and Filipa Pereira-Stubbs.

Invitation no.4/ View Master reels


(by Deb Wilenski) What is it about View Masters that works so well?  I remember them from my childhood for the magic worlds they contained.  They were real worlds, photographed, mostly European, yet they seemed fantastically exotic.  There was of course the ‘magic’ of 3D; looking at something you knew wasn’t there but your brain and eyes said otherwise.  And there was the seduction of a whole world in a tiny space – the slide image held up against the light, the curved fame beyond which was darkness.

I used View Masters in This tree is bigger than earth for all these qualities and more.  I wanted to provoke thoughts about time and perception, to suggest that when we set foot in the woods as children or adults, we enter other woods too, framed by our visual and physical memories.  I also wanted to emphasize the fantastical elements in the children’s real experiences - Adam battling his way through a jungle of head-high plants, the way a tree and its reflection seen together made a gigantic crocodile’s mouth rise from the water.

What really surprised me was how well the View Master reels could help others to see the delicacy, beauty and strength of children working creatively in the classroom.  View Masters invite an unusual degree of focus - everything but a single image disappears as you look inside.  They offer time - you can look for as long as you like, choose when to move the reel on, re-visit images as they follow each other in an unending circle.

Three reels are represented below. 

House tells a story of inhabiting the woods, finding places to occupy and name, including  Lucy and Roland’s magic house. 

Lands invites you into the worlds the children found in the woods and the worlds they made in great detail in the classroom. 

To boldly go represents the early stages of six boys’ physical discovery in the woods and a very long drawing that grew out of it.

Invitation no. 3/ Maps to make or get lost with


Balls of wool; the woods; freedom to explore

(by Deb Wilenski) For a long time I have wanted to make visible the physical traces of children’s explorations in wild places.  I know from spending time alongside them that they travel often with daring, commitment, and bold imagination, and into the most surprising of places. 

Many books are being written and read at the moment about ‘edge’ spaces, places off the map, underground worlds, abandoned worlds, and children are enthusiastic occupiers of all of these.  In the Spinney woods the tangled overgrowth and the many ways that lead out of easy sight mean that a class of thirty four and five year olds disappears quickly.  When Leila, Sally, Sarah, and I compared notes one morning about where we had been with the children we realised that the edges and peripheries, the small underneath spaces and spaces out of sight were those favoured by the children.  Nobody had spent time in the large clearing.  It was used as a way to get further into the tangled back of the woods.

For ‘This tree is bigger than earth’ I wanted visitors to experience this sense of free movement and discovery that the reception class had embraced so strongly. I didn’t want anybody actually to get lost, but I did want to invite explorations into the unknown and surprising corners of the woods.  And I wanted to see these become visible through a kind of live mapping.

Balls of re-cycled and rather hideous coloured wool turned out to be perfect for the job!  Adults and children were invited to take a ball and string it through the woods to mark their journey.  The kinds of pale greens, insipid pinks, and shouting reds you would hesitate actually to knit with, glowed like lasers in the woods as dusk fell.  An ever more complex map of ways appeared – reaching into corners, running over bridges, looping along tracks, disappearing and re-appearing in brambles and black hollows. 

The map was live and glowing by the end of the evening, and the next morning, as we returned for two family workshops, traces of the evening’s explorations were still full of invitations to follow…

Read more about young children’s journeying in the wild – the map of maps is discussed in our Fantastical Guide to Hinchingbrooke Park and children’s use of signs in our post All the way to the A14.

Invitation no. 2/Wild cabinets of curiosity


Collecting cabinet from the Natural History Museum, London; ‘hatchling’ stories from Spinney Primary School four and five year olds; leaves and pine needles; blank paper and pens; an invitation to open and continue the stories in the cabinet

The second invitation in our Wild Woods exhibition recognised a fundamental language of discovery – the narrative language of story-making and fantasy play. The four and five year olds we worked with back in February were fluent in this language, though their physical adventuring in the woods was so strong we often heard stories only afterwards, as experiences were re-told and re-imagined in drawing, modelling, and collage.

Children can become prolific authors in the woods, telling story after story. With this group stories were ‘caught’ in the middle of play, or discovered in phrases and single sentences when we went back through our notebooks. For the exhibition I took these ‘hatchling’ stories, wrapped them in leaf cocoons (that also brought to mind the predictions in fortune cookies), and placed them in one of the cabinets. There was an open invitation at the exhibition and during the family workshops the next day, to hatch an existing story, give it imaginative flight, and offer a new story in response.

Some of the ‘hatchlings’:

Lucy: Because this is just a magic house and only we are allowed to sleep in it

Billy P: I’ve got this so if I get stuck I can do this and get out

Adam: I like the magic house too but I don’t know where it is

Ashleigh: We’re trapped. We’re getting cooked. Pretend everything was locked and we was cooking. Pretend this was your ship and we were all baddies

Andrei: This is a snake which is soooooo big, this was on the branch. The sun is dead. A fireball crashed into it

Shawnie: But the wild woods are not there next week

Kelvin (watching a worm): It’s a snake. When will it be a snake?

Noel: Over here the river…over here the spider

And some of the stories told in response:

Micah (age 7): This is me and this is the magic tree. It’s got a secret passageway that leads to a magical land. There is a lever that if a bug presses it the doorway will open...

Marcus (continuing Micah’s story the following day): Then the spooky house will go into the secret entrance. You have this telescope thing and when you see through it you can see the secret entrance. And there are ghosts looking at you. If you touch a spider web you get trapped. Gathering the shadow, spooky invisible ghost, flinching near you, making you want to be scared…

Alistair’s (Year 4): When I was walking in the wild wood. Lost. Then I came across a sign which said ‘cosy hollow 2 meters’. I walked/stumbled 2 meters to find a cosy little den and smells, tastes, sights and things I could hear. I will describe it: I smelt the smell of stick and a still river (there a crocodile might be) and then the taste of fresh woodland air. Shouts of joy echoed amongst the trees. It was beautiful.

Rhoda (age 3): The panda lives in a den in the woods. He came out and played on his bike. A tiger came and caught him. The tiger ate him.

Days later, as we cleared away the exhibition, I discovered a story Harvey (age 12) had left in one of the cabinets. He had come to a family workshop and spent a long time creating a huge, captivatingly beautiful structure from fine string. His illustrated story showed a dramatically different woods and taken together his two creations expressed perfectly the span of wildness, from danger to beauty and back again.

Invitation no. 1/The seeing machine


A 1950's cocktail cabinet; cardboard ‘seeing’ tubes; iPhone playing two tracks of music; paper and pens; the woods and the lake

(by Deb Wilenski) Our recent exhibition in the Spinney Wild Woods offered a number of explorations for visitors to engage in.  Each was inspired by discoveries from the class of 4 and 5 year olds who were the first to enter the newly-opened woods in February 2014. 

The exhibition title ‘This tree is bigger than earth’, came from Adam on our first ever visit as he waited to cross the ditch into the woods.  It reminded me once again that children’s languages of discovery fluently and beautifully combine powers of observation and invention.  The ‘seeing machine’ was an experiment in perception that invited visitors to explore further these connections between seeing and imagining…

Here is the invitation as presented on the exhibition night followed by the ‘sights’ people noted from this experience of looking with sound.  The ‘seeing machine’ was positioned next to the lake:

When children come to the woods they bring many things with them – all the stories they have ever heard, all the creatures they have seen in real life and fantasy, familiar sounds, strange sounds, dreams, fears.  What we find in the woods, even as adults, depends partly on what we bring in our own minds and imaginations.

Tonight the seeing machine offers two pieces of music of very different character, with which to ‘see’ the woods.  Please listen to one at a time and take a while to see what you see.  There is paper inside the machine for you to note down words or images to tell others what you saw…and to see the worlds that have already been discovered.

Track 1: Jesu joy of man’s desiring (piano) – J.S.Bach

Track 2:  ‘Dies irae’ from Requiem in D Minor (Mozart)

Piano music (Bach):

I saw…..Looping flies, ripples ivy; nature and stillness; fish dancing under the water; walking home to a quiet supper in front of a warm fire; little canoes going along under tangled branches;  idyllic pastorale, place of retreat; there’s a deer in the clearing, a swan gliding in the lake; while the music played the leaves from the tree started to fall (I guess I didn’t notice that with the other music)

Fast choral music (Mozart):

I saw….Red berries and light BURSTING through leaves!;  warring and looking for enemies;  I saw winged soldiers flying through the sky ready to land in the woods;  walking to a village pub for a pint of shandy with good friends;  I saw trees getting ready for a thunderstorm;  rushing people, wind blowing the leaves

This tree is bigger than earth (Adam, age 5)


Offered as ‘an exhibition/exploration in the Spinney Wild Woods’ this event, curated by Deb Wilenski, invited visitors to consider young children’s languages of discovery as authoritative and provocative. 

A series of objects and images were placed back into the woods to explore and play with including:

  • The seeing machine - an experiment in looking
  • View-master reels – an invitation to be immersed in stories from our 2014 project: lands, creatures, this tree, house, to boldly go
  • Film in a tent -  a chance to see where the children found a rocket ship, a desert, an immovable object, a ‘hard way’ through brambles…
  • Wild cabinets of curiosity -  children’s words and found objects were collected in cabinets from the Natural History Museum with an invitation to explore, re-arrange and continue the collections…
  • Maps to make/get lost with – offering ways to map the woods with string, or in the spirit of psycho-geography (an approach to geography that emphasises playfulness, disorientation and drifting) use children’s maps from Hinchingbrooke Country Park to discover the Spinney 

With thanks to Dan Stevens for photographing the evening.

What do they tell you about the woods?

How does wildness look different through their eyes?

These events were part of art:language:location and Curating Cambridge.

New ways of seeing


I didn’t realise this was here…..for me it was a huge shock…..what an amazing experience…there’s so much to see and do. It’s very tranquil. You could be anywhere. It’s wonderful. You’d much rather they were here than at home with their toys. (Jo, mother of Phoebe and Harvey)

I just like the sense of freedom and you can do stuff you don’t do at school. You can feel the sense of 3D, you can touch and you can use your imagination. You can’t always get in here ….you just want to explore (Oscar, year 6)

Over 180 people joined us in the woods during the family learning week. Most had never visited and many didn't even know the woods were here. CCI artists Caroline and Deb invited families to create their own 'seeing machines'. Our 'cabinets of curiosity' that had featured as part of the This tree is bigger than earth exhibition in that week offered stories from previous adventurers to these woods encouraging new stories to be written and shared during our time round the fire. 

I would like to stay here all night (Sevgi’s mum)

Extraordinary winds meant one workshop was held in the school hall where we recreated the wild woods with paper and cardboard and listened to the stories that grew there. Here is Micah's: