The Fifth Beatle
Greg Bottrill, author of Can I Go Play Now..? and early years thought leader, shares his recent experience co-play and exploration, and the wonders that nature can afford childhood, at Beatle Woods Outdoor Nursery.
In a small corner of Warwickshire, if you turn right down the lane, go past the red brick house that looks like it’s stepped out from the pages of a children’s picture book, and then follow the play-full laughter and the soundtrack that is made by uniquely made by the joy of adults and children immersed in co-play, you might just discover Beatle Woods.
You might know of Beatle Woods already – the team there, led by Rachel Macbeth-Webb certainly has both a story to tell and a song to sing about the value of childhood, the importance of connection to the Natural World and the delight of Time Together. It’s an extraordinary place and one that feels a million miles from the controlling grip of ‘do this, do that’ that can so often drag the Play People into the mire of outcome, control and Fear Not Faith.
What struck me in the time I spent at Beatle Woods was seeing its practice based on feeling, on passion and the heartfelt desire to offer childhood a landscape of choice, wonder and the joy of Being Me. On leaving the site I felt like I was saying goodbye to a Home, the children’s happy voices fading into the distance as our car crawled through the traffic making its way into the late afternoon rush and push and beep beep beep of the Adult World.
There’s definitely something very magical about Beatle Woods and ever since leaving there I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is exactly. After much pondering and a cup of tea or two I realised what it was: soul.
I wrote about the soulification of children in my second book ‘School and the Magic of Children’ as it’s my belief that this must become the real purpose of education, but here in front of me as I listened to Rachel explain her vision and share the landscape of Beatle Woods I realised that soulification wasn’t just happening for the children there, it was happening for the adult team too.
I greatly believe that childhood has a message for the Adult World if we would only pause to listen. It tries to tell us, over and over again, how to live and be in the world. This is what I believe is the ‘gift exchange’: as we co-play with children and give them freedoms of choice, collaboration, curiosity and creativity then the magic of children begins to expand ever outwards and offer us something in return. It’s as though co-play results in Heartglow, that deep feeling of being at peace, of being swept up in Time so that it in turn seems to no longer weigh heavy on us but instead liberates us to feel alive with noticing, marvel and connection.
In the time I was at Beatle Woods I saw adults deeply immersed in childhood, as though they had been transported like time travellers back into a realm of delight and weightlessness: adults cosied up in book snuggles, rocking children with much glee back and forth in hammocks, gathered together to share food and the pitter patter of chit chat, exploring large scale painting and chalking, hunting and collecting, and even being chased by children armed with water spray bottles whilst wearing a great big cardboard box over their head (yes, the adult) – a whole orchestra of co-play unfolding every which way one looked and all happening because firstly the magic of children was stood in the wood with open arms and secondly because Rachel, with a soul for childhood as big as a mountain, had given the adults the Great Big Yes of co-play, of growth, of discovery.
Maybe that’s what it all comes back to – faith in children, faith in adults. Maybe that’s the beginning of soulification, a culture in which both childhood and adults are given the opportunity to adventure together. And how would we know if that culture exists in our own setting? I’d like to think that we’d leave it every day knowing that life had been lived, that joy had been felt and that the Heartglow of co-play was following us home. We’d leave our setting and make our way back to the Adult World with the one message that Beatle Woods seems to shout at the top of its voice: “Hold hands with childhood and don’t let go. It knows where it’s going and it wants you to go there too…”.