ARBORFIELD CROSS, England — When Susan Humphries was appointed head of the Coombes Infant School in Arborfield Cross, Surrey, an hour’s drive from London, it was doubtless a satisfying moment in career terms. A school of her own at last. What she did not realize, and is likely to dismiss modestly today, was how far-reaching her educational example would prove. The wall at the entrance to the school, covered from ceiling to floor with environmental education awards, tells part of the story.

The year was 1972, the school was new, the location was semirural and the school building, which stood at the top of a slope, had a fine view over the rolling Surrey hills — provided you ignored the sewage-treatment plant on the horizon. The new, custom-built buildings abutted a quiet road on one side, while on the other side of the playground was the junior school.

The new school had been built on compulsorily purchased agricultural land — a sloping field that had been used for rotating crops of barley and other grains, sugar beet and kale. Every tree, shrub and bit of vegetation had been removed, including the hedge, which had been replaced by three vicious strands of barbed wire. Architecturally, the school boasted no distinguishing features and certainly no energy-conserving ones — it was standard, local-authority style, with square classrooms joined side-by-side, stranded on an expanse of asphalt and with a newly turfed playing field in the back.

“It was a rather startling school,” Humphries said recently. “It looked like a single tooth in a head. It just wanted all kinds of softening, particularly as the building itself had no pleasant features, no details that made you feel ‘That’s interesting to look at.’ “

When she asked her new charges what they wanted, they pointed to a line of trees leading to a wooded copse and an ancient footpath beyond their reach outside the school grounds. From this response was born her determination to place the school in the middle of a wood, not the blasted heath of the present. She wanted to give the children trees they could climb and swing on or hide behind. She wanted to, in effect, create a living time line by planting every year, tending the saplings and harvesting their fruit and nuts. She envisaged a tradition of growing and picking that would seed the habits of a lifetime in young minds.

Something else spurred her determination, too. The school was situated close to the British Army’s Arborfield Garrison, and it was a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were building to yet another murderous climax. “We have a considerable number of army children here,” she explained, “and were looking for supplementary experiences to help them overcome some of their worries and difficulties because many of their fathers were in Northern Ireland. In fact, a few had been injured, and a mother and a father had been killed. We were looking for the gentleness that you get from nature, the therapeutic side of trees and flowers — the mental-health aspect.”

A school in a wood

In the 27 years since, Coombes has become a school in a wood and the inspiration behind the founding of “Learning Through Landscapes,” an educational charity of which Humphries is a trustee. The organization has had an enormous impact on the international movement to transform school playgrounds into environments where children learn through play and through interaction with nature, as they did in the past.

It is a pressing concern. Surveys taken by such diverse bodies as the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the London School of Economics and the Family Policy Study Center all point to a situation where British children now see themselves as battery kids, force-fed a diet of television and computer games and banned from exploring independently the great, wide world outside their homes, in part because parents perceive it as dangerous.

Far fewer children are now allowed to go to school unaccompanied, as they used to do, and 60 percent of British parents fear that their children may be abducted or the targets of pedophiles, according to a survey taken by the Kids Club Network — an organization set up to promote after-school clubs on the Japanese “gakudo” model.

In the protected environment of the school playground, however, the lost joys of simply messing about outdoors can be regained, along with the opportunities to use this “blue sky” classroom to teach children subjects across the whole range of the curriculum. This is what happens at Coombes, where the grounds are full of areas known as “pearls-and-serendipity pieces” or features that can be used either for informal play or more formal learning.

But 27 years ago, the school in the wood seemed an impossible dream. Undeterred, Humphries embarked on a massive tree-planting program. Most of the trees planted in the beginning died, however, because the soil was loaded with agricultural chemicals, the legacy of years of farming.

“We couldn’t understand why they budded up, opened green and then died when it wasn’t particularly dry in the autumn,” Humphries said. “The following year we replanted and very, very few survived.”

Soil experts were consulted. They said that when the field was leveled for the rebuilding of the school, the whole natural inclination of the land had been disturbed — and with it the water plane. In removing the foundations, too, the soil profile had been reversed. The only solution, it seemed, was to pock the ground with holes and fill them with peat to improve both the drainage and the soil quality.

It may have been scientifically valid, but it was completely beyond the the school’s budget. Humphries’ alternative solution was brilliant in its simplicity and has continued as a yearly event to this day. She made allies of the local council and asked them to donate all the leaves sucked or swept up by municipal leaf sweepers in autumn from area parks and streets, and to dump them, not in landfill, but on to her school grounds. Last year alone, she said, they took one of the smallest amounts ever — 15 truckloads at seven tons apiece. In other years, they have taken three or four truckloads a day for a month to six weeks.

Over the years, the leaf mold has gradually built up, considerably changing the nature of the topsoil of the natural clay bed on which the school stands — aerating and conditioning it and allowing fully 60 percent of the trees they have planted to survive. The added bonus has been that the leaf mold contained some tree seeds that survived the heat and sterilization process caused by the enzyme action as the leaves decayed. To these species have been added others. Some, such as ornamental willows, have been planted so that they can be woven into living arches or cut to make baskets. Others have been seeded from the stones of the plums that the children save from their lunches. At the far side of the playing field is a small bower of 22 plum trees grown from these pits.

A tree survey taken on the grounds in July 1997 showed 83 separate species of tree on the school grounds, ranging from mountain ash to quince, juniper to a weeping cotoneaster. Humphries’ dream of surrounding the school with a wood has been fulfilled, but in the process other dreams have crept in too.

‘A most important teacher’

All have evolved from her determination to make a major improvement every term in the life of the school — whether inside or outside. “I’m not talking about maintenance,” she explained, “but about a significant difference. Sometimes it would be much more ephemeral, like playground painting, or it could be the digging of a pond and the stocking of it. What we’ve got is the summation of all those improvements inside and out.”

The report by the school governors (or school board) this year recommends the planting of 100 more trees and the laying of seven major indigenous stones from the British Isles, of which five are already in place. By 2000, there will be 12.

It is difficult to imagine now how the school once was. The playground markings of which Humphries talked are bright patterns painted directly onto the asphalt: a snake that coils around and bears all the letters of the alphabet, on which children can play hopscotch and unconsciously learn their ABCs, concentric circles of color that can be used as a gathering point or to learn to count or play elimination games. Other patterns are marked with numbers, so that mathematics can be learned underfoot.

Lying in this playground, which is used by the nursery-school children, is a tree bristling with climbable branches, with tunnels that the children can wriggle through and two dinghies in which they can sail away. The dinghies there now are the 15th replacements for the originals and were donated, never bought, because in liberating the grounds for the children, Humphries has made sure the parents are part of the equation, too.

“The community support from the army and local groups is quite amazing,” she said. On the day I visited, there were many parents in evidence, helping out on playground duty or just observing classes.

But it is out in the playing fields that the greatest change has been wrought. Humphries and her team of teachers and willing parents have landscaped the land so that it no longer looks like an open plain, but has become instead a place where children can enjoy privacy: “We’re big on dens and houses,” Humphries says.

Alternatively, they can explore it in different ways, either in class groups or alone. Lessons often end in with a walk. “The problem with most school grounds,” said Humphries, “is that if you go out for a walk, you can only go around the edge of the school where the architects left a pathway, but they don’t lead you anywhere except on a circuit. . . . You want lots of opportunities to go right and left.”

Coombes has achieved this by scooping out some areas to make ponds that are alive with fish and serenely navigated by ducks. Smaller ponds bristle with bulrushes, which the children can use to weave Moses baskets or cut candle wicks. With the soil excavated from these dips, hollows and ponds, the school has created vantage points from which children can look out over the surrounding countryside and veined the area around the playing field with pathways screened by brambles or hedgerows.

These lead to the so-called pearls-and-serendipity pieces, which may be a circle of benches in a grove of trees, where a teacher can tell a story, or the pen where the school’s ewe and ram are kept. (The animals are sheared every year and their wool is carded, spun and woven.)

Other pathways lead to clearings like Bluebell Wood, created by the children, who sow pounds and pounds of bluebell seeds “to get (their) right of picking restored to them,” Humphries explained. “Every year, each child plants two and is able to pick 10, and that makes a reasonable bunch. They make their own wrapping paper and take it home.” Bluebell Wood is also a site for camps and picnics, as is the stone circle, where lessons in Roman history may be given.

Humphries believes a child has three important teachers, of whom parents and other significant adults are the most important. Next comes the received wisdom of teachers and finally the environment in which a child is raised. From these circumstances children absorb many of the values on which they will build the rest of their lives.

“If the environment is hostile and arid,” she says, “then you deny its worth. . . . But if you can make it count, then that’s the child’s third most important teacher.”

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