Free We Grow’s commitment to inclusion

Rowan Salim

When we opened Free We Grow in 2017, myself and three families got together to imagine the project. It was driven by a strong sense of wanting to create an environment where children can grow free and connected. Free to learn and play, and connected to themselves, their community and the more than human world around them. The belief, or hope, is that by doing so, children and communities and the land can grow and be well. What emerged is a community of practice. We are learning how to do this, exchanging practice with other emergent groups, and living joyfully.

As part of this initial gathering, was a promise. The founding team consisted of people with heritage from Iraq, from Britain, from Italy, Columbia, Spain and Germany and it felt important to us that the community that emerged would be an inclusive community. The promise we made 6 years ago was to never turn a family away for financial reasons.  It is easy in today’s world to become siloed. Societal structures have a tendency to agglomerate people with shared characteristics. One way this seems to happen is through a paywall. You can take part in a community so long as you can pay to do so. This inherently felt like a barrier to the ideals of the project.

Currently home education does not get any government funding (email us if this is incorrect!) The solution we have been dancing with over the last 6 years has been to lean into and explore the idea of gift culture. Gift culture is an approach to life which recognises the relationships and reciprocity in all living systems. Money can be part of the currency of a gift culture, but gift culture also recognises other currencies like time and skills and care and joy.

For the first 5 years of the project, our promise held true and somehow we made ends meet by keeping costs low, relying on gifted time for administration and cover, developing an innovative procurement policy, inviting families to contribute in kind through supporting day to day tasks and providing cover, and inviting higher earners to pay forwards into our community fund to cover costs.

In our 6th year our promise took a leap forwards. Whilst families with lower access to money had been applying, we felt that the price associated with the project still put some families off. We also noticed that black and brown families and working class families  were more excluded and we were aware that colonial histories, both overseas and in Britain through the enclosures were at the root of this exclusion.

We decided to become more explicit in our promise and actively invited families who shared this vision and dream of childhood who may not feel able to ask, to go ahead and apply anyway. We knew that this would bring forth a book keeping challenge, but we felt that inclusion and representation were so fundamental to the vision, that we took the leap.

Today we have a beautiful and diverse community, representing so many walks of life and with so much to give and celebrate, that we really feel blessed.

Last year, in order to dive deep into gift culture and try to understand how it might blossom even more, we organized a Giftival. This was a one month festival of gifts where members of the community – children, parents, friends and neighbors –  offered events, workshops and gatherings for free to the local community. We hosted litter picks, story telling, games workshops, art workshops, breathing workshops, food waste events and much more. The Giftival was a month of connection, joy and exchange, and one of the key learnings I take from it, is a re-emphasis that community cannot form behind closed walls. This time the wall was not just the paywall, but the wall or fence around Dacres Wood.



It became apparent that even if our community is inclusive, access to the land is restricted. During the month of the Giftival, we welcomed over 400 people to Dacres Wood Nature Reserve. Many of these visitors lived locally but some had never visited the reserve before. Others didn’t even know it existed. And those who had visited before hardly had enough opportunity to get to develop a caring relationship with the land through regular contact.

We realized that as a community, we are in a privileged position to broaden access, not only to our project, but also to the land. And so, this year, we are looking to work closely with the Friends of Dacres Wood and Lewisham Council to support more regular open days, intergenerational and family friendly events to support people from the broader community to gather in the woods, to care for each other and the land.

All of this still leaves us with the book keeping challenge! Despite keeping costs low, we are still looking to bridge the funding gap created by offering subsidized spaces. The project continues to incur running costs which primarily include rent of the site and facilitators’ salaries.


And so we are exploring 4 avenues for fundraising! Here they are:

1- We have launched a crowdfunder! If you love the project, are inspired by it and have capital to spare, please consider contributing to our crowdfunder which will enable us to continue our promise never to turn anyone away for financial reasons!

2- We are becoming a Community Interest Company! We have always been a not for profit enterprise, but this year we are looking to convert to be a CIC so that we can actively apply for grants. If you know of any grants or foundation which you think would be interested in supporting our project please write to us!

3- We are going to register for OFSTED’s voluntary child care register. This has been a scary process, as we are keen to ensure that children’s freedom is not jeopardised. But following a long period of research, we have come to understand that the voluntary register should not impact on our pedagogical approach but rather focuses on health and safety and safeguarding, which we are confident we adhere to the highest practices.

4 – We will broaden our community events and services. This will include supporting more free open days and offering free or donation based community events. Any funds raised through these will also contribute to our community fund and our effort to maintain our promise. We have just hosted the September Friends of Dacres Wood Open Day and our next event, Soul Sanctuary, is taking place this coming Sunday the 8th of October (in Battersea). Follow this link to find out more!

Thank you for reading this far! We’d love to stay in touch, in which case we invite you to join our community mailing list by pressing this link. Our next open day at Dacres Wood is this September the 30th from 1-4pm where one of the parents will be offering storytelling around the fire! So do come by, have a chat, a walk around the woods and listen to some stories!

Kids and plants: a reflection on education and gardening by Mariana Martins

I have been thinking, while walking around the paths in Dacres Wood, about the similarities we as educators have with botanists and gardeners. Do not get me wrong, I am an experienced educator, but definitely not a great gardener. I  have killed hydrangeas and tomato trees alike. I realize I do not start this text on my best step, really, but when looking around the reserve, though, at any time of the year, you can find plants as much as kids growing in unusual places. This is my point: it feels natural and it’s lovely to see, I never have to guide them or decide for them. Maybe suggest, which may or may not be accepted. Much on the contrary, kids flow and hide, they run and climb, test their capacities to the full. There isn’t a lot of trimming or feeding going on, it definitely is not a tame plot of land, quite the opposite.  Surprisingly, as much as wild blossoms, they do not need to be watered constantly or even fed profusely. Balancing your plans on how to be adults present for children, as carers, parents, or facilitators – do you opt for a more child-led approach? What is the best choice? how do we go about it –  can in reality have the same effect as how you grow flowers or fruit trees in your backyard: it may or may not go according to your plan. What was carefully designed and prepared may not necessarily work and, conversely, what just popped “out of nowhere” and found solutions for itself along the way can be just perfect. How do we get it right? Ooohh, the million-dollar question. I wish I knew. Some hints of how similar they are:

Continue reading “Kids and plants: a reflection on education and gardening by Mariana Martins”

The Giftival and exploring what gift culture means to us

By Rowan Salim

For the last few years at Free We Grow, we’ve been exploring what gift culture looks like for us as a community, so that we can hold each other, and this space for the children, and the land we inhabit, with love and reciprocity. When we started, we thought gift culture was about accessibility, but as we explore it, we realise it’s about more than that, it’s a way of being together, and with the land, in relationships of care and trust.

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Using the edges and valuing the margins

by Rowan Salim

This week three of the children discovered The Wall: The enticingly climbable wall between the woods and the courtyard. And of course, they climbed it. They sat on it, and they perched. They wriggled to make room for each other, they worked out their comfy positions, they wobbled. They found their way down, then up again. One of them called out that he was going to fall and die, so Mariana stood nearby and held his foot. Soon, I expect, he’ll be doing it alone.
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The meeting, culture creation, and speaking from the ‘I’

by Rowan Salim

There is a hand gesture which the FWG children made up about 4 years ago to help bring people’s attention back to the meeting. It’s called the ‘cannon ball’ and you do it by putting the tips of your fingers together into a ball above your head. I’m not a fan of the name, but I like the gesture. 10 fingers, 1 circle/ball. The cannon ball in a way symbolizes the meeting. Each person an individual, and when we sit together in a circle, we are one.

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by Roger Gossett

A little bit about me (really us – it includes my wife Isabella Gossett). Our children, Natasha and Jason, were born in the early 80’s. When it was time for them to go to school a little bit of visiting local primaries made me, born in the area around 30 years previously, feel that time had stood still. The classrooms looked identical to what I remember, some were portacabins in the playground. Everyone was shut away, in their classroom, for the majority of the day. Just as I remembered school around 25 years earlier.

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After five magical years …

It’s been 5 years since we – five parents: Denise, Emma, Sara, Tom and Lars, and our facilitator Rowan – founded Free We Grow. Each of us had its own motivations and needs when starting the project, however what aligned us all was the belief in children as people worthy of respect and that a free childhood is priceless and this is how we turned it into our vision:

A democratic environment embedded in and connected to the world around us where children can grow socially competent and ecologically mindful and where their innate curiosity and instinct to play and learn is trusted and nurtured.

Denise, Emma, Sara, Tom and Lars

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Facilitator’s reflections

by Mariana Martins

It is nearly June and here we go pouring onto paper our impressions and observations: as I sit down to reflect on my time as facilitator at Free We Grow, I look at the shelves and find the picture of me dressed in the most unusual fashion (a corduroy dress on top of a pair of ski trousers, really? What was I thinking?) reading the Acorn poem in the meadow with the children acting as Greek chorus, back in the beginning of the spring term. It has been 5 months since the Winter and the cold January when I started working here. I was uncertain then about the steep learning curves of working in a forest and I am now more excited than ever about all the thrilling rides of being immersed in this new journey.

The image I refer to above is the one of the farewell party held for one of the children in the moment we were planting the baby oak tree. Continue reading “Facilitator’s reflections”