The portal to our hosting space

By Rowan Salim

I wonder who you encountered as a child who’s curiosities, explorations, passion, and kindness you still remember. When I was a child, my parents had many friends who visited us from around the world. I remember Parine Jaddo, the Iraqi/Turkmen filmmaker who visited us in Morocco and who spent a month walking around with her camera, capturing what I hadn’t known I’d seen. I remember my grandmother visiting, laying out her prayer mat on our living room floor and I’d watch from the corner of the room as she prostrated five times a day. I remember when we moved to Yemen when I was 10 and in our first few weeks my new neighbour, Taqiya, came to visit and rather than enter our house, she climbed the wall separating us from our neighbours, balancing high on the beam and jumping onto adjacent rooftops, and in doing so immediately shifted how I saw my new home, in a manner only a guest could have done.

The hosting space is one of Free We Grow’s four ‘spaces of engagement’. Rather than being physical spaces, these spaces are more like portals to learning worlds. They open access to ways in which we as humans understand the world around us. They give credence to our evolutionary history as social beings living in relationship with others, both human and more than human.  In the past, before the days of the internet or even books, hosting pilgrims was a way of expanding our learning about the wider world.

Over the last three years, our hosting space has been alive with interactions and exchanges in ways that I could not have dreamt of. There are so many ways that hostings come about, and each visit is unique and special. Some more intentional than others, and all beaming with mutual curiosity. I love observing the look on children’s faces, and our visitors, when they step into Dacres Wood for the first time and register each other – often allowing time and space to find each other.

One of my favourite series of visits was when the council reduced the height of the wall around the reserve leaving us with a pile of over a hundred bricks. The children spent the next few weeks diligently cleaning each brick and proceeded to build makeshift brick walls. Soon they wanted their brick wall to stand the test of time and needed to learn to use mortar.

As neither myself nor Sally had any experience with brick building, we reached out to our community and arranged for two visitors, a prospective dad who worked as a bricklayer part-time, and one of the children’s grandad, who had built his own house. The children got to build a brick wall with experts, sharing their deep knowledge and passion for the work and even went on a local tour looking at the brickwork in the neighbourhood.  This is something that the hosting space intentionally tries to repair and heal: the separation of children from the adult world of work and passion.

On this occasion, the visitors were invited to meet a need that the children had, and this can often be the case in the hosting space, like when one of the children became interested in how the spy pen worked, and another child’s grandad, Roger, kindly organised a whole day of workshop activities to explore the electromagnetic spectrum. Or when the children finished their first aid course, and we invited Colin the paramedic to show us how to do CPR and share his stories about what it’s like to be a first aider on the front line.


At other times the hosting space is more incidental or familial. I remember the afternoon where all the musical instruments ended up in the circle in the woods when one of the children’s uncles visited, or the time when my sister Riyam who is a graphic designer, visited after the children had gotten into intricate body painting with face paints. The children (and facilitators) often like to invite their friends or family members to visit, and this seems to be a really meaningful experience for them. Free We Grow is a different kind of space for children to be in, and it’s special to be able to share this first hand with the people in your life so that it’s easier to talk about it, celebrate it together, and have a point of reference. Our learning community and our learning life, connected through bonds of love.  Each of these visitors also brings with them their own interests which they share with us.

At other times, our families become much more extended! We have three little siblings that the children have watched grow from bumps or tiny babies into toddlers and little children. Having this wonderful extended network is really special and can be quite meaningful for children who have smaller families or no siblings. We found that there was a desire to spend more time with the little ones, and so, at times the children invited their friends’ young siblings to spend mornings with us, to play indoors together or in the forest and share space.  It’s warming to know that this time would have been just as meaningful to the little ones and their mothers too!

There are myriad other visits I could mention. Our neighbour, Kevin the artist, who occasionally spends the day painting in the woods with us, Lottie Childs who visited and had the kids take her on an urban foray, Max Hope who spent the day with us playing Monopoly and telling wild stories, many many friends who came to play music with us like Freya Aquarone, Danny Whitehouse, Charlotte Church, and Jess from Lewisham Council and her team of volunteers who we got to observe as they built dead hedges in the woods, Alice, one of the children’s friends, who visits us each year from France and with whom the children enjoy sharing notes and comparing Free We Grow to her Montessori school; and cherished visits from past community members and friends like Finn, Carlotta and Sally.

So why am I reminiscing about all these visits now? With the new regulations surrounding the Corona Virus, we have had to suspend our hosting space in order to keep our bubble intact and reduce the number of contacts we have. It’s easy to write on paper, but the impact of suspending one of our four spaces of engagement is significant to our community, where these spaces form part of our learning landscape, our emergent curriculum, our reclamation of diverse ways of learning.  Over the last three years, this breathing in and out, this pulse, has tethered us to our wider community and formed bonds of mutual interest and understanding. The children have developed an awareness of the existence of this portal and use it often.

This term we have started to experiment with new ways of conjuring this portal. One little sibling for one tried quite hard to enter Dacres Wood by squishing his face into it! I wish that could work! We’ve also had some WhatsApp calls with friends at a distance, we’ve bounced song ideas to and fro through virtual portals with our singer-songwriter friends, and we’re lucky to have our intern program too. But moving forwards, we’ll be looking to innovate new ways to conjure this portal. If you have any ideas about how to do this, please let us know! And if you or someone you know would like to join our Library of Friends, which is our database of contacts we invite into our space, then please use this link to sign up for when the portal re-opens. And in the meantime, who did you meet when you were a child who inspired you or shaped the way you understand the world?