The visceral and the virtual

By Rowan Salim

This article was written in July 2020, we are now happily back at Dacres Wood!

Free We Grow online has been great. And going back to Dacres Wood is going to be even better. 

I cannot have predicted what FWG online was going to be like. I held so many feelings before we started. I was excited about the prospect of doing something new with everyone we all know so well. I was relieved at the possibility of remaining in connection with each other during these strange times. I was apprehensive about the prospect of being on screen for so long, of running meetings online, of working out how to hold space for self-direction and expression, about our distance from nature and from each other.

I have learnt so much about our community by moving online in ways which I am grateful for. And I think that maybe each of us has learnt new things about themselves too. There’s something about being thrown into a different context that brings out new feelings in ourselves, new ways of expression, new interests and opens possibilities, builds self-awareness. We allow for this in normal times through our hosting and visiting spaces, but moving online has been a whole new ball game.


Take getting our heads around the technology for starters. Within a few weeks, the level of expertise in negotiating online learning spaces, using hardware and software, troubleshooting, trying things out, and then trying again, has been incredible. The sheer need to be engaged has driven problem-solving exemplified by the range of solutions children and their families have found to record and upload myriad stop motion videos of cat space pirates. The help and collaboration from families in this matter has not gone unnoticed!

Reading and writing

The children have loved using the chatbox. Right from the start, they started playing on it; sending letters, sending numbers, sending words and sentences. Working out how to do private messaging. Saying hello, saying goodbye, writing a poem, writing a story. Copying and pasting web addresses. Copying and pasting text from news sites. Racing to collaboratively send 10,000 individual chats in the last 8 minutes of the day after storytime – Done!

I can track how some children’s confidence and enjoyment of reading and writing has developed over the last 6 weeks. One child started every session this term with the same sentence. Each session I noticed differences in how he wrote his sentence:

  • i am first to tap a sats
  • i am first to tap a sants
  • i am first to tayp a sants

I noticed how the children mimic each other’s sentences as each of them evolves their writing.

The buzz space

The space for collaboration that FWG online has provided is fascinating. At FWG we have an intentional ‘space’ for collaboration which we call the Buzz space. It’s a recognition that while we’re self-directed, we also live in community and learn and grow through relationships. Sometimes, to do things, it is more fun and works better when we work with others. At Dacres’ Wood, the buzz space has been used to organise parties and fundraising stalls, construct museums, learn first aid, design and make yearbooks, all sorts. It has always been a pop up space/way of being that emerges when it’s needed. We use a blackboard to identify what needs doing, who’s taking the lead, what they need to achieve their task, and we work together to see it through (or as it were, to decide not to!).

But online the Buzz space has been more pronounced and has had a central and consistent presence in our gatherings.  Early on, some of the children expressed the desire to make a film, and soon the project became a daily feature. Zoom gathers us in one space. The children can hang out in their own breakout rooms or propose alternative activities but they have consistently chosen to stay together in the Buzz space. Their interests differ and their ways of working also differ. But they seem to share an interest in observing each other and being part of the process.  They each bring their spark, expertise, passion, quirkiness. Sometimes one child will find their groove and drive innovation and others will watch and listen.  Sometimes there’ll be synergy between two or three children, gravitating towards each other to make music or elaborate storylines. Sometimes the whole group will be working together. The buzz space as an intentional space has become more pronounced and found new meaning through the move online, and I’m curious to see how this will influence our projects when back at Dacres Wood.

Participation and inclusion

Children’s ability to engage in new contexts will depend on how safe, confident, and supported they feel in them. In FWG online, there have been a number of phenomena that have shaped how the space feels for different users. Some children just don’t like being the center of attention. That’s quite hard when the spotlight is on you to speak. Some children don’t like being in big groups. That can be difficult when everyone’s joined your zoom call. Some children like multi-tasking or doodling and fiddling while listening. That can make it hard when you’re expected to sit in front of a screen. Some children are really good at feeling the energy of the group and being intuitive in their responses and their interaction. Their childhoods have been grounded in the visceral. That can be difficult when you find yourself locked in the virtual.

At Dacres Wood, there’s space for everyone to be heard, whether it’s in the meeting, or during play with each other throughout the day, or during one to ones with facilitators when we do the forest check together.  But online, we are often all together, so it’s interesting to see who holds the mic so to say. And it’s also interesting to see how the group self regulates. There are times for example where one person might be commanding attention, and it’s evident that others are learning from what they’re sharing and choosing to remain in the space to observe. There are times when the group requests to go to smaller breakout rooms so that they can have some breathing space.

During one of our lyric writing sessions, one of the children who is a confident and generous wordsmith raised his hand and then drew it back again explaining that he wanted to hear if anyone else had an idea before he shared his own. These dynamics have been a process, and the scales are constantly looking to balance as each person learns to express their needs and the community continues to grow in seeing and respecting each other’s needs and differences. As facilitators, we have been acutely aware of our role in enabling this – but even we are learning to shift our senses from the visceral to the virtual.

Dacres Wood

Free We Grow online has been an uninvited opportunity to learn and grow together in new ways. And while I see it as a gift in many ways, it will be oh so good to get back to Dacres Wood.

In the last few weeks that we’ve been away from the woods, the frogs would have come back to mate. The frogspawn would have been bobbing on the water’s surface and the tadpoles clinging to the edges of submerged logs. We would have watched as the reeds reached out of the murky depths that they’ve been wintering in and reached out to the skies, snails clinging to their sides, shooting out yellow irises at the start of May. We’d be hopping about avoiding the growing hedges of nettles as we gather tips for soup and maybe stood by to watch as the conservation workers trim back the bushy growth. We’d examine the dipping level of the water in the pond as it reveals the dipping platform again and watch as it’s surface blooms and blossoms with algae and invertebrate life. We’d be looking out for the first dragonflies which skit skat and hover from June and maybe do another spittlebug count. We’d see the colours of the forest canopy change, hear the birds as they nest and feed, count the blades of grass as they return to the meadow, feel the sun’s rays and the breeze on our backs.  The rhythm and cycles of the year at Dacres Wood is like a pulse which over the past three years our community has fallen into a rhythm with. It’s one thing to visit a forest, it’s another to live in it.  We are incredibly fortunate to be able to tune in to the natural rhythms. Aware of the impact of our boots on the earth, it’s also reassuring that during our absence, the forest will be reclaiming some of the spaces we occupy and regenerating itself. This is an opportunity to return with this awareness and a renewed commitment to be the most caring custodians of the forest that we can be.

Zoom – a protest song

We leave you with this Zoom protest song, written by our facilitator, Sara: