Pat Edwards, of Tamariki School in Christchurch, New Zealand, describes one particular kind of learning outside the classroom.

Early this year we saw a very graphic demonstration of the learning process made extremely visible. We don't get such a nice example all that often, and so easily photographed, though I am afraid the photos don't reveal all the subtleties very clearly.

Hut-building has been a perennial activity during the 26 years of the school’s life – some might call it atavistic – and certainly the parent culture and the child’s particular home environment make little difference to the whole-hearted way in which all children engage in it.

For our kids it is mainly though not invariably a social activity, we have a large supply of junk, and the children have elaborated very sophisticated rule structures to allow equitable access to these materials and favoured sites, mainly through the whole school meeting at which a child or group may book a hut for up to a term. If they are still using it during that time they have control of who may enter, and of the materials used.

The Big Girl's HutThe Big Girl's Hut 

At the beginning of the year there was an intense burst of building, and the resultant structures showed the different purposes such activity serves for children at different developmental stages. The group of the three oldest girls, aged 12 and 13, started this particular burst, and they used in some ways the least desired materials, an old sink bench, smaller pieces of wood, some 70s wrought iron spindly chair and stool frames, in the middle of a small grove of fruit trees. The structure was waist high at its highest, absolutely open, with a wide doorway, oval, with the chair frames positioned very socially, and the wood and bench made into tables on which were placed flowers, food, other invitations to be comfortable. It was clear that this was not from gender conditioning - these are a particularly bolshie and strong-minded trio, who in the last year have started to disengage from child pursuits and try on adult roles more and more, and this was an effort to set up an adult space. They played in it for about a day, after which it was taken over by younger children. Beside it a group of three or four five-year-old girls built a very small similar structure of wool, curtains, sticks. It resembled nothing so much as the first effort of a young bird to build a nest, and the children played very happily in it for weeks, including other little ones in the fantasies centred on it and the big girls’ hut.

Over on the school boundary, about thirty feet away and marked by a very decrepit wire strand fence, another group of young birds were building a not very expert nest. This too was a group of four, two boys of seven, and a boy and girl of six. The two latter had come from other schools in the previous year, and had great pleasure in breaking rules, and being as dirty and messy as possible. They were undoubtedly responsible for the siting, and for the exciting incursions into the neighbour’s, an abandoned burnt out house, to filch the odd desirable piece of wood or what-have-you. This hut used more demanding materials than the five year olds’, but the children still couldn’t solve the problems of roof, walls, floor, and spent much time accusing each other of carelessness and wrecking proclivities as their fragile structure betrayed them. The hut was no longer used as a base for play, in contrast to the five year olds, the building of the hut was indeed the ‘game’.

Another group of not very expert or experienced builders also built a hut at this time. These were a group of five new twelve year old males, all of whom had arrived in the previous nine months, thoroughly desocialised by their previous experience, suspicious, hostile, ‘agin the government’, secretive, aggressive. They sited theirs also against the boundary, a more substantial six foot paling fence, and right off the beaten track for play purposes, though directly opposite my window. Theirs was a very comfortless and make-shift structure, with no floor, nails still sticking out of the walls and door, cramped, dark and thoroughly secret. It was totally covered by plastic sheeting, folded several times into a kind of spider web, able to grasp at the intruder, and so repellently dirty as to deter all but the most determined anyway. They constructed too a secret exit in the rear from which they could make hostile sorties from behind an adjacent shed, and get their fellows to swear blind that they had never left the hut, to which I was once or twice adduced as a witness, on the grounds that I had a clear view. They used this hut right through their Ishmael period, and have only recently abandoned it.

The last structure(s) was that developed by a large group of eight through eleven year olds. It is in fact six separate bookings representing 13 or 14 children, all boys (we have many more boys than girls), and is a very sophisticated structure indeed with many architectural features. It too has secret doorways, but these are more delighted in for their cleverness of conception than for their utility and are proudly displayed. In accordance with building regulations it has a ramp, a hoist, fire exits etc. I particularly like the decoration of one front door with triangular emphasis, and a circular window above. Doors are often operated by elaborate pulleys, the construction is sound and strong, and the hut is still standing up to constant use in various games as well as to frequent modification by someone with a bright idea. For these boys the activity appears to have been significant on several levels. They certainly worked on problems of physics and mathematics in getting such a strong structure, but I am still more impressed by the things that they had learnt and were here further exploring about cooperation.

hutimage004The hut built by the boys

That so large a group in six separate titles could build a joint structure without territorial disputes amazes me. The older male group were quite incapable of this, though learning, and the learning process was particularly clear in the six and seven year olds. The richness and completeness of human play never ceases to delight me, but the main characteristic has to be its purposefulness. All these children had different learning processes they were working on, different problems to solve, and all of them were tackling them in ways that worked for them, with commitment, concentration, passion. These children are working and it is ridiculous to suggest that academic book-based learning is more valuable or real.

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