The Year 4 boys and girls laugh and dance exuberantly on the wet, sticky mass of mud. Far from telling them to stop, their teacher joins in. The children cannot quite believe it.
But the teacher has good reason to be supportive. Outdoor education has long been found to be beneficial for students, especially those who struggle in a “traditional” classroom setting. Today’s group includes children with behavioural issues, and certain special educational needs and disabilities.
What the children of West Earlham Junior School in Norwich are doing is partaking in a type of outdoor education that is growing in popularity: cob building.
Cob is an ancient building material made of subsoil, water and straw and can be used to create sculptures, walls and even whole buildings. I teach the technique in schools across the country and see the impact of this work over and over again. I call it “the mud effect”: children who are unable – or do not want – to learn in the classroom suddenly become engaged and want to lead the learning when they’re cob building.
Unleashing latent talents
A great example of this recently was a student with speech and language difficulties. The pupil was receiving weekly input from a speech and language therapist, as well as a dedicated key worker for one-to-one time every day.
After they were thrown into the mud for the building project, they emerged transformed, as a leader. I was surprised to learn that they struggled in their relationships with other children, often “victimising” them at school. During the cob workshops, they were confident and led their peers.
It’s especially rewarding when a child like this comes into their own. But it is frustrating that opportunities for outdoor learning are increasingly curtailed. Schools often fail to realise that the curriculum can be covered in more ways than just sitting in a classroom. The lesson at West Earlham, for example, was part of a history scheme of work on the Saxons.
Why does cob building work? Because it provides tangible results. It lets children get messy and play in a structured way, but also allows them to have some freedom. And the exercise is dependent on teamwork: to achieve the end product, students have to work together or the whole thing collapses (physically and metaphorically).
It also has the surprising effect of getting pupils to talk freely about their feelings and experiences. As they throw mud on the emerging walls, children seem to feel comfortable in talking about themselves. This can be an invaluable pastoral tool.
And such initiatives don’t have to cost much: cob building is free if you have a decent muddy patch in the school grounds.
How to get started
1 Tell the students to bring in clothes they can get dirty.
2 Find a spot in the school grounds where the headteacher is happy for you to do some excavation and dig a hole – you should keep digging until you reach the subsoil.
3 You can easily discover what sort of subsoil you have – sandy or clay.
4 To make cob, you need to mix one part clay with three parts sand (depending on your subsoil, you might have to supplement one or the other).
5 Lay out a tarpaulin for your soil mix. Get the students to dance on top of it to mix it all together.
6 Next, add water and straw. Do some more dancing.
7 Once the ingredients are fully mixed, you are ready to build. You might want to try some figurines or heads to start with (building a house might be a little ambitious).
8 Lay out the sculptures in the sun or in a sheltered place and they should dry rock-hard.
Charlotte Eve has a PGCE in primary years and is an experienced cob builder