Posted by Claire Warden on

Trees - A movable forest

In this second blog on forgotten spaces we explore the concept of a movable forest and how this small action can soften a landscape and therefore increase children’s desire to be outside. In many environments where I often work, the outdoor landscape is very barren due to increasing levels of vandalism. In these locations it can be hard for staff to sustain the motivation to replace and fix damaged items.

It was from this experience that 13 years ago I designed a mobile system called the ‘We-Go outside’. It took its name from my young daughter who used the phrase everyday to invite me outside into the garden. Its design was to easily set up an outside area with the minimum of effort with small bags of resources linked to the seasonal variation we have here in the UK. It certainly had a part to play in the development of practitioner’s intentionality outside, however the experiences lacked the ‘architectural framework’.

This was very soon followed by the desire to re-imagine a space created by children that moved beyond the climbing frame to 'invite nature in' on a daily basis. To investigate how children could create a nature-based haven as a part of their daily routine. The movable forest was born...
Imagine taking a tree for a walk in the morning, giving it a drink at lunchtime and putting it to bed behind the security shutters in the evening. Adults and children alike became motivated to name them beyond silver birch to Freddy and Zi. I was reminded of Rachel Carson when she spoke of children developing a love of the natural world. I doubt in the 1960’s that she considered taking a tree for a walk!
Taking a tree for a walk is of course full of challenges. I am not someone easily phased and proceeded to explore the possibilities. The secret to success was found in:
    • the large, strong, stable lockable casters that were underneath the movable platform
    • the pots were bolted to the base
    • the base was wide to make it stable
    • the trees had to be a species that could be containerised
    • the care of the tree had to be built into the ritual and routines of the day as it would be dependant on humans for water and ultimately food.
    The species we worked with were miniature fruit trees and blossom trees adapted for life in a pot rather than a forest. However, when 20 of them were huddled together in the corner of a playground, their impact was quite amazing. In one setting the children had grown acorns and when these became saplings of larger trees such as Oak, the space became their nursery along with the children. A new and original version of a traditional tree nursery!


    Why a forest and not just a plant pot with flowers?

    Children often mention trees as something they really like to have in the places where they play (Jansson et al., 2016; Laaksoharju et al., 2017). Some children even say they love trees (Argent et al. 2017) as they blur the division of inanimate and animate.

    Trees are the architectural masters in a landscape, the more mature the better. They provide so many things to a barren playground:

        • A framework for building dens and forts
        • A thing to sit beside and read a book
        • Shade to play under
        • Branches to climb up and lie upon (when they are mature)
        • A structure to rest and settle against
        • Loose parts for playing with
        • Bio-diversity
        • They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen so helping air quality and therefore increasing carbon storage
        • Joy
    When describing their movable forest, the children said they had a ‘thin body’ to hold to make it easier to move them. This desire to present trees as objects or things actually challenges much First Nation thinking “When we tell them [children] that a tree is not a who, but an it, we make that Maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 57). The trees are seen as something that is not us, whereas in fact by having trees with us we feel the benefit.

    The tree connects to children as something of value. In research by Laaksoharju and colleagues they explored the place of trees in the identity of the space. Out of 952 photographs taken by the children, 258 depicted interactions with trees and over 50 percent of the children’s drawings featured trees. When people were included in the drawings, they were depicted resting or playing beside a tree, sleeping in a hammock, or climbing the tree (Laaksoharju et al., 2017).

    My wonderful friend Professor Sue Houglum from the USA, embraced the concept of static containerised trees to transform a rooftop car park to a place for designed for nature-based play (Warden 2015). Trees in large containers gave children and all those looking down on the car park, a visual delight as their appearance changed over the seasons.


    In summary we need trees for many reasons, there are always challenges to the planting and creation of a forest. In challenging circumstances, we can do a great deal with containers and with imagination, we can work with children to find solutions. Suspended trees, trees in pots and young slow growing trees in small spaces all offer benefits to the environment.




    Argent, A., Vintimilla, C.D., Lee, C., & Wapenaar, K., (2017). A dialogue about place and living pedagogies: Trees, ferns, blood, children, educators, and wood cutters. Journal of Childhoods and Pedagogies, 1(2), 1-20. Jansson, M., Sundevall, E., Wales, M., (2016). The role of green spaces and their management in a child-friendly urban village. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 18(1), 228-236. Kimmerer, R.W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis Minnesota: Milkweed Editions. Laaksoharju, T. & Rappe, E., (2017). Trees as affordances for connectedness to place - A model to facilitate children’s relationship with nature. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 28, 150-159. Warden.C. (2015) Learning with Nature - Embedding Outdoor Practice. London. Sage

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