Why schools are failing neuro-divergent kids

I was a teacher for 18 years before I set up INTO THE WILD. I worked in leafy suburbs, inner city, post 14 University technical college, private school, all girls, all boys and finally applied to alternative education where I did not even get graced with a response.

In November 2019, my younger son was diagnosed with Autism spectrum condition, and I did not see it coming at all. In truth, I had no idea what autism was. I had taught loads of kids with Autism, but I had zero concept of what it meant, never mind how to meet their needs.

In my last teaching job I had a GCSE class of 15 students, 7 of whom had acute dyslexia. Conscious that I had never really had any formal training on the topic, I made an appointment to see the lead SENCO and the dyslexia lead. The meeting lasted no more than 3 minutes.

“It’s basically all about sign posting.” He said. I got out a note book. “And post it notes” I waited with baited breath….. Nothing more was offered.

“Are there some books or resources I could look through?”

“Oh yes. They are all in the staff library in the staff room.” This was the end of the ‘meeting’.

I looked in said book shelves. It was a strange system where staff could take what they wanted and there was a sheet to “sign out” the books.

I went to see the head librarian who was a good friend of mine. My son had recently had his diagnosis. “L, I am going to need everything you have on Dyslexia and on Autism. ” She scanned her computer.

“There are 4 books on dyslexia in the staff room.”

“They are not there. I already looked.”

“We have nothing on Autism.” She looked ashamed. “Tell me what you need and I will order it.” (The magic of private school libraries!)

“The thing is, when you google it, it is overwhelming, so I have no idea. I am only at the start of this journey and I have no one to ask where to start. “

Later that term I handed in my notice because I was getting called by my son’s school daily and I did not know how to help him. I made the decision to take a “Gap year” to explore my new forest school training and to try and flexi school him to help him catch up with the other kids. “He is well below expectations” I was told over and over. I assumed he was not very bright and I needed time to research and understand how his brain worked. I was a educationalist for goodness sake!!!! I could work this out.

In the following September I started a group in the local scout hut which I called Sensory art and science. A group of us mum’s noticed that Thursdays and Fridays our kids could no longer cope with school and so I designed some gentle activities which these kids could build their self esteem and have small group social interaction.

Slowly, slowly, gently, gently, we saw our kids come out of their shells and start to laugh. They started to play. They began to make friends. We (parents) started to cry. We realised that what we were being told by the school was not necessarily true. I realised that even though I was told that my child was “performing” 4 years below his age, he could do elements of spatial maths that some of my A level students had not been able to do. He was 7 years old. This was October 2019. We all now know what was coming next…..

Two years through the pandemic, and I continue to work with these families and a multitude more. We now call this group SENsory forest school and we have had an upgrade to the 20 acre Tortworth Forest centre and arboretum. It is a daunting experience to teach kids, with their parents watching. It is terrifying to get instant feedback. It is exhilarating to receive 8+ messages after a session telling you how emotional a parent feels, seeing their kid do something they have not been able to cope with for years, to feel part of a community, to feel valued, to be seen and heard. They often ask me to write a report to help apply for an EHCP or a disability living allowance, or to try to access a school place. The emotion expressed is perceivable. For often the first time, they feel that someone actually knows their child. And we all have a shared experience of being judged. Of feeling responsible. Of getting it all wrong. We are not only a forest school for the kids, we are a peer support group for the parents.

I do not have a PhD in Neuro- divergent education. I have immersed myself completely in a world of neuro-divergence and created an environment where all can fully be themselves, get angry, be sad, ask stupid questions, mess up, apologise when ready and in their own way and with support and embrace their true super powers. They know there is infinite forgiveness if they are willing to reflect and learn. We all mess up. There are no punishments for messing up. We do not operate on a crime and punishment system. We operate an agreed empathy system, for kids who really struggle with empathy. It is not impossible. It just needs more investment of time. Something schools do not hold value as a commodity.

I once heard the term ” Nothing outrumps lived experience” Not 3 post graduate papers, not writing a book, not being an educational psychologist. At the start of our journey, I assumed everyone knew more than me. I now can go into meetings with experts, and love to learn something new, but also can fully recognise when I am being told something false, or just plain illogical.

When parents call me to discuss their kids needs, they are excited but anxious about coming along to one of our sessions. When the kids come along, they are nervous but curious. I am yet to have a family, who do not come back. Both myself and Christina are yet to be phased. L, one of our “Veteran” attendees who has had 1:1, small group and forest group was overheard talking to a new participant who was wanting to ask me about taking some henna home “Sy is super chilled. You can ask her anything. She’s cool.”

My conclusion: Schools are not trying to fail kids. They are working under self preservation. They are working under “we know what we are doing” conditions. But that is a total lie. The minute I could say ” I have no idea what I am doing, how to deal with this, I am listening with open ears and want to work with you.” I could get results. The minute I stopped seeing the kids as a problem to be solved and an asset to be seen, we saw a human start to heal. And I revealed myself as a human. As fallible. I hold my hands up regularly and say “I got this wrong. I am sorry. Let’s work together to fix it.” Something inconceivable as a teacher.

There are a lot of tears in my groups but not for the reasons you might imagine. It’s 100% not a pity party. Most of the time it is for a 60 year old who has not cried since she was 10, or a parent who has never cried. I personally don’t cry, which is another blog. It is because, when someone reaches out and sees you, fully, and without judgement, it is emotional. When another human PROPERLLY hears you, it’s emotional.

I had to perpetuate the whole patriarchal lie of knowing it all, seeing it all and being above it all.

If you are interested in being part of the discussion about the solution :

https://widget.eola.co/bzqn2/activities

Let us share and grow and learn and evolve.

Featured

Making a real difference…

I have been reflecting on the amazing feedback I have been getting recently and feeling really proud. Proud in one way, and sad in another. These levels of confidence, self esteem and happiness should be available to all kids. The use of emotion coaching and non-violent communication, should I have come across them 10 years ago, could have saved me so much pain. The ability for all women recovering from addiction, to be able to access free at point of access nature based therapy, should be wide spread and common place. But we are one small team.

My new experiment/ mission, is to offer what we have learnt to others. To other inspired, outdoor educators and educational establishments to have meaningful and insightful and practical training which can be used at a grass root level to improve outcomes and enhance their provision. In this combined approach, we have the potential to offer what we do to a greater audience. And who knows? Perhaps the stuff I bang on about all day long will be so common place, I will do myself out of a job? One can only dream…..

Featured

I don’t cry – why nature connection therapy works

Since I have started working in Nature connection and woodland therapy, I have had to get used to the fact that people often cry on me. In fact, I don’t think I ever go a full week without tears. This is not because we are uncovering some deep hidden trauma within them, because I am not a counsellor, but it seems the act of being in nature creates some kind of mental release.

What does crying signal? It can mean frustration, it can mean sorrow, it can mean grief. But it signals some kind of end. “I am at the end of what I can tolerate.” It should be a big social que to those around that says “I need help and support to do this thing.”

When I take someone on an adventure day (nature therapy day), it will involve me looking after all aspects of the day. I facilitate all the food, I plan the walk, I pick them up and drive them there. They can completely turn their brains off and relax. From the outset, conversation normally revolves around what is going on in life at the moment. As we drive further away from Bristol, phone signal goes off. There is now no internet. No social media. They put their phones away and look out the window. They start to wake up from digital coma and suddenly see the world around them. They understand that they are no longer “on call” to anyone.

When planning an adventure day, I will spend time asking what aspects of the outdoors inspires them: Mountains? Forest? the sea? raging rivers? breath taking views? I will build a bespoke day based on what makes their heart sing. Why? It makes you breath. You know, when you drive up a long steep hill and suddenly see for miles and miles? What do you do? You take a huge, deep inbreath. This is the thing that flips a switch in your brain and screams “I am alive”.

And why do people feel better after an adventure day? It is not about problem solving your issues. It is not about me offering advice or solutions. Most humans are at the end of what they can tolerate because they actually don’t feel heard. Some humans are at the end of what they can tolerate because they don’t understand the emotions behind what they are feeling. People, especially women, are so accustomed to fulfilling everyone else’s emotional needs that they have actually turned off their ability to hear their own. This can lead to massive feelings of frustration and anger, without fully understanding why. And often we think this is down to the practical and physical indicators rather than the emotions that are actually underneath them.

“I am mighty pissed off at continuously picking up my families socks. I have asked them over and over to, but they still don’t. If I see another sock I am going to scream! I don’t want to do this any more. (sobbing). I am crying about fucking socks!”

Me: “What I am hearing is that you feel like your family undervalue you. The sock is a symbol. What do you think it may represent?”

“That I am worthless. That I am not good for anything other than touching their disgusting, smelly socks. I have a joint honours degree for God sake!”

Me: “I am hearing you maybe don’t feel entirely fulfilled?”

“I put my career on hold for my husband to chase his dream of becoming a partner. I have done all the kids stuff and now they are reaching secondary age. I feel like he is never here. He said early on he had to do this to “prove” himself, but then when he achieved his goal, it got even worse. I feel like a have been a single mother the whole time while wearing a wedding ring.”

We reach the beach. We both just stand and watch the waves coming in across the sand.

“I am going to talk to all three of them. I am not able to go on feeling like I am there to serve them. We are all in this family and we will all participate. “

Me: “I think that sounds really reasonable.”

Three hours later.

“I think I am going to do a PHd. “

I love the life epiphanies people get while out in the wild. It never happens when you are in Tesco. You don’t suddenly find peace in the middle of the work day. You need a change of scene, to be somewhere that feels truly awesome and you need to be completely relaxed.

Strangely, I don’t cry. It was a mental mechanism that was turned off in me as a child and I do remember the moment it happened. Someone close to me when I eventually broke down said to me “Good. I am glad you are crying” and from that day, I have never really cried. I think that this has caused me a lot of problems in life because we all know in the fabric of our soul that crying means being broken. I have reached the most I can tolerate of this. And so I have always been described as “Strong” or “Brave” or a “warrior”. No one can be those things. Well, maybe sometimes. But it would be to deny our beautiful human existence, to not feel at the end of sorrow, grief or frustration. And so we are all having emotional journeys from which we are all trying to heal and grow from. Mine is to work on crying. Sounds totally weird, doesn’t it? Almost uncomfortable. We are told for most of our lives to supress our emotions. They make people uncomfortable. But we all reach an age eventually that actually, making people uncomfortable is the only way to move through the distress or pain they are causing us.

So imbedded in our culture is the drive to mask our emotions, that most of us don’t even have the vocabulary. I asked three children (age 9 and 11) to write down all the emotion words they could think of between them. They could come up with 7, only two of which were positive. This totally shocked me! Shouldn’t we be teaching this in schools? My kids have a weekly spelling test. When I last asked my son how he did, he said “Great. I got 9 out of 10”. I looked at the list for the week. I asked him “Do you know what ‘disenfranchised’ means?” The answer was no to 7 out of the 9 words.

The work I do is based on two practices, Emotion coaching (by John Gottman Ph.D) and Non-violent communication (Marshall B Rosenberg).

Most of the sessions are not about crying. Mostly it is laughter, talking, stories, me being a nature nerd and showing you medicinal plants and fungi, and magical sea weed to boost your immune system and invigorate your metabolism. Most of all the session is about fun. It could involve wild swimming, fire pit cooking, milk bottle fishing, paddle boarding or body boarding. A long hike or a walk through a local park.

Adventure days can be 1:1 or small group. Each session is bespoke to your particular interests and time constraints and include food and transport. Prices from £20 per hour. Available during the week or weekends.

info@into-the-wild.org.uk

Forgotten poem

I have re-discovered a number of “visual journals” I have kept since I was 18. In one today I found this…

I need no carpet.

I want to feel the cool grass between my toes.

I need no roof.

All I long for is a canopy of stars.

No bath shall wash me.

I will lie in a deep green river and feel it flow.

I do not need a Michelin star.

Nothing tastes better than bacon, cooked on the fire.

I do not need to watch the X factor.

The bird song brings me to tears.

I do not need i pads, and Starbucks, and McDonalds,

I do not crave apple TVs. I crave a juicy apple.

I do not need a new car or a foreign holiday. I need escape.

All I need is smiles, and giggles, and huggles and curls in my face. I have found home.

Featured

Changing seasons

Today feels Autumnal. I love the changing seasons as each day brings surprises. It can be hot and sunny one day, lashing with rain the next.

Because I have always worked in education, September feels a little like New Year’s eve: Full of hope and optimism and rebirth. This year I will be sooo much more organised. This year I will not wait till the eleventh hour to meet a deadline. This year I will not get stressed and we will totally eat health nutritious food and I will definitely NOT rely on Deliveroo for grocery shopping.

This September has an added layer of anxiety and change. My oldest son is starting secondary school. Holy shit sauce, where did the last ten years go??? I feel like I have only just started secondary school. And I don’t know if this is a lesson in being present, or a lesson in how fleeting our time on this spinning dirt ball is? So I decided to write a letter to Teddy. At the moment, he does not seem phased by his transition to big school, but I know that at some point a wobble is coming, so maybe this will help….

A letter to my boy…

Be yourself. Be honest. Do things that make your heart sing and your eyes wide with awe. Live a life you are envious of.

Cut out people who hurt you or don’t appreciate you, be it at school, friends or family. Cherish the good times. Be present. Keep healthy boundaries, especially with yourself.

Your opinion is always valid. The opinion of others about you is not. Live your best life. Show up for good people. Tell them you value them.

If something feels wrong, it is. If people say they live without regrets, they just haven’t worked out what went wrong yet.

Doing your best is ok. It’s the most you can do. Everything in life is temporary. The pain does end. Joy is always round the corner.

Take every opportunity. It may not come a second time. Money comes and goes. Don’t let it dictate decisions. Don’t wait for retirement. It may never come.

Be brave. We don’t get to opt out of doing hard things sadly, but we do get to choose which hard thing to do.

And if your path demands that you walk through hell, walk as though you own the place and love the life you lived.

Love Mimi x

Personalised, child led learning with Forest school philosophy

I have worked as a qualified teacher for 16 years and in the last 2 years have branched off into the world of independent education. This idea began when I decided to take my 7 year old out to “Flexi school” two days a week. Within 3 months he had gone from a reading level 6 to 23, his confidence had grown and he now enjoyed learning. For years I had been told by school that he was not very capable and that he was getting further and further behind his peers. He has started to spend 80% of the school day out of the classroom and had refused to write anything down.

Using the i pad to research in preparation for Heart dissection as part of “Health” project

Last November he was diagnosed with ASC (Autistic spectrum condition) which is a big umbrella term, but for him, his sensory processing needs and his social communication were a huge barrier to him learning in school. In an attempt to give him a new circle of friends (he was labelled the naughty boy at school) and to have gentle social interaction, I hired the local scout hut and began to run a Sensory art and science class, designed for kids on the Autistic spectrum, but open to all. Through this venture, I began to work with 10 families, with children with a range of learning needs. We had ASC, PDA, Dyslexia, Tourette’s, ADHD and high anxiety. This group took me on an amazing journey and the most incredible training on SEND I could ever go through. By having most of their parents also there, I was able to learn so much and get instant feedback on the learning, something I only did for 10 minutes, once a year when teaching at a school.

Frame structure modelling as part of “Forces and structures” project

For a long time I had realised that schools were not getting it right and the rising crisis in mental health of young people pushed me to retrain as a forest school leader. I realised that I had found my calling and that I wanted to be free to work with young people and their families to allow them to develop in a truly wholistic and free way without the constraints of league tables, national curriculum and tests.

I have been providing private, personalised tuition since January 2019 for children with SEND which is goal led by parents. But what kinds of things do we do? We have built a radio from scratch. We have written a book. We have worked on an enterprise project to make Kimchi. We have researched the food and culture of Norway. We baked Peppernuts, a delicious Nordic dish. We went on a field trip to a waterfall and learned about Native trees. We have worked on using ICT to develop packaging design and discussed the ethics of marketing. We have investigated the geography of Canada. We designed and build bridges using Minecraft as a design tool. Today we recorded a podcast. After half term we plan a trip to the local aquarium to write the underwater scene in the book he is writing.

Investigating the aquarium as part of “Marine biology” project

Each day is new and shiny and provides new learning opportunities. The progress is exponential, when learning is reframed in this way. Project based, experiential and learner led.

Pewter metal casting with the fire pit. Part of Mine craft themed “Materials and minerals” project

Please call me to talk about your child’s needs and the type of tuition you are looking for. I am always happy to chat.

07747776958

Featured

Surviving lockdown (again)

I think I have read about 20 articles with this title in the last week. Here’s one with a difference.

Don’t start baking banana bread. Don’t learn something new. Do NOT decide to start running marathons. Screw zoom family quizzes. That shit is bad for you.

Sitting around with too much time on your hands can lead you down the road of the big three: Fear, guilt and shame. The big three will lead to depression and anxiety. They will shred your self esteem and rob you of joy. They will wreck your sleep and disrupt your relationships. The big three are the single most destructive emotions and can very quickly overwhelm you. They are the overarching umbrella under which will dwell many hundreds more of other negative emotions which effect your general wellbeing.

So how do we quell fear, guilt and shame? Let me take you on a journey of discovery….. I love neuro science. I am entirely unqualified to talk about it but because of my mother’s brain tumour and my son’s autism, I spent countless hours reading about it.

Your brain is currently playing tricks on you. We are social creatures. We are meant to live in communities who help each other and work together and even the most introvert among us needs the company of others for our own wellbeing. But western culture has spent decades trying to slowly erode the social aspects of the fabric of our society. When we choose to go to a big supermarket, rather than go to the local shop, we don’t ask the checkout assistant how their kids are by name. When we work in an “open plan” office but don’t even know the name of the person who sits 1m away, something has gone wrong. Most of us do not know our neighbours. A huge proportion of society live hours away from their family. The concept of “community” or tribe has blown away in the wind over the last 30 years. And now we have been told to STAY AT HOME.

So let us understand how this affects our brains, the single most important organ in the body. The brain is the central processing unit of the whole body. It is an amazingly complex and incredible entity and if the brain is not healthy, everything else starts to be affected. The brain is in control of your hormones. Hormones are the signals for all the other organs to perform. Hormones are the conductor of the great orchestra of your body. The hormones govern your sleep, your appetite, your fertility, your mood, everything. When the brain is not 100% healthy, the hormones go out of sync and the music of your body goes out of rhythm. Your brain has three functioning states: Conscious, semi conscious and unconscious. It fluctuates between these realms and tries to communicate in a physical way, if something is not right. We are only just starting to understand the tip of the iceberg on how the brain functions.

But let me illustrate this in a practical way. For 5 years I have suffered with insomnia. I go to sleep fine, but I wake up at 3 am. I have tried literally everything anyone has suggested to try to remedy this, but nothing works. In the end I accepted that it was my age and my hormones. This was how it would be now. I have also had this strange eczema on my foot. It has been there for so long that it was just who I was. I had horrid feet and that was who I am. Thirdly, when I wash my hair, it comes out in massive handfuls. I had thought it was an afro hair thing because I remember my mother having the same thing. So imagine my surprise, when over the last 6 months, all three of these things vanished. Here is my hypothesis….

Dopamine is the brains reward chemical. You get these by eating food, completing a task and doing self care activities. I recently started eating breakfast. This is something I have not really done for 10 years. After making three breakfasts for the kids (EACH!!) I just could not face making myself some. It was with hindsight a form of self punishment. I think subconsciously, I did not feel I deserved any. Santa gave me a stocking this year. In it were lovely hand creams, hair products and lots of really nice quality chocolate. I have been having long baths and doing face masks and shit. I have been doing this without guilt.

Serotonin is the brain’s mood stabilizer. You get this bad boy by exercising, walking in nature and with sun exposure. This last year I have changed my world of work from being in an underground building to being outdoors all day. I now have a physically active job doing forest school and nature connection. I absolutely am living my dream life and my work makes me so happy. Lockdown has meant that our opportunities for being able to produce serotonin have been limited to 1 hour a day, and now it is winter, that is probably being diminished.

Endorphin is the pain killer. All of us most likely have some physical ailment which lurks like a shadow in our lives, coming to the fore in times of stress. For me I get back ache. When it is overwhelming, I take a pain killer, but for the most part, I know the triggers and have a range of other remedies I can use the manage it. Endorphin is produced when you laugh, during strenuous exercise and when you get pleasure from eating chocolate (smaller but still significant). Again, lockdown is going to have an impact on your brain’s ability to produce this important hormone.

And lastly, but most importantly: Oxytocin, aka the love hormone. This little nugget of hormonal joy is released by holding someone’s hand, giving your dad a hug, playing with a baby niece. Oxytocin is by far the most sensational of the hormones. I had found myself watching endless romcoms during the previous lockdown trying to remember what it felt like to be in love. After a while I thought “How much of this shite cinema is it going to take?” Then when I finally did feel love, it was like fireworks exploding in my brain. I felt 12 again. It was as though the wold had been sugar coated and everything was golden sunshine yellow. Hello stranger!!

But then Boris has made it illegal to hug your Nan! You have to feel guilty if you break a rule from time to time. You have to feel ashamed if your walk to get chocolate and wine because “Is it an essential journey?”. We are being made to fear everything and everyone by the media. The big three is currently crushing our souls.

So here’s my advice. Be hedonistic and forgive yourself. What goes on in lockdown, stays in lockdown. I went for a walk with a friend yesterday and she has been a bit down this week. At one point I stopped and asked her “What brings you joy?” and she found it very difficult to answer. Most of us spend so much time trying to make others happy, we don’t even know what makes us happy anymore. In the end she concluded it was dancing. “When was the last time you went out dancing?” I asked. About 1992 was the answer.

Lockdown is messing with your head. Drink the wine. Lie on the sofa and watch your best films. Play with your children. Let the house go to shit. Cook your favourite food. Talk to your neighbours. Walk through a forest. This is not the time to make big life decisions. Don’t try and make massive plans. We can’t bloody plan anything at the moment. You have to find the joy in now and not feel ashamed, guilty or fearful.

xxxxxx

Featured

2020, what the f*ck was that??

I shall refer to these as “The pre-therapy years”

I have not blogged for a long, long time. The daily fire fighting of surviving 2020 with my mind intact has been enough to cope with. But since we approach the end of the year, I want to reflect on what has happened and look forward to the future.

This time last year I was doing a lot of really fantastic voluntary work with some incredible outdoor education veterans. I was learning and loving my new work every day. I was married. I had financial security and life plodded on. In the last 12 months, all those things have gone up in smoke.

Being locked in a house with someone for 15 weeks obviously makes or breaks you. Everyone around here is either having a lockdown baby, a lockdown puppy or a lockdown divorce. (I would recommend the dog option, it is by far the cheapest). My two boys and I have had to evolve into a new state of being. I realised that our communication skills, especially with our emotions, were critically under par and we needed to upskill rapidly. We had been locking away our hearts and our pain, but with it we had locked out the joy and happiness too. A sense of duty kept us all just edging along our existence with a blindfold on.

I had picked one hell of a year to go freelance!!! On the 23rd of march all my work went up in smoke (only one of which was paid of the 4) and I could not access any government aid as I have been self employed for less than 12 months. Thank God we had really good weather for most of those 15 weeks so we were all able to get out and go for walks and bike rides. So many friends have spoken to me about how they really, truly loved reconnecting with nature. They bonded with their families while going for long walks. They found new interesting pockets of nature right by them in the city. But for me, I had been born again, the year I started “52 new adventures in 2019”. That was the start of this whole journey, the blog, this website, my new career.

Coming out the other side of 2020, I am filled with hope, even still with so much uncertainty. My little business has really grown in success and I am now having to turn people away. My autistic Forest school class has had a massive upgrade from the local scout hut (with one tree and plastic grass) to the spectacular 20 acre Tortworth Arboretum. I have accidently carved a niche for myself in being able to deliver 1:1 tuition to ASC children. I have seen them slowly uncurl and blossom and have the confidence to be their true selves. And the work I do with adults recovering from addiction honestly makes my heart sing. These women are some of the most resilient, strong, charismatic and interesting ladies I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with. If these guys can stay optimistic, what right do I have to feel melancholy? I find me giving myself a little metaphorical slap after each session with them.

But this much I have learnt: When your life suddenly implodes, you really see what people are made of. Bristol, I salute you! What an amazing community of love, support, connection, cake, what’s app calls to check in, tea and tears. I look forward to 2021 knowing that the sisterhood is here is hold each other up. The thing that has made this year so hard is that we have had 9 months without the very thing that makes us human: Connection. Real, physical and emotional connection.

Happy Christmas people! And a VERY happy new year.

Featured

Forest school in a post Covid world – what does it mean?

Forest school leader – Syreeta

I tentatively began running small group sessions over the summer having no idea how it would go. Would anyone show up? Would kids be afraid? Would parent’s be shouting “2 meters!!” every 20 seconds. Would it be like normal? Would anything ever be normal again?

I survived the hard winter months doing my first year of freelance Forest leader work, only to be robbed of the good seasons. And my purest hell, not being able to go out. For the families who had been coming to me since October, I am sure they felt it the hardest. After the struggles of overcoming the heightened anxiety of doing something new, in a new location, with a bunch of people they didn’t know, to have it ripped away again, was incredibly difficult. Most of the children I work with do not attend school. They mostly have alternative provision and in this situation, being able to socialise with other children is challenging. Then the pandemic hit, and we were all now isolated.

SENsory forest school had it’s first official session last week. But it was not as we knew it. The scout hut where we used to run before March 23rd, was still not open, so it has been moved to a 20 acre arboretum 20 minute north of Bristol. There are native and exotic trees, a stream, a round house, therapy goats, a lake, a bamboo forest, an extensive climbing area and a number of swings. There are three fire pits, two in open air and one under cover. We have resident Muntjacs and hares and bunnies and a plethora of birds to investigate. In short, we have had a massive upgrade.

But the core ethos and rational behind the group is the same: Be yourself, be kind, get involved, be curious, enjoy nature. The sessions are designed for children on the Autistic spectrum, but open to all. Because, mostly when you design for inclusion, it benefits all. Our children are not experiencing the world in the same way we did. I was chucked outside every day after school. I was encouraged to go out and explore, preferably as far away from my parents as possible and until tea was ready. Children today are having a solitary, two dimensional experience of the universe through a screen. And although I am not saying digital culture is entirely bad, I think it is bad for our soul. And the thing with lockdown was, apart for 1 hour a day, what were we forced to do? Put our kids in front of screens so we could work from home.

Brothers on the new swing

Being able to run forest school sessions again has unlocked the pure joy in laughing with friends, it’s not the same through zoom. We have relished running our hands along the horsetails, hugging the goats, climbing the trees and discovering a bird’s nest. We enjoyed sitting around the flames of a fire and talking about our dreams, even if it is 2m apart. We have all loved the river walking, eating blackberries from the bushes and feeling the sunshine on our faces. We are able to be human again.

Exploring the wonders of nature with a microscope

None of us knows what the next few months may hold, but for now we are enjoying the present. It is called so, because it is a gift.

Tortworth Forest CIC Wotton Under edge
Sessions for SENsory forest school are Fridays 1pm till 3pm.

Why is outdoor education more inclusive?

I am often asked why I chose to leave Secondary schools to work in AP (Alternative provision). “It is broken” is my short answer. I have worked in a variety of schools for 16 years. I love working with young people. I loved teaching DT which is a really creative and flexible subject, and because it is non-compulsory, there is not much pressure for results. I only realised in the last six months that I was never really teaching, I was coaching, which is an entirely different kettle of fish, if you understand it. And as I now know that I have a son who is not neuro-typical, I now acutely understand that actually, there is a whole bunch of kids who are entirely failed by “the system”.

Icarus – clay and feather sculpture

Today I ran a “forestry fun” session for BAP (Bristol Autism Project). This is a fantastic organisation which is set up to run free events for Autsitic children and their siblings. I have been fortunate to have been working with BAP since January. I never really know who will turn up because Autistic kids have high anxiety for things which are new and given 15 weeks of lockdown, just going outside can be too traumatic. I am told 10 kids should turn up between age 4 and 18. What actually may come is 6 kids of age 6 to 10. I have to improvise and be responsive to their needs. And “Autism” is a massive umbrella term. It is almost meaningless, it varies so much. Two teens spoke to me continuously for 20 minutes to catch me up on the last 6 moths of their lives, talking over each other. It was a test of my multi- tasking skills. One child who I had not met, I asked his name and he did not possess the language to tell me. I understood he loved the fire, although he could not tell me. When I put it out, he stood in the smoke, trying to taste it.

Flower queen

One of my favourite revelations, in training to become a forest school leader, is that for the first time, being brown and small was a GOOD thing. I can lie hiding for HOURS and no one finds me. In my processional life, being small and brown was a significant disadvantage.

Today a took a beautiful 4 year old on a flour trail to find 10 Hydrangea flowers. She was so content to wander through the woods of Ashton court and find the treasure. Back at base camp, she and I made a crown for her from a Laurel twig. It was one of the most beautiful moments of 2020, which may sound super melodramatic, but given how hard I have found it, it truly stood out.

Tree climbing

So this is the thing. If a child needs to spin. Cool. If a child just wants to wander off and lie down and stare through the leaves, amazing. If you need to just stare at the flames of a fire for a while, no one batts an eye lid. But the gentle suggestion of a good forest school leader, to collect fore wood, kinding, or to search for a forest treasure, that is a skill they definitely don’t teach in teacher training. There is no discussion of considering the mood, feelings or emotional state of the children in your class.

I have some families who have been coming to me since October, and talk of the definite transformation of their child. Given time and space and the gentle guidance of a trusted adult to focus on a task, for a purpose, do you know what?? They learn that they are not useless, or stupid, or without value to society. They learn that they are not demonised, that they are not an encumbrance to their family. They are told that they view the world through a different lens, and their is no right or wrong lens. And each lens is unique, and valued and highly important in some way. If the lens is understood, it could be the very best and amazing contribution to the world.

There are definite challenges to having an Autistic mind. I know that there are some things my son will never do. But he will equally do many things that I have no ability to do. Our job is to allow them to shine in their own way, not an OFSTED way.