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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.

The Science of Rainbows

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Yesterday, the boys and I made this collage rainbow. It was a nice sensory activity and younger son enjoyed wrapping himself in the different fabrics.

Last night I could not sleep and it occurred to me that the rainbow seems to have become the symbol of lockdown 2020. I am slowly reading “The walker’s guide to outdoor clues and signs” by Tristan Gooley. I had happened to be at the section which explains how and why rainbows occur. Every time I pick this book up, I am just blown away with his observations and it is by far the most interesting book I have read in years. I thought I would share some of the science with you.

We all learn from childhood that we do not get a rainbow, without the rain. But two other elements are required: the sun and an observer standing between the sun and the rain. The time of day is also part of the magical equation so it is not surprising that rainbows are a fairly rare occurrence.

Rainbows don’t appear as a constant size and this is to do with your altitude. For a rainbow to occur, the sun needs to be behind you and the rain cloud in front of the. The light reflecting through the raindrops acts as tiny prisms, splitting the light. If the rainbow were a whole circle, the centre of this circle would be exactly opposite the sun and this is called the antisolar point. Not only is the centre of the circle predictable, it will have a radius of exactly 42 degrees. In laymans terms, this is four extended fist widths.

Diagram curtesy of Tristan Gooley

This information tells us a few things. Firstly, rainbows cannot occur in the middle of the day. When the sun is high in the sky, the centre of this circle would be under ground. Therefore, you will only see stunning rainbows towards either sun rise or sunset.

If you can fee which way the wind is blowing, the rainbow gives you one of two weather signals: it is either about to start hammering down, or it is about to rapidly improve into glorious sunshine! If the wind is coming towards you from the rainbow, get some weather proofs on. It the wind blowing towards the rainbow, enjoy the sun.

Rainbows can also appear very vibrant in colour, or quite pale and watered down. This is to do with the size of the raindrops.

“Very bright violet and green bands, with a clear red band, but very little blue OR the top of the bow appears less bright – Raindrops are big, over 1mm in diameter.

Red is noticeably weak in colour, but still visible – medium sized raindrops.

The bow is pale, violet is the only bright colour, you see a distinct white stripe or red has disappeared – Raindrops are small.”

(The walker’s guide to outdoor clues and signs, Gooley,T, 2014)

And what about this? The double rainbow. You often get a bright conventional rainbow, with a paler inverted colour rainbow and a very dark section of sky between them. Why would this occur? This, if you were lost out in the wilderness could give you an excellent clue as to a significant land mark as these can only occur where there is a large and still body of water such as a lake, or calm sea.

All the science aside. Who does not love a rainbow? It seems to be a universal human truth that we see them and stare in awe. They are special and exciting and rare. So during our lockdown time, I am trying to view all this family time in a similar way: special, exciting and rare.

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“Swallows and Amazons” learning day

Living under lock down conditions is really hard for me. I hate being in the house under normal conditions and if I am in the house past 9:30am, I am most likely ill. I have always felt my mental health improve just for a drive to a new location and a long walk. I am energised by people. I am a social person and love the company of anyone. So, my usual bag of mental health tools are now totally useless and I am having to create new ones rapidly.

Other ideas: I am better with a project/ focus. But, I am very impatient. Learning a new language or instrument, are not instant enough for me. I find it difficult to see progress and wallow in the parts I am failing at. I think my kids/ most kids are the same.

This week I have asked my two boys to come up with 5 themes for each day, and I would devise activities around the theme. Luckily, because I am a big hoarder, we have a lots of kit and materials in the house, so you may not be able to do some of them, but on the whole I am trying to use basic household materials so that others may be able to do them too.

Yesterday was “Swallows and Amazons.” We watched the film recently, and for a few days after, I would come down to breakfast to see them watching it again and again. I think they liked the idea of escaping from their parents. I think they also liked the “battle” element between the two groups.

I remembered in my childhood using a used tea bag to make paper look old, and then burning sections with a lighter. We did this out on the balcony with a damp cloth and the boys delighted in making a map of the house. They enjoyed using this to hide Daddy’s birthday presents and making him find them using the map.

I asked them both to think of a country they would love to explore in the future and then use this to have SCREEN TIME (a rare thing in our house) to research it. I asked them to draw the outline shape, add major cities, find out the capital, draw the flag, investigate the language and find out how to say “Hello.” “Goodbye” and “Thankyou.” I then realised that I would have to give them separate further tasks as older one needed more challenge. 9 year old loves Football, so we used this as further research and older 8 year old loves nature, so the Amazon readily provided a source of interest. You tube provided some good 5 minute films about their chosen countries.

9 year old’s research on Denmark

Feeling smug at having shoehorned in some Geography and ICT, I decided that I would get them to find a national dish we could cook for tea. T had to find a main course and Z a pudding. The challenge was finding something they could make with what we already had in the house, so this proved more of a problem solving exercise than you would already imagine.

Danish meatballs for dinner

Home schooling my kids is probably a lot easier for me than most. Firstly, I cannot really work form home at the moment and I only work on day a week usually. Secondly, I have been a teacher for 16 years and thirdly, I have already been home schooling my younger child part time since September.

Atfer a chat with my friend in Italy, it only then become obvious to me that everyone else does not have this skill set, so I thought I would put together some top tips to hopefully keep you sane!!

1) Don’t expect them to do more than 2 hours total of “Proper work”. It’s not the same as school. 1:1 is intense and exhausting. I realised this when I started doing 1:1 tuition. I went home and had to lie down for half an hour, and I am the adult!

2) Get your core learning (writing, reading, maths stuff) done early morning. If you try and do it after lunch, you will find their minds have switched to ‘lift music’ and you will both get frustrated.

3) Use the afternoon for physical/ creative activities which is still learning, just using your left side of you brain. Right side has gone for a mental vacation.

4) Try as much as possible to make the tasks real, hands on and meaningful. I told the boys they were cooking for the family and sneaked quite a bit of maths in with the measurements. I set them tasks to write to Grandad or make a shopping list. They enjoyed making pop up cards for Daddy’s birthday on Sunday, and it involved a fair amount of DT and science.

Boat design

5) You may find you need to reframe how you view “learning”. Worksheets are not evidence of learning. They are evidence of obedience and they are designed to show OFSTED that “progress” is going on. If school has emailed a load over to you, you are not obliged to do them. The school will be struggling on how they can feel like they are helping you, and sitting a child at a table and making them fill them out for hours is not how you want to remember lock down.

During the boat building, we talked about buoyancy, surface area, centre of gravity, materials, ballast and steering. They investigated sailing, submarines, catamarans, tillers. Filling out a work sheet with a sentence with words missing, (but cunningly typed out at the bottom!) does not make the learning more valuable or memorable.

I am taking lots of photos, partly for the blog, but also because we are recording all we do in a scrap book. This is my project and this is what helps me stay happy during lock down. Enjoy!

Any thoughts? Send me a message. X

How is Lock down going?

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I have to be honest, I am quite enjoying myself so far, but we are all on a massive learning curve. I have discovered that both boys have developed some strange habits from school.

Making a sculpture garden

Firstly, they insist on shovelling their lunch down as fast as humanly possible, avoiding any contact with cutlery if possible. This has come about from the idea that they get more play time if they eat fast. This is so extreme, I have worried they will choke a few times. “Cut the meatballs!!! For Gods sake!” The one thing we do have dear children, is time.

Secondly, they have no independence. Older son walked upstairs to find me yesterday while I had escaped to the shower. “I can’t find the butter.” he shouted through the door. I have realised the drill now. I shout back “Have you tried looking?” …. “No.” he replies. “Find a solution. I am in the shower. I am not coming back down.”

Cooking sausages on the fire

The “Home school” has been the biggest eye opener. Their answer to everything is “I am rubbish at X.” They are not, coincidently rubbish at playing online with their mates on Minecraft. They totally fear failure. There is a lot of crying, lying on the floor, blaming the brother for “distracting them.” There is a lot of “Can you help me?” which actually means “Can you do this for me?”

Poet – tree

But when you can coach them out of it (rather than teach) the outcomes have been magnificent. The issue with teaching is that we are looking for a predefined answer. Coaching involves wholistic development of the individual to improve within the best of their ability and at their pace. It is not competitive. They are not being compared to their peers. They are problem solving, rather than being given the answer. They are thriving within their own zone of proximal development. They are energised by challenge (mostly).

My biggest challenge has been keeping my temper. No one can press your buttons like your own children, add to that a highly stressful situation and no foreseeable income from us both being self employed, and it is a total temper bomb waiting to explode. I hope that we all manage to survive this things mostly unscathed with an intact marriage and untraumatized children. I would prefer not to have a mental breakdown, if at all possible. And so I am writing down our daily achievements as a way to stop me from going mad. And when this is all over, I am going to party like it’s 1999.

Film making: Garden kingdom

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Teddy and I have spent two days learning how to take film, edit it, make voice over explanation and add music and text. He then researched the things we found in the garden and put it all together. He and his brother then made a wormery to study their behaviour and investigate how they process soil.

Story stones

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I made this film on Saturday before we went into total lock down in the UK. But I thought it was still worth sharing on the basis that you could hide them around your house, or garden and use them as a tool to engage kids in a dialogue about language, narrative, creative thought and problem solving.

Please share photos of things you make to me and I will add them to the digital art gallery.

info@into-the-wild.org.uk

Sy x

Into the wild: Connection day

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I think one of the biggest challenges over the next few weeks is that we are not going to be able to see the people who are dear and special to us. I have had to explain to both my kids that the plans for their birthdays will have to change. The parties are cancelled. The birthday meal won’t happen at a restaurant. And there will not be sleep overs for the foreseeable. This has been painful for us all and so I tried to find a way of bringing us a little closer.

We all chose one person we were going to miss and we went to the post office to buy stamps. It felt like I had not done this for years! We then asked what the maximum weight was which we could post and at home put together a special package.

I got the boys to write a letter, something I realised they had never done before. I explained that you write your address in the top, right hand corner. They could not tell me their full address so even this was a learning process. We then put the date and started with Dear ……., . We talked about how to end letters. They said they did not know what to write about. “Just tell them what you did today, what you are looking forward to and that you love and miss them. “

We did some collage with some coloured tissue paper and we printed off some photos of fun times together. I explained about where you put the stamp. We weighed our parcels to make sure they were not bigger than 100g (sneaky maths).

Home learning is not about work sheets, or online tutorials. It is experiential and meaningful learning and I do find myself pondering the question: how much of what is taught in school is truly useful?

For some years now we have been in a child mental health crisis. four out of five training days last year were dedicated to the topic. I think it will be interesting to see if this period of “unschooling” will tip everyone over the edge, or come out the other side much happier? And will literacy levels go up or down? These kids are tested so frequently that it would be an easy thing to test come September. The education system will have to ask itself some big questions. Interesting times!

Wild foraging and colour treasure hut

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The advice from UK government at time of publishing was that we should all keep exercising, but just avoid large groups of people.

Foraging can be a really fun way to get the kids really looking at plants and investigating the natural kingdom. The wild garlic is out in full force at the moment and is a wonderful nutritious food, but do make sure you help kids to identify it correctly and check all leaves before you eat them. I filled out sink and washed them in a “bath” and was surprised how much sad and dirt came out, so highly recommended. The smell is an obvious indicator that you have the correct plant, but remember: If in doubt, go without! Cuckoo’s pint/ lords and ladies is the only plant really worth worrying about. The flowers, leaves and berries are all poisonous.

Wild garlic pesto is great with pasta, risotto, with baked fish, or on hot toasted bead.

Enjoy!