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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Morning lovely people. I have been having a think about a sensible and rational policy regarding the Corona virus and reading up on scientist and government advice (Not media hype) have decided the following: We will suspend cooking/ eating activities until pandemic status has been dropped due to working on multiple sites with no running water. Ensuring we have enough water with us for people to wash their hands for 20 seconds is a LOT of water to carry. But we will still carry on with Forest school activities.
Having considered a detailed risk assessment for possible transmission of the virus, we have assessed that the food preparation, cooking and eating present the most significant chance of cross contamination. Games, tree climbing, den building, craft work etc, present a very low chance of transmission either by contact or close working proximity and therefore at this time are permitted with the usual health and safety boundaries as set out by the forest school leader.
Thoughts? Ideas? Questions? Please give me a bell: 07747776958
We learned to speak to each other. We learned to share and communicate, and value the opinion of others. We realised that there is not one tool per person . We worked a system around it. It was based on community and fairness and patience and tolerance. It was hard. It caused controlled explosions. We worked through it.
There were some big arguments this week. The adults could not always resole them. It was ok. There was some big arguments with the adults. It could not be resolved. It was good for the kids to see. I use a phrase with my son which will not work for some years to come: “That happens sometimes.” When he cannot cope because I had said that we would go to the park after school, but then storm ” sabotage” comes in and it’s cold and rainy and horrid. “That happens sometimes”. BUT YOU SAID WE WERE GOING TO THE PARK.
Someone very dear to me asked me recently if I would (honesty) rather live without autism in my life. But genuinely, it would be like living with the storm without the rainbow.
Resources: Old plastic water bottles, sand, stones, pebbles, cotton wool.
Resources: Water melon, oranges, grapes, pineapple, cookie cutters, kebab sticks.
What went well?
The boys were dead keen on the water filters and love science. They are drawn to the big construction tasks. The girls gravitate towards arty and fine motor skilled activities. Nana loves cooking.
Week 3: SPACE
Blow painting to make aliens.
Resources: Poster paint, biodegradable straws, googly eyes, black paper, toothbrushes.
Sand and rocks to mimic the moon.
Zip line rockets
Resources: String, card board, tapes, balloons, books for inspiration.
Moon rock cakes.
Resources: Flour, butter, sugar, silver spray.
What went well?
The space ship building was loved by our 7 year old and he spent an hour constructing one. He was sad he did not have time to cook, but super happy when an older boy shared his with him. This boy is building really strong relationships with the three adult/ leaders. Our 13 year old girl did some nice mentoring with our 9 year old girl (who does not speak) The older ones chatted to younger ones about their experience of autism.
Week 4: Mine craft
Design a mine craft book mark.
Resources: squared paper, felt tip pens, mine craft print outs.
Resources: 3kg of clay, bits of rock, plastic, pewter, coins. Tools for excavation.
The pizzas went down a storm. We did get them to get involved in cutting vegetables they would not normally eat. R and Z loved the excavation. We have time in the end to pick an interesting lego shape and push in clay to make a mould.
“In my day, everyone was not diagnosed with something. There is a label for everyone now. “
“In my day, you were just stupid. We didn’t call it dyslexia.”
Me: In your day, school was a very different place because in your day, there was no OFSTED and no league tables. Kids were not tested every week. We did not get assigned reading levels. We were not told we were failing all the time. We did not have homework from the age of 4. There was no literacy hour nor numeracy hour. We learned through projects. We were left to our own devices a lot. We had unstructured play and a lot of time was spent outdoors. We were not pacified with screens and we mostly had our mum’s at home, to drop us in school and pick us up. Mum’s now have to work just to pay the obscene mortgages we have hanging round our necks. Kids are spending 10 hours a day at school.
In our day, we were not bombarded with adverts and pop ups and billboards selling us messages of a lifestyle we would never have. Adverts, by their very nature are designed to make you feel sad. If you liked yourself, you would not need the face cream, perfume, or holiday abroad. But by being told you are ugly, smelly and depressed, you spend money.
This generation are guinea pigs for how phones, tablets, laptops and 24/7 TV can change brain architecture. These are tools for which often kids have no respite. And we constantly wonder why young people are in an absolute mental health crisis.
This picture is of my son before he started school. He looks very different now. Today I went to see a prospective secondary school. They showed me the isolation room. They explained the detention system. DETENTION, a word we use for prisoners.
I went for a coffee with a lovely friend afterwards. “What changed a few years ago, Sy? Why are all these kids suddenly not coping?”
We started trying to solve a behaviour without asking what the reason was for the behaviour. In simple terms: we stopped listening.
PLAY is how we learn. Schools seem to have forgotten this human fact and reduced all learning down to worksheets which can be downloaded from Twinkle (if Primary) and facts which can be read and regurgitated for fortnightly tests (Secondary). So let us engage in a dialogue about the value of play, in all it’s wonderous forms.
Imaginative play allows children to explore the impossible, be creative and think in an unrestrictive way. “Bruner, 1972 stated that play had a major role of rehearsing, where the child rehearses actions pertaining to real life situations in a safe, risk-free environment, where the child is preparing himself/herself to face the difficult situation in a less stressful way.”
Doing this in the natural environment provides so much stimulation for the imagination.
Very often in Rachel’s sessions with the Steiner school, she collects a “story stick” on the way from collecting them from their drop off point and bringing them to the fire circle. The stick is always an interesting shape. We pass it round the circle saying out name and then telling the others what we think it looks like or what we re-imagine it to be. Rachel then often weaves this into the story she tell while they eat.
Social play (friendship and belonging, cooperative play)
Sadly, I think, children have very little time in their normal day the experience unguided social play. School is structured and the emphasis is on individual attainment. How can one assign a number to each child if two of them have produced the work? Shock horror! For me, when they reach me at secondary school, their entire social interaction can be all online. I would walk around in the year 7 block last year at break, and every single on was either on an i-pad or their phone. There was no conversation, laughing, touching, clapping, eye contact.
I whole heartedly believe this is the sole reason for the mental health crisis we now find ourselves in and while I see a practical place for technology and digital media, I think that it can never be a replacement for making real and physical connections to those around us. Feeling a sense of “Belonging” is crucial.
At Forest school, away from screens, and often with no phone signal, you are undistracted. You are looking people in the eyes and communicating in both verbal and non-verbal ways. Learning to cooperate and to compromise is an essential life skill, one which can be overlooked in a school context. It is often “resolved” by the adult, but in forest school, the learners have to develop those skills without adult intervention.
Rough and tumble play
In my house, I often find myself saying “If you are going to play rough and tumble, someone is going to end up crying.” I don’t stop them playing rough and tumble, but just point out that this is the parent of events. One of my sons have autism and one of the overarching themes with Autism spectrum condition is that they often have a low Proprioception ability. This means; perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body. He can hit harder than he means to, be extra clumsy and fall off and hurt himself more.
One of my favourite philosophies of forest school is about it being experiential learning. My son is not going to get better Proprioception, by sitting still in a chair. He is going to get better by falling, rolling, crying, trying again, and gradually improving. He needs more rough and tumble for his brain to actually make better neuro connections. And this all links to growth mindset. One does not get better at maths by never doing maths again.
Celebratory & ritual play
A strong belief of mine is that celebrations should bring people together. I personally embrace everything: Christmas, birthdays, Eid, Diwali, Chinese new year etc. I believe that historically they came about for probably a practical reason. Winter is bleak. Christmas gives us hope and a chance to connect with our loved ones. Diwali, the festival of light, reminds us the even in the dark days and nights, we can come together to share good food and remember our ancestors.
Forest school is a lovely way to embrace all cultures, traditions and religions. One needs to have a conscious understanding of the beliefs of the families who participate, and so a degree of knowledge is required.
At my Autism class SENsory Forest school, we ensured that our one Muslim family felt included and that I would check if activities I had planed were in accordance with Halal law.
Storytelling and narrative play
Stories are the threads that bind us. “Storytelling is what connects us to our humanity. It is what links us to our past, and provides a glimpse into our future. Since humans first walked the earth, they have told stories, before even the written word or oral language.” Jon Ferreira, Director, Actor, Educator. May 17 2015 ·
What has never ceased to amaze me with the Stenier kids, and some have some significant ADD or ADHD traits, even in the woods, is that when Rachel is telling a story, they are all listening intensely. When she then finishes, and begins to explain the session and options, two or three are chatting. I think that we really underestimate the power of story. It is in our soul.
This is my area of expertise. Having taught design and technology, I feel that I can speak from my own experience of the value of this kind of play. When you create, design, problem solve or make something, a child’s sense of self worth increases incredibly. For many of the children who come to me through conventional education or through forest school work, this is the only time they feel free from the bindings of assessment and attainment. They have accomplished something, it is real and it is in their hands and no one can take that away from them. They have an immense sense of pride and are desperate to show their parents.
This has been my way to have self-worth as a teacher, but now in my new world of forest school, it encompasses all that we do.
This year I will turn 40. Most people my age do not know how to light a fire. They could probably identify the difference between a conifer and a deciduous tree, and name some, but they could probably not identify most. This week I went with my son’s class on a school trip to the local park. The teacher’s wanted them to map the park and then use some printouts from the internet to ID 7 trees. Because it is January, they had suggested looking at the confers only.
I asked if it would be ok if I took the kids in my group round and just had a general chat about tree ID. An hour later we came back with handfuls of acorns, walnut shells, beech leaves, London Plane bark and a holly leaf without spikes. They found a few hawthorn berries they could take and we peeled off some silver birch paper. This is a park which they have probably been coming to for their whole lives, and today they saw it in a whole new light.
The whole experience made me sad from start to finish and was entirely endemic of my 16 years of education. It was a tick box exercise so that someone could prove the OFSTED that they spent time in nature. In order to have a meaningful connection to your local park or nature space, it requires some knowledge about it. When you tell someone an interesting fact about what they are looking at, I will never stop enjoying the look of awe and wonder in their eyes.
How do we make sure that everyone respects the woods?
Education, conservation, experience and access. We are sadly losing so much of our precious green space. If you live in an inner city, you have extremely big challenges in accessing those places. If you live in a suburban or rural area, you can probably see more woods and wildlife, but it is mostly private and you are not allowed to go in.
Ownership of our countryside is a big step towards feeling like you want to respect and protect it. There are some wonderful organisations like the woodland trust, the National trust and the wildlife trust and they persevere in continuing to ensure that Joe average can go to lovely outdoor settings.
Finding ways to engage more people are the challenges faced by those organisations. Open days, volunteer days and courses are some of the ways in which they connect with people. If is generally found that if young people enter into a partnership and invest their time in their local green space, there is less incidence of vandalism and antisocial behaviour.
Local government play a large role in the condition of the natural spaces. Investment in personnel to maintain and look after parks has been getting lower and lower in Bristol. At St. Andrew’s park, we have been told that they are going to shut the toilets and that bins will have to be emptied by volunteers. I think that there would be a good take up if they asked for volunteers to help with planting or pruning of the plants in the park, but this has never happened.
What is it about the way that we deliver our activities that makes mud, rain etc. ok?
Next week I am taking three Australians on a guided walk of Welsh waterfalls. They have already contacted me regarding their concerns about British weather. We do get a significant amount of rainfall in the UK. But it is rarely monsoon style. It tends to be scattered showers and so long as your participants are wearing good outdoor clothing, one can plan sessions which take account of the conditions.
This week at my adult forest school we had planned to bring knives and do some whittling. The day before it was around -2. Sitting around with frozen hands trying to maintain good control of a very sharp knife was not a good idea. We, instead, decided to involve the group in gathering a lot of birch bark and birch brash to get a good fire going. We used a billhook to split logs for kindling. No one talked of getting cold, because we designed activities to get people moving about.
Rain is ok so long as you have a task to focus on. Wind presents more problems than rain. Wind can make fires difficult and make participants very cold, very quickly. Wind proof gear is essential, especially for older generation participants who struggle more to maintain their core temperature. But in high winds forest school is usually cancelled.
Snow can be magical. The biggest problem with this type of weather is keeping hands and feet warm. Children can become so engrossed in building snow sculptures that they don’t realise how cold their hands are.
How do we encourage people to enjoy nature?
Education, conservation and observation. I am yet to find a person who “hates nature”. I think that by allowing people access to their local nature, and maybe pointing out some aspects of flora or fauna to them, they develop a natural curiosity about the world around them.
I took my forest school group into their local park which they had probably been coming to since they were babies and they were fascinated by understanding more about all the trees and plants around them. We also found evidence of the mammals which live there and they took the pine cones home to show their class teacher.
‘Into the wild’ hosts event for children and their parents/ carers at Ashton court.
On Thursday, admin a new threat of storms and weather warnings, we were able to move our session slightly to allow the intrepid explorers to come and be wild for a few hours. The session, originally planned for 11 till 1 pm would have been taking place within a month’s worth of rain falling, risk of hail and thunder storms. As I went out in the morning with a hot cupper, my inner witch felt the weather would be ok. But, my public liability insurance does not cover my “inner witch” and prefers me to base judgements on Met office and BBC weather. He he!
With the wonderful Debbie from Bristol Autism team, we managed to re-organise the session for 1pm when sunshine was forecast and the gusty winds had dies down. My assistant Jem and I met the BAP workers Rachel and Scott in all our full water proofs and wellies. The rain was still falling. Well this is the UK, what can you expect.
We had less families then we were anticipating, but the morning weather would no doubt, put most people off. But the kids that came were thrilled to be outside and quickly built trust with Jem and I. We learnt about poisonous plants, we found some wild garlic and some bluebells pushing through. I showed the group how to make a bow line to rig up a temporary rope swing. We made a den. I showed the older boys how to light a fire and how to keep it going. They were excited and proud to make their families a hot cup or tea and hot chocolate.
And, of course, it would not be the end of a BAP event, without hot gooey s’mores!!
Join us for more fun at Easter holiday time with a change of location and some new activities. We are hoping to run two sessions, one for younger children and a more advanced “bush craft” type session for the older ones.
Bristol Autism Project provides family holiday activities for children and young people with Autism Spectrum Conditions and their siblings.
It runs free activities Mondays-Fridays in the school holidays, with some activities targeted at 11+ age group and some at under 11 years.
We are pleased to announce that FACE will be continuing to support BAP with staffing for their holiday activity schemes for 5-18 year olds with a diagnosis of autism who live in Bristol local authority area. Lots of fun free activities will be on offer for children and their families through the holidays on these dates:
What is the rationale for forest school programmes?
Forest school sessions are about using outdoor environment and adventure experiences to nurture people in a holistic way. Activities are ‘learner led’ and often involve creativity, problem solving, play, cooperation, and meaningful human interaction. The purpose of the activities is to build self esteem, confidence and happiness in a calm and inspiring setting.
The sensory nature of Forest School can be very therapeutic for children. Screen led learning is a two dimensional and adult led. In the outdoor setting, one can smell the wild garlic, hear a cacophony of bird song, feel the grass below your feet and see the trees dancing in the breeze. It is a feast for the senses. A strong connection to nature helps one to feel grounded and in tune with the world.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.“
Children are in fact just smaller versions of ourselves. The answer to the question about how we learn best, has the same answers as if you asked an adult. Within the boundaries of safety, we don’t believe they need to learn to obey, sit still, be silent or be confined to learn. Real learning does not happen from a book or a screen. So here are what some of the children said:
When do children learn best?
When they are interested. Is it fun? Is it inspiring? Does it foster my curiosity?
When they are involved. Can I touch? Can I smell? Can I ask questions?
When they have choice. I would like to burn some energy. I would like to do something calm. I would like to eat.
When they can be creative. Can I express myself? Can I tell a story of my experience? Can I hear my friends tell interesting things? Can I just experiment?
When they are valued. Can I tell you my knowledge (it may be more than the “teacher’s”) ? Can I help my friends and work in a team? Can I be told when I have done well? Please get to know me.
For some children, school in an incredibly challenging environment. It can be too loud, noisy, busy, bright. For some, if one of their senses becomes over stimulated, it can send them into meltdown or just a type of shut down.
Sensory art and science is a club in which we try, as much as possible, to follow the children’s lead. We will often have three activities on offer, all of which are optional. It is intentionally placed on a Friday, where lots of parents tell us is the day in which children have become most tired and over stimulated. Our philosophy is that education is about using all of the senses and about using nature as a source of inspiration and creativity. Kids today are also over stimulated by being digital guinea pigs. Phones, tables, computers, and games consoles are often contributing to feelings of anxiety and sadness.
By having fun, creative and sensory stimulating activities in which the children can learn together, we hope to create a feeling of calm and happiness which will linger on into the weekend. Fostering strong and meaningful connections to others is at the core of the sessions through communication and humour.
“You don’t look people in the eye. Your son must get his autism from you.” I am not neuro- typical. My husband is not neuro-typical, neither are my two kids. I have begged my sister to study our family because we are like some crazy, messed up case study for a neuro diverse family who constantly trigger each other. My sister is a Psychology specialist.
My younger son has recently been diagnosed with ASC (Autistic spectrum condition). If you ask him what this means, and he is only 7, he will say ” People are ‘getting me angry’.” What he means is ” I sometimes have no idea what people are trying to communicate, so I then throw furniture.” My husband relates to a lot of his behaviour. And suggests this as “just normal”. Normal is a very relative term.
I know I have a tendency to not give people eye contact. The truth is (And I have pondered and hyper- analysed myself to the umpteenth degree.) If you are talking to me, I can give you eye contact endlessly. If I am talking to you, I find it incredibly difficult . And the reason is that I have no ability to multitask. It is NOT to do with not understanding your non-verbal communication. It is to do with being able to read every facial expression, every gesture, every minuiti of detail in your subtle and often very personal communication. I cannot construct an intelligent sentence, while simultaneously reading in your face that you are in pain, struggling and worrying about your car MOT which you pick up later. It is for me a sensory overload.
Sometimes I am slightly jealous of people in my life who cannot read these signs. Imagine just talking about the weather, without seeing that your friend has been living with acute sleep deprivation, loneliness, and relationship problems. Myself and bigger son FEEL acutely. And it feels like a painful space to occupy. Bizarrely, my husband thinks that I do this with everyone APART from him. Imagine just talking about rain??? or snow?? or wind?
To my friends I am: Loud, in you face, no holding back, honest. I am “Feisty”, Face like a window, tell it like it is. I am also a great listener. I turn up at people’s houses saying “You’re not yourself, you can tell me to f off, but I was worried. ” I regularly have people crying on me. It gets a bit intense, tbh, but I think “I am definitely doing something of importance.” I have a face which instils trust.
So I am not neuro typical. A really special friend of mine refers to it as “her inner eye”. Another bestie calls it being an “Empath”. I can only be myself, so I hope to think that for my weirdo kids, in their weirdo family: It’s ok to be weird, and it’s ok to not be ok.”
Keep talking people. The problems always start when we stop talking.
It can be really hard to convince people that they should go outside in February. But this week I have been reminded that if you ever need to rediscover your Joie de Vivre, see the world either through a small child, or through someone on holiday.
I am very lucky in that I have always worked with young people. To them the world is full of wonder and magic and they are full of joy and optimism. Rachel from ‘Wild wood adventures’ who I work with every Thursday, really blows me away with the range and planning of activities for Bristol Stenier school. But every week I am struck with how much pleasure they derive, just from stroking some grass, or climbing a tree or lighting the fire. As adults we stop taking the time to experience the world in a sensory way and get sucked into “getting things done.”
Last Saturday I was booked to take three lovely Aussies on a trip of the Welsh waterfalls. I don’t mind saying that I was slightly worried. These guys were coming from the height of summer in Aus, to our bleak, cold, grey and wet February. The treeless valley has lost it’s sparkle. The river is probably about 3 degrees and the idea of sitting out to have a picnic, would be mad even by British standards.
But the 5 mile able along to the local pub was slow as they took in the wonder of being in an exotic location. My assistant Jem and I had a giggle when they were taking photos of moss. They had endless questions about the rocks and the lichens and the birds. I explained that we were walking through wild raspberries and hazelnut trees and if you came back in the summer, you could fill your pockets with treasures. We looked at the indicators of ancient woodlands such as the heart tongue fern, and they were intrigued about the remains of the very old railway from the quarrying days.
As we sat and ate the lobster and other local foods I had brought, they asked me what these little mounds of earth were around us. “Oh, they are mole hills.” I replied. “There will be a whole network of tunnels underneath our feet connecting them.” And I went on the explain what they ate, what they looked and felt like and answered questions about if they damaged the tress. “All of nature lives in a symbiotic relationship. I mused. And then we talked about the mycelium network with which the trees communicate with each other.”
To this family, it was the most exotic and beautiful Safari tree in a magical green fairy landscape. They loved the clean air and the refreshing swim in the waterfall lagoon (yes! They went in). And building a fire at the end as the sun set was a lovely bonding experience.
This experience was a reminder that the work I do now, is absolutely essential. Every Wednesday, I watch a group of women come home transformed for a few hours in nature. I am not a councillor, nor a trained therapist. Nature is the therapy. I am just here to point out some magical things you may not have noticed. I am here to answer questions. I am here to remind you of a truth that you already knew. You don’t always need £500 worth of therapy. Sometimes you just need to have space and calm and feel listened to.
Mother’s day, women only event. Let me drive you from Bristol to a landscape of incredible waterfalls, ancient forests and wild rivers. We will feast on Lobster and prosecco cooked on hot coals. I will then guide you on a 5 mile walk through the Wild Welsh landscape. Half way we will stop for gin and cake, if you would like. One the return, I will point out the unique and intriguing flora of the woodland valley along with fold tales and medicinal aspects. There will be the option for wild swimming in a lagoon, with the largest fall cascading in the background. We will then journey home.
Robert1 February 2020 5 Star review
“A wonderful experience throughout. Sy took us to a beautiful and special location. She went out of her way to be flexible and accomodating, and allowed the day’s walk and other activities to flow naturally. Sy and her assistant Jemma were delightful hosts – friendly, informative, considerate and above all, fun. The day was finished off in style with a delicious selection of local produce, expertly cooked lobster, and wine. We dozed contentedly on the way home. A highly recommended experience.”
This is what I woke up to. This is my seven year old. It is 6am.
Me: “What are you doing Zephaniah?”
Z: “I am making potions.”
Me: “Cool. Where are all those bottles from?”
Z: “From under the sink.”
Me:”Do you know what they are?”
Z: “No. “
Me: “Do you think any of them could be dangerous?”
Z: “Which kind of dangerous?”
A great question, I thought. We then went on a exploration of Hazchem symbols and talked about being toxic, explosive, corrosive and discussed volatile organic compounds. He liked the symbols of the bottles, as he hates reading. He was upset to discover that some were poisonous to wildlife.
I then pointed him to a food drawer. You can use anything you like from here. I explained. He and his brother played with bicarbonate of soda, fizzy tonic water, food dye, flour, yogurt. I gave them some Calpol syringes and eye goggles from a wood work set they had from Santa. They squealed with delight at it bubbling over and changing colour, and becoming thicker. This went on for over an hour.
“What did you do at school yesterday?” I asked casually. “I played computer games in the inclusion room and I did a bit of maths.” I sighed.
People often are curious what we do on our home school days. The answer is, all kinds of mad and unpredictable stuff. “How do you know how to teach chemistry? I would be scarred I was not covering the right stuff or telling them something wrong.” I have had this a load of times. The problem with education is to me a really simple one. We have stopped thinking of kids as just smaller adults. They are still people, and there is not fixed amount of knowledge they absolutely have to have in their heads in order to be functional and happy adults. If you want categoric evidence of this, central government change the primary syllabus every year so it can’t be formulaic.
If you were at work and you did not know the answer to a problem or question, what would you do? You would probably google it. Or ask someone who has the knowledge, or go to a library. Teaching is exactly the same. Even teaching my specialist subject which I have been doing for a million years (well sometimes it feels like that) I do not know that answer to every question students might ask me. And it is only a good teacher who is willing to admit that to their class.
Students are not vessels which we pour our knowledge into. This would be a fixed and static thing. Students are the drivers of a mad space rocket and we are merely passengers. Our job is to make sure they don’t crash and die, or get completely lost. And if we have done our job, they should be much better drivers than we ever were. The student should and must excel the teacher. This is how humanity drives forward.
What is “Child led learning”? You would think the answer is obvious. Last Friday I took Zephaniah for his home school session. I asked his teacher what their topic was for the term: South America. Interesting, since he had thought “it was to do with planets and stuff.” Zephaniah had been really interested in a story I was telling him earlier in the week about a Phoenix. While I made lunch, he watched a short documentary about animals in South America. We then went down to the city farm and fed the goats and sheep and pigs and he noticed how llamas are not that different to sheep. We then picked his brother up and went to a small shop run by a Venuzulean family. The man there showed us his empanadas and churros and we discovered some interesting Argentinian sweets. We brought some home. Zeph and I made a collage of a Phoenix and then researched and compared South American mythical creatures with British ones. He made this …. wall hanging?!? Possibly more achieved in 6 hours than 6 weeks of school. This is child led learning. It is experiential, hands on, negotiated, fun and memorable. It involved: English, ICT, Citzenship, Geography, RS, Art, DT, Food, Science (biology) And languages. It didn’t involve a work sheet from twinkle.
My singular aim in the last year, has been working towards a goal of using the natural English countryside to educate, engage and inspire both children and adults. Previous to this I had been a Secondary school teacher, working in a variety of different settings in the South West. In January 2019, I enrolled to become a Forest School leader (Level 3) after realising that I was only truly happy outdoors, and by Easter I had decided to leave teaching to try a new way of working with people.
I started writing an adventure and nature blog in March (https://into-the-wild.org.uk/) which soon snowballed into a website and a small business. In September I began working at Tortworth Arboretum as a Forest school assistant on the Hawthorn project. This is a CIC set up to allow women recovering from addiction to heal, connect and feel they can be themselves in a nurturing and supportive environment.
In October I started a nature inspired educational session designed for children on the Autistic spectrum (https://www.facebook.com/intothewild.org.forestschool/). Each session has a theme based on one of the kid’s “Special interests” and myself and two lovely volunteers, have around 10 kids who regularly attend. We have 5 drop in places.
Also, during October I was accepted by Airbnb as an “Experience host” (www.airbnb.com/bristolwaterfalls). I organise and run trips to Welsh waterfalls for small groups of adults. I cook Lobster on a fire and provide a guided tour of the Geo park.
This January I hosted my first big event. On the 2nd of January, myself with two volunteers, ran a forest school session for 30 children and their parents at Ashton court, Bristol. I was commissioned through an organisation called BAP (Bristol Autism project) who put on free activities for Children with ASC and their siblings during the school holidays. (https://www.facebook.com/events/937756706600149/) I themed the session on the local tale of Goram the giant and we made clay sculptures, built dens and had s’mores over the fire pit.
Everyday I wake up excited, enthusiastic and filled with inspiration. But I have had to admit my own personality flaws: I am incredibly impatient, I talk when I should listen, I over share and it does not come naturally to be to be commercially minded. I get very emotionally connected to those that I work with and this is a double edged sword. I could not be as good at what I do if I did not get to know the families, but it is hard to put down that emotion and responsibility at the end of the working day.
Some of the seeds of projects I planted back in September have now just begun to come to fruition. And even though I was feeling at Christmas like I had failed at everything, I can see now that so much has been achieved in what is only really three months. So onwards and upwards! I have really seen the impact that working as an independent educator has had on the people involved, and I feel honoured to be part of this amazing journey. Thank you to all who have been on this incredible ride.
This blog was started on April 1st last year. This was the first image I uploaded. What happened in between was as they say, history.
On the 1st January 2019, I vowed to have 52 new adventures in 2019. I have to tell you dear reader that I have failed. I got to 48. Illness, autism, work, madness and life got in the way. But what an adventure the last 12 months have been!!!! I just don’t think I can put into words the gravity of change and enlightenment (I am not keen on that word but cannot think of another comparable one in English language) that has happened.
In January, I signed up for a course “Level 3 Forest school leader” on a slight whim. I craved change. I loved working with young people, but I wanted to do it in a way that meant I was impacting on mental health in the positive way, rather than negative. I only feel happy outdoors, in natural environments. I felt that this could be an avenue I could explore and it was a tenth of the alternative I was considering, a masters in educational philosophy. I had asked my place of work to allow me time to study for this, and they said no. It retrospect, it was a huge favour.
By Easter, I had given my notice. My 52 adventures had actually changed my mindset entirely. I was looking at life through a new lens. “Shall I write these 30 reports, or shall I take my paddle board out for an hour?” Neither brought financial reward. I choose the latter. “Shall I sit at my desk and produce a worksheet for the next lesson on post it note holders, or shall I eat my lunch in the sculpture garden and bathe in glorious sunshine.” No one would notice if I did either. I chose the latter. And so went the year.
In choosing joy, I reawakened my joie de vivre. I rekindled a connection to my children. And although I felt guilt, because it is inherently English not to feel alive unless you are suffering, I realised that my being grumpy, miserable and angry was actually benefitting no one. So many people have written to me in the last four months telling me how much it has affected their families, that I have started working in forest school. I can think of one letter I have received in 16 years, in which a parent talks of gratitude for my teaching their child. This is in part, due to expectation, but also because I could not really do what I could do, given the limitations of “education” as it is.
New year’s resolutions have a bad wrap and I think bring out a lot of anxiety in adults. The thing is this, they should not be a noose around your neck, and they should not be another yard stick by which you measure failure. They should be a zephyr by which you embrace a new chapter. I have always loved new year’s resolutions, not because I always complete them, but because I love the concept of rebirth.
This time of year is stressful, manic, sensory overload and emotionally charged. It usually results in too much being said after too much alcohol. And the high expectations can leave everyone feeling inept and remorseful at not being or having enough. And it is a time of reflection about people who are no longer here or about where we thought we would be now but have failed.
Forest school philosophy is about reconnecting with nature and people and building meaningful relationships. Christmas should also be about those things: Good food, trees, friends, family and laughter. Doing and being together. We all know this but I am sure most of us still get caught up with endless shopping (for stuff that will just go to landfill), spending money (and probably getting into debt) and drinking too much (to cope with the stress of the above). So how could be press the “reset” button?
Play with your children. Don’t give them things to play with. They think they want all the plastic rubbish, but let’s remember that their brains are the most susceptible to media and advertising. One of the things that blows me away when I am working at Forest school, is how quickly the children form bonds with us. I think it is sadly quite rare that kids get an adults undivided attention. We have such lovely chats, while collecting fire wood or cutting oranges, or flipping pancakes or playing ‘catch the flag’.
Choose the gift of spending time with people. We invite families round for Sunday lunch, or an evening meal fairly regularly, but “dinner parties” seem like an antique from the 70s. You will be amazed how happy it makes people feel. Let your kids choose a friend for a sleep over one night. You will be the biggest hero in history. You kid will be a celebrity.
Food bonds us. Cooking a meal from scratch is a rarity these days. Because people are strangled by mortgages, they are then shacked to long working hours. The knock on effect is that most families don’t have the energy to cook an elaborate meal. It’s not really about time. It is having the mental capacity and the emotional energy left to invest. If you bake someone a cake or slow cook a stew, one feels like they have really, really “given” something valuable. Sharing that food together takes away the guilt if you cannot reciprocate that gesture.
On two occasions, I have spent a Christmas eve preparing and cooking with a fellow woman. I can honestly say, it was one of my most treasured things to do, and it sounds crazy, as I am sure this was what people did everyday, historically. We laughed, chatted, listened to reggae and peeled a million spuds, baked a ham, cut crosses into sprouts. We seem to have become caught up in a kind of competition, akin to British bake off, rather than seeing it as a process we all invest in. It can lead to a lot of resentment.
This year, I will try to see Christmas not as some kind of act of endurance but as a time to build new memories. I will try to slow things down. Appreciate the small stuff. Go out and run along a beach rather then queue for an hour to get into a shopping mall. Walk through a forest, rather than clean the house to perfection. If I achieve these things, it will be a first. But as always, it is a work in progress.
Just to address a few FAQs, I thought I would start with what Forest school is NOT.
1) It is not a bunch of women all getting naked in the woods together.
2) It is not just about toddlers playing with mud.
3) Some stuff you could do for free anytime, but someone is trying to screw money out of you for spending time in your local park.
I help run three very different forest schools. One is for women (adults) and takes place in 20 acres of arboretum. https://www.thehawthornproject.org/. On a Thursday, I assist with Wild wood adventures, who facilitate an excellent Forest school for the Steiner school kids at Wraxall piece. And on Friday, I have set up “Sensory Forest school”, designed for kids on the autistic spectrum, but open to all. My three days are very different but amazing, awe inspiring and life changing (for me, and for those taking part).
Some weeks I am busy devising interesting craft activities. Other weeks I am developing new recipes which will work on an open fire, and others I am learning new skills so rapidly, I barely have time to take stock. No two days are the same. It is a crazy, wonderful and mind blowing journey in which we are all passengers, and no one is actually steering the ship.
But don’t let me tell you how wonderful I am 😀 Or how brilliant Forest school really is. Let me show you…
“Can I say wow wow wow , I’m totally blown away. I am still trying to get my head around today….it’s really shown me how amazing a teaching setting can be when it is right.”
S Mum of 13 year old.
“I had to leave when I did as I was near to tears as it’s been at least 18months /2 years since I’ve seen this Oliver. I was totally blown away.”
S mum of child who has been out of school for 7 months
“I love being here because it is the only place I feel like people understand me and I feel accepted.”
Z Adult participant
Forest school is a holistic development of the participants through connection to nature. All activities are optional. The activities are ‘learner led’ and non competitive. It is about developing skills, taking risks, building self esteem, team building and collaboration. It is mostly set in an inspiring outdoor environment and fosters a sense of wonder and awe about the world. It is about making meaningful human connections. It is about laughing. Sometimes crying. Occasionally singing.
“I love the woods. I just feel calm and peaceful and get respite from my mind.”
G Adult participant.
“This is the only time I go out all week. This is the only time I talk to people. I am happy here. “
B Hawthorn Project
“How many octopuses do you get in the blooming woods!” I was asked last week by my biggest critic. That’s not the point. I tried to explain. There was one boy who had barely slept, for three nights he was so excited about Friday group. He had made his mum read loads of facts about Octopus from the internet. Three boys had spent 40 minutes, delicately taking the two beasts apart, step by step. We talked about food webs, and jet propulsion, and the fact that they have 3 hearts and 6 brains. We talked about organ functions and evolution and camouflage. And all this from three boys who cannot be kept at a desk for 2 minutes, in their school classroom.
With the adult group we make fire, and tea and talk. We talk about politics, and love, and philosophy and parenting. Sometimes, like today, we talk about farts and neighbours and art and tinsel. We arrive one person, and leave a different one. The second person is more at ease with itself. It is more resilient. More connected.
If I asked the participants a singular question of “what is Forest school?” I guess their succinct answer would be…
I have been quiet for a while. But today I feel compelled to speak. D is also for diagnosis and if you have had a child who is different, who struggles and has been a source of worry for you, you may have come across a short film called “A is for autism.” It was made a long time ago and explains a little of what autism means.
This week we sat in a consultant paediatrician’s office where she delivered the results of 12 months of testing. “Your son has Autistic spectrum condition.” She then paused to see f I would burst into tears. After 4 years of wondering wtf was going on with this child, it has not come as a surprise to me. I have read every book in the library, I have joined all local support groups and been on a 5 week course. Friends and family have asked me how I feel. Some days I feel blessed to have a child who views the world through a different lens. Other days it feels like a death sentence. Having fought so hard for a diagnosis, it can now not be taken back.
My brother came round recently to play Minecraft with the boys and from the kitchen, I heard one son ask “Can I make an axe?” My brother answered. The spectrum son asks “Can I shave a panda?” On days like this we laugh till we cry, and he is able to join in with the laughter. On another day, he would smash the house to pieces and cry for 20 minutes.
But I feel that very, very few people know even a tiny bit about Autism but feel compelled to give you their opinion and advice regardless. Schools are the starting point for this mis-information and 80% of teachers have had no training on it whatsoever. I say this, having been a teacher for 16 years. So I just want to give you a few pointers, just in case someone you know is dealing with a similar situation to us.
1) Don’t say the sentence “Well, we are all on the spectrum.” No we are not. And by saying that you are not showing empathy, you are demeaning the experience of someone who finds some things absolutely crippling.
2) Don’t talk to them about Rain man or ‘The curios incident of the dog in the night’. They are both works of fiction which cannot accurately represent the multitude of ways in which Autistic people experience the world. This can range from being non-verbal to being Prime minister.
3) Don’t give parenting advice. My child has not slept through the night in seven years. He wakes somewhere between 4 and 5 but it can be earlier. He does not go back to sleep. There is literally nothing I have not tried. Please don’t talk to me about sleep routines or behaviour boundaries.
4) Don’t ask what things the child struggles with and then reply with “Oh, MY child does that. ” If I tell you he cries on the way to school, I doubt it is in a neuro typical way. He cries about finding socks, about the toothpaste being too spicy, about dropping some breakfast on the table, about not finishing the programme he was watching, about being too cold, or too hot, or because it is raining. He can cry 20 times before 8:30.
5) Most of all, please don’t alienate us. There is a lot of writing about how Autistic people feel left out and lonely. But this can actually be applied to our whole family. I know there are friends who invite families round for gatherings, and I know that we are not invited. We miss out on Halloween parties, birthdays, and New years. We know we can be really challenging to deal with, but we will take ourselves off if it is becoming difficult. We want to feel part of the community too and have love to offer.
This year, I have put my career on hold slightly, so that I can fill out the millions of forms and attend the multitude of meetings in order to find some provision for my son that works. I have started my own Sensory art and Science class, design for children on the Autistic spectrum. Each week we have 9 children who vary in age from 7 to 14. We have 4 activities, all of which are optional. There is one art/ creative activity, one science build, one sensory bin activity and one cooking and eating table. These children are beginning to free themselves of the idea that they are a burden on their school class, make real meaningful friendships and learn in a relaxed and child led way. Each week I theme the sessions based on one of their “Special interests.”
Last session, I asked the class (both children and adults) to write on a post it note, one thing they like about the sessions. This is something I learnt during my Forest School training and it absolutely blew my mind. I had never done anything like this in my teaching career. I was in charge, I did not care what their thoughts were on the session. Well, I did, but it is not standard practice to ask children what they actually think! What a crazy idea?
And so, in conclusion, D is for dick head. Not for the professionals who did not spot my son’s difficulties, not for the families who ostracise us, and not for my son who can drive me to the very edge of my sanity. I am in fact the biggest dick head of them all. Because if I can be a teacher for 16 years, and not see this shit coming, it can definitely happen to anyone.
This week has been an emotional roller coaster and I think it is true to say that the world seems to be having a collective mental breakdown. I don’t know if it is the full moon, combined with Winter solstice or if the ridiculous political pantomime we have going on in the UK is just sending everyone over the edge. My children have cried approx. 500 times this week. Twice, the adults in my Forest school sessions have broke down in floods. I have a number of friends reaching out for help. I too felt utter helplessness last weekend. The world can feel overwhelming.
I think there is a reason, why throughout history, we have a big celebration right in middle of winter. We need it to get though the bleak season. We have evolved to over think everything, but animals can actually point us back in the direction of listening to our instincts. At this time of year, birds fly south. “Bugger this for a game of marbles!” they think. The flightless mammals build a den, get a load of food in and sleep it out till April. The deciduous trees drop everything and going into suspended animation. No more work till spring. Nice idea nature.
But most of us cannot do all those things. What we can do is slow down. We can appreciate the last bird song of the season. We can plan to meet friends and reconnect with some good nurturing autumnal food. This week I made smores with my Friday Forest school group. One of the parents said her daughter was looking forward to it all week. Next week I will plan a fire pit feast and a mindful walk in the local park and we can all hug it out around the flames.
When a beautiful lady cried at my adult session, I brought her a hot coffee and let her spill her heart. Then we went out as a group hunting fungus. We found a fairy den and inside were hundreds of coral fungi growing. I told a story about doing my scuba diving training at this time of year in Devon and being amazed by swimming through a kelp forest. Even under the sea, the plants go all the rainbow colours in Autumn. That spurred others to tell stories and we walked and talked and laughed.
And yes, dear friends, that is a picture of me with some cone fungi on my boobs. Because sometimes adventure is the answer to your problems, and sometimes having a laugh is. No one could resist laughing at my rendition of Madonna’s “Like a virgin.”
This week I was trying to think about ways in which being out in nature is so relaxing. On Wednesdays I work with adult women doing forest school. Pretty much regardless of the weather, you see them transformed for spending a few hours in a beautiful arboretum. Tortworth forest centre is a 20 acre site, just 20 minutes from Bristol city centre.
I have always struggled with living bang in the city centre. And I can distil it down to one reason: reflective surfaces. I don’t think of myself as a vain person, but I can’t seem to stop looking at my reflection in the reflective surfaces, and they are EVERYWHERE. Each parked car, each shop window, every house. Behind the counter at the green grocers is a huge, wall wide mirror. Why? I don’t really need to be checking my hair while buying potatoes. And this constant looking at one’s self really does cause a lot of introspection and self loathing.
At the arboretum, one’s mind wanders through natures awesomeness and beauty. You find delight in the small creatures and can often be struck about how little we still know about the world. Do these ancient herbs hold the cure for cancer? And you find yourself child like and playful.
We all have one part of our body which causes huge amounts of self loathing. For me it is my thighs. I can remember being about 14 years old, sitting in assembly, looking down at my thighs and thinking “Why are they so big? Everyone else’s are not like mine.” I have spent a lifetime selecting clothes on their ability to hide them. I curse having to find a wet suit. When at a swimming pool, I practically sprint out the changing room and into the water. I once heard the former president of Italy, Berlesconi describe Angela Merkle as “An un-fuckable bag of lard.” And that is how I feel in a bikini.
But I was recently somewhere with my husband, and he was telling a story from when we were 17. I challenged him to race me up Westbury white horse, probably the steepest hill in the county. He was saying that I beat him, not by a small amount, but by a long way. My husband is probably the most competitive person I know, so he made me do it a second time, and a second time I thrashed him.
This year I completed a challenge which I have wanted to do forever! I had always wanted to complete a triathlon. My aim was to complete it before I turned 30, but I missed that goal. I then moved the goal post to 40. Last January, I realised that my 39th birthday was approaching, and I still had not got my act together. In may I came 47th in the off road triathlon (with paddle boarding rather than swimming) and it was a massive challenge for me.
So when I am suffering with some crippling self hatred, I will try to remember that these thighs get me up mountains, they can run 8 miles and they take me mountain biking, all of which give me so much pleasure in life. Sometimes I need to appreciate them for all their imperfections, and wobbliness, and asymmetricity. I will never love my cellulite. I will still buy A-line dresses and boot cut jeans. I just need to spend more time in nature, away from the reflective surfaces of introspection, and focus on the positives.
Let me drive you from Bristol to a landscape of incredible waterfalls, ancient forests and wild rivers. We will feast on Lobster and prosecco cooked on hot coals. I will then guide you on a 5 mile walk through the Wild Welsh landscape. Half way we will stop for gin and cake, if you would like. One the return, I will point out the unique and intriguing flora of the woodland valley along with fold tales and medicinal aspects. There will be the option for wild swimming in a lagoon, with the largest fall cascading in the background. We will then journey home.
‘Into the wild’ has a singular aim: to improve participants well being by being in an inspiring outdoor environment, building communities, feeding the body and nurturing the soul. I want to create a movement which reconnects people with nature and the outdoors. I have lived in Bristol for 16 years. During that time I have spent every spare day travelling the local wild places to explore forests, beaches, mountains, waterfalls, rivers and gorges. I love all things outdoors whether it is walking, cycling, swimming, paddle boarding, scuba diving or canoeing. I am a qualified teacher having specialised in wood working for 16 years. I am level 3 Forest school trained and I have outdoor and paediatric first aid. I set up my business because I passionately believe in connecting with nature.
Some days it is true to say that I wake up and wish I was in Brazil. I was not really prepared for being an adult and all it entails. I have had no training in parenting, I still don’t understand Brexit and I still have not developed the ability to poach an egg, despite having 20 years trying. I am reminded of the blooming maths test I was made to take at University three times, and still failed three times (even when I cheated!). To this day I cannot do calculus and still don’t actually understand the point.
This week for Adventure #46 (52 Micro-adventure in one year) I went trail running in Blaise Castle estate. It is open free access to rivers, gorges, castle, forest and open grass land. I used to do quite a lot of trail running ten years ago, but then I let excuses and martyrdom get the better of be. This week has been hard work and I literally felt like running away and joining the Russian circus (or something). I put on my tatty shoes and squeezed myself like a sausage into some running tights and went running through the Autumn sunshine. It felt glorious. There was not really anyone about but a few dog walkers. I would sprint for a while, then stop to look at the ponds. Then hike up the hill. Ponder the view.
Running (and runners) can be quite competitive. Last week I was asked if I was a runner. I did not want to engage into a conversation about how slow I run a 10k so when he asked the question “Are you a runner?” I replied with “No, I am just mental.” I made a mental note to myself that I really need to work on the question “What do you do?” now that I am no longer a teacher. I was asked this yesterday and faltered. People then tend to fill in the blank with “Unemployed.”
The new me is trying really hard not to apologise for my existence on planet Earth and instead be more assertive. So here goes I am…
An adventure blogger, Forest school leader and outdoor activity coach.
I have to say, it was absolutely thrilling, wonderful and reassuring. Looking forward to the future, rather than running away from it. But if you are feeling in a negative head space, I can thoroughly recommend going out for a trail run. I came back feeling elated.
On January the 1st 2019, I set myself a new year’s resolution: To have 52 new adventures in 2019. My husband asked me if I was going to complete my challenge yesterday. Like all resolutions, I had kind of forgotten about it. But not because I had given up. It was because it had snowballed into something entirely bigger. This blog started out being called “52 micro adventures.” And has now become an entire forum for my new career, business and philosophy on education.
In January, I signed up for a training course. I remember pressing the “checkout” button and whooping with fear/ delight. No one was around to see me do this. I was sat in my office, hating my job. Said office was a dark, underground room I referred to as “The dungeon.” In March, I started writing this blog, as a dare by my friend Helen who said that my facebook posts were inspiring people. In April, I handed in my notice. In July I completed the practical training to become a Forest School leader. In September, I registered my company ‘Into the wild’. I got my first paid gig at Tortworth Arboretum. I woke up everyday excited! I loved my work with adults. In October I started my own child led Sensory Forest school for kids on the Autistic spectrum. And Airb&b signed up my “Wild escapes: Waterfalls” experience. https://airbnb.com/bristolwaterfalls
I write this blog not to brag, but in the hope that someone reading this will be inspired to start their own adventure, be it in the great outdoors of otherwise. I think that we can easily slip into a rut where we 1) Stop taking risks and 2) Put up with being treated badly. The media has us believing that our jobs are fragile, and that if we don’t follow the “rules” everything will be ripped out from under our feet. It also has us believing that we cannot be happy until we have the right House/ Car/ bust size/ life style. And we seem to be in a mental health epidemic.
I think it took me 39 years to realise what makes me happy. I just love being outdoors exploring forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, meadows. And when you use this space to educate others about nature and allow them to challenge themselves, you watch their self esteem grow and blossom. Ironically, I felt this was the opposite of what I was doing when working as a Design Teacher.
I remember a conversation I had with my other half 10 years ago. He said “You want champagne and rainbows everyday Sy and you just can’t have it!” Today I sit here smug as a Unicorn. It transpires I bloody can. I just had to realise that no one was going to hand that shit to me. I had to go out and find a way to make it happen myself.
Getting away on a “mini break” can be an absolute relationship saver. No one feels truly connected to their partner while discussing taxes, Brexit or the fact that fridge needs cleaning out. But this is also true of our friendships. Every once in a while we need to do something in the wilderness with people who are important to us. To experience something special and unique together.
Last week I started working as an adhoc, outdoor instructor. I felt like a little bit of a fraud, given that even though I have run numerous obstacle races and triathlons, and even though I seem to have amounted a ridiculous amount of activity qualifications (Scuba diving, sailing, Forest school, outdoor first aid) I had not really “coached” anyone else before. I have an exceptionally high pain threshold (Childbirth was my proof) and I don’t really feel the cold. I am an animal when it comes to mud and water, I will do literally anything. During one particular race, we had to go through barbed wire and underwater obstacles. But encouraging others to do these nutty things, is a whole different matter.
The lovely guy in charge put me on a technical and fairly high risk obstacle. In my head I completed a “dynamic” risk assessment: Drowning, concussion, shock, heart attack. The weather was pretty horrid and us instructors were all clad in our best wet weather gear.
At one point, the man who runs the event said “last year I had four squaddies manning this one. They literally stood in the water and shouted at people till they did it.” Well, that’s totally not my style, I thought. Over the walkie talkie I could hear someone requesting an urgent medic on another stage. I tried to stay focused on my task. I could hear that a group of lady medics in matching black tee shirts were going round. Each stage reported their arrival. When they finally got to me, they felt like old friends.
“You can definitely do this!” I said to them. “Over the big, under the small.” They looked at me, slightly broken and said “What?!?!? put out heads right under?”
“You have come this far. You are going to be so proud when you have completed this. I am right here if you need me. “
“I wish I could take a photo, one lady said.”
“I will take a photo” I said, like an idiot, realising that I did not know them to send it their way.
“Find me on facebook.” She said. So I took this brilliant picture.
To the Bristol Dental Specialists: I salute you. Keep taking risks, challenging yourselves and nurturing the sisterhood! You guys were fab!
The rest of my week was spent with my family in the forest of Dean, seeking new places to explore. We walked through cascading golden leaves, stomped through gushing streams and walked up steep old drover lanes. Time spent together in nature is never time wasted. And we even found a hedgehog! Something I have not seen (even as road kill) for 25 years. My hubby and I were convinced the son had found a dead one, but no, there he was just roaming around. It felt like we had found a fairy or a unicorn, the stuff of magic.
And if the great British weather is a bit inclement, well, just make sure you end the day in one of our bloody brilliant pubs. A glass of wine and a log fire will surely cure all ills in the world. Chin, chin.
This is a tiny ballet shoe which I bought a few years ago. I have a lot of nostalgia for red ballet shoes because it reminds me of a childhood dream. People often comment about the shoe when they see it in my house, but no one has yet asked me why.
I always loved dancing and from the age of 3, my mother took me to classes. At age 8 I was doing really well. I had two distinctions and if I got a third, it meant a scholarship to London to study at the Royal academy. My dance teacher was fantastic and was so encouraging of me. Then, she moved away. My mother found another teacher, but this one told me, point blank, in the first few lessons that I would never be a professional dancer because my little toes curled outwards.
Looking back now, it was a ridiculous statement, but as a small girl, it was easy to totally shatter my dreams with one comment. The teacher was angry at herself, I would imagine, at not having had the success she dreamed of. My first teacher saw the potential in all and saw her success as measured by our achievements. The second saw us as competition. I bought this little shoe to remind myself to never let anyone tell me that I cannot do something. I had a whole wealth of evidence telling me that she was wrong, but I let her poison my confidence in a instant.
Today I have been applying for what I felt could be my (2nd) dream job. Then I had a “Ballet shoe” moment. As an adult, I have been trying to devise ways to overcome the shoe. My current mechanism is to go off into nature. It is both humbling and inspiring to stand in amongst giant Oaks which have been on the planet for 200 years. I walked though a rainbow of leaves. I doubt very much whether the maple has a crisis of confidence about dropping it’s leaves for the winter. I somewhat struggle to imagine, a mushroom having an anxiety attack about whether it is time to pop out and spread it’s spores. The squirrels don’t produce an excel spread sheet about how many chestnuts they have collected.
In nature, things just “be”. Seasons change, winds blow, rain falls. Does the nut hatch mourn summer? Maybe. Is it stressful trying to feed and shelter their families, probably. But there must be an acceptance about the inevitability of it all. And I think that we must all try to seek the evidence of our talents and abilities and achievements, without the shadow of doubt eeking into and spoiling it all.
This week I will be inspired by nature to just “Be”.
This morning, I
should be taking 7 ladies on a walk round a mountain range. I had bought bacon,
gin, bread and worked hard on getting guides and maps laminated. Tomorrow I
have a meeting with a guy to see if I can start of project with which I would
have a lot of autonomy.
It is weird because when I was a teacher, I had spent years
telling kids to “Be more resilient”, and to “take more risks.” I had lots of training
on developing a “Growth mind set” and it is only now I realise that I have
never done any of those things. Starting a small business means doing all this
stuff on a daily basis. You don’t need a degree in business to succeed, just a
big pair of balls. I am on a humongous learning curve.
The met office have issued a yellow weather warning with a big pink blog right over the Brecon beacons. It is one thing to be a pansy about British weather. It is another to risk hypothermia and getting lost in the name of resilience. But it leaves me with a growing doubt in my mind about trying to carve a new profession which could be so seasonal.
Trying to stay positives about the victories this week, I
loved my Wednesday and Thursday work. I honestly wake up excited and look
forward to going to work. I devised this weeks creative activity. I was
inspired by a conversation I had with my brother earlier on in the week and
used this to create a “Bristol rocks” idea. I did not know if grown women would
go for this, but it was lovely to see them show enthusiasm, and when I went
back and told my brother about it, he also wanted to make one.
The idea is that you decorate a pebble or stone. You can write
a message on the back if you want to and the idea is that you hide it somewhere
in the city for someone else to find. They can take a photo, upload it onto the
Facebook “Bristol Rocks” page, and then they re-hide it in a new location for
someone else to find. A simple idea, but with a lovely message.
My Thursday forest school was all about running about in the
woods with 6 and 7 year olds all with a dragon theme. I got to draw dragons on
trees, turn knots into dragon eyes, play catch the tail and drink fiery dragon
brew (ginger tea).
Taking risks and doing new things takes tenacity, grit and resilience.
All of the things I have managed to avoid doing to 16 years, but if I can do
it, everyone can.
Let me drive you from Bristol, take you up a waterfall, across moors, up two peaks and around a lake. At the second peak I will cook fresh bacon butties washed down with G&T. This is a chance to challenge yourself to do something new, or maybe rekindle a love of the wild. We will go at a pace that suits everyone and all support each other. Come and escape for a day.
I have lost 4-5 lbs this week but I have not changed how I eat nor how I drink. This is not a blog around women getting “beach ready”. This is a blog about women challenging why we need to be a certain way in order to have the right to be on a beach.
I was recently chatting to a really good friend about having put on weight over the last 5 years. I asked her what she thought were the psychological factors that were her downfall and I spoke openly about mine. For me, I find that it is around 4-7pm. I have taken kids to school, micro-managed 20 different daily things, cycled to work, dealt with my students worries, concerns, and problems, I have cycled home, picked up my children and then set about cooking three different meals. At this point I am physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Brain says “You lack energy, you need to refuel.” Body reaches for the cheese.
The Greeks apparently have seven different words for “love.” I think we need seven different words for “tired.” And this effect, I think, is particularly acute for women.
So what changed this week? Well, I have escaped a job which was causing me huge amounts of stress. I have had a job interview and got offered it. Spurred on by this success, I have written project proposals for two new clients and had an immediate positive response. Everything this week has energised me, rather than pulled me down. So many people have said “You seem so happy! I have never seen you so happy.” And I really am. My micro-adventures have led me to this path and given me energy.
So, here are my top 5 micro-adventures for being a woman. (And if anyone wants to chuck the equality card at me, I am happy to take it.) Until we have equality everywhere, we continue to need women only supportive networks.
#1 Go on a bike ride with a friend. You will both feel like you are 12 again. Take a picnic. Choose a goal to reach. Take a traffic free route and you will chat and laugh the whole way. I am meeting my extreme sports partner in crime tomorrow. I am soooo looking forward to it.
#2 Walk around your area at dusk. You can totally nose into people’s houses because it takes them a while to realise that they should have shut the curtains. I often invent a pint of milk or a loaf of bread I have to buy so that I can escape for half an hour.
#3 Take some cheese and biscuits and go and eat them with a great view.
#4 Involve your kids with some beach art (or on your own). Just collecting beach treasures and making a temporary instillation is really nice. Take a photo. Remind yourself during the week that you don’t just work and pay a mortgage.
#5 Choose not to eat cold flaccid sandwich at your desk. Go out and bathe in glorious sunshine in a local park. No one will thank you for sacrificing your 30 minute lunch break. You will come back refreshed and happier and most likely be more productive.
And just like me, you might magically find that actually it is not that you have bad genes that have given you hip dips, and cellulite and pendulous breasts and a stomach that somehow resembles a sad looking anus. It was that you were emotionally drained from a lack of fun in life and by taking control and making your own fun, the need for food and booze solved itself.
How to live life on the edge of your pants when you don’t have shed loads of money to throw at fancy trips.
Becoming a parent is absolutely humbling. That, and just about the most challenging thing any of us would ever have to contend with. Just imagine someone gave you a precious sports car and told you to drive it through the Namibian dessert at night. Not only that, you don’t get a map, you have never had a single driving lesson and you actually have gone temporarily mad due to 3 years of sleep deprivation and worry about said trip. Your body will feel like it has been battered with a hammer during said torture and you have forgotten what a hot meal is. It’s a winning combination for success. If we approached the work place with such a lack of preparation, it would be insane, but instead you have to study for years, get some experience, have a mentor check on you and a bi-annual review.
My children are constantly re-educating me on how to be a human. Hedonism is something which is slowly drilled out of us as we get older. My quest this year to complete 52 micro adventures has led me into all kinds of new and terrifying experiences. We also stop taking risks and I think as we do so, we progressively stop believing in ourselves. The biggest asset my new year’s resolution has given me is a massive confidence and happiness boost.
I am currently at adventure #41: Go on a cray fish hunt.
Here are some of our best family Micro adventures (with minimal cost)
#1 Go fossil hunting. My kids genuinely thought they had found a fossilised dinosaur poo. They were thrilled.
#2 Make art on a beach with found items. It never ceases to amaze me how children can only concentrate for 10 minutes in a classroom but hours on a beach.
#3 Breakfast picnic. Our favourite is to go to a bakery early (one of our kids wakes at 4am) and sit in the park on a sunny morning in complete solitude apart from us four, the birds and the flowers swaying in the breeze.
#4 Climb a mountain (or big hill). You may have to invent a creative game to entice them up, but the views are humbling to all. Seeing places you recognise gives you a humbling reminder of perspective in life.
#5 Go on a fungus hunt in a forest. My kids get points for each different type and bonus points for especially ugly, colourful or massive ones. It is amazing how attentive they are. They nearly always triple my score.
#6 Tell a shared story around a fire. Anyone can make a fire and we could all make up a tale, but google has replaced creativity and experimentation. Sometimes I long to not know the answer to a question, to ponder and consider. Some of the times my kids have absolutely laughed the hardest is about one of my ridiculous stories.
#7 Make dinner together. We have arrived at a really strange state of cultural climate where it can feel like our offspring are small princes with which we constantly serve. Kids these days don’t seem to do chores, partly because the likes of dishwashers, washing machines etc have made life easier, but I am constantly astounded at how the art of cooking, a basic human need, is one which we leave too late to teach. Kids bloody love cooking!
#8 Collect forest treasures. The world is full of wonder and awe when you are 5. I have rediscovered my inner child by finding pleasure in examining acorns, looking for four leafed clovers and singing Victorian songs long forgotten about nature.
#9 Draw an observational sketch of a found object. There is a great deal to be gained from slowing life down and disconnecting from screens. Children’s vocabulary is suffering in this digital age. The sheer act of using language to do art together is deeply wonderful. They will disclose all kinds of weird and wonderful thoughts about the universe.
#10 Watch clouds. Do you remember that? Being bored as a child and finding the mundane fabulous. Nebulous thoughts are so relaxing. Sharing this moment with your children is an act of bonding.
So let’s try to stop distracting our kids so we can “Get on with stuff” and realise that perhaps it is the stuff, which is distracting us from our kids. Because they are the most precious and important thing we have in our lives. Everything else is just glorified dust.
One of the very things that makes us uniquely human, is our ability to make fire, and yet we so rarely use it these days.
I don’t know anyone who says “I hate fire”. There is something primeval and spiritual about sitting around one, whether it is in a home, while out camping or one a beach. It brings people together and opens up conversation. Or it allows people to sit together silently watching the flames flicker. Not that long ago in history, it was the only way to cook, heat water and warm your home. Everyone was taught from a young age how to light one. Now it is a lost art which you can pay a lot of money to learn on a bush craft course.
I recently took my two boys to a “Story telling in the woods” holiday session. At the end of the walk and story telling, a fire was lit and the children all made stick bread. It probably cost pennies, but they went crazy for it. Even if it was too doughy or singed and crusty, it tasted of success. Everything tastes better from the fire. There was no shoving or arguing. They helped each other. There was something beautiful about it.
On holiday recently, I spoke about how we made a fire on the beach and cooked scallops, venison sausages and sardine fillets. I was worried beforehand that I did not how to do it. Which way do you put the sausage on a stick? How do you know when the fish is cooked? Am I going to poison everyone with the shellfish? Turned out, we all got involved and did what people have done for thousands of years, we put it on, if it wasn’t working, we changed the plan. We used intelligence and problem solving, we had to be resourceful with what was around. Are we gong to set fire to our sticks, who knows? I know, lets soak them in sea water first! The boys loved this improvised group learning. The reward….an absolute feast, washed down with a mini bottle of prosecco.
We wandered home with salty lips and smoky hair and slept like babies, dreaming of adventure.
At my forest school training last week, we cooked every day on the fire. Everyone got involved and helped in some way. The food was delicious and each person contribute a different food item. Traditionally, I am sure this was how we were meant to cook and eat. The conversations around the fire varied hugely each day, but they were all punctuated with laughter and camaraderie.
I now wonder if this missing piece is contributing to rising mental health problems? You just don’t get a sense of achievement from the ping of a microwave. You don’t squeal with delight when the gas hob lights. No one feels they have earnt the central heating warmth, like you do when you have walked through a forest gathering kindling. These small achievements lead to a shared group/ family experience which leaves us all with a warm glow on the inside too.
A micro adventure is a journey you go on which is less than two hours from home, allows you to explore somewhere new and bring you joy. These three things are the core of my new career and it is about reconnecting people to nature. The other two things I feel passionately about are fuelling your body with food that has soul and building communities.
This week I took my first group of women on the first “wild women escape”. The idea of these events is to get women to have some time out of their busy and normally stressful lives and reconnect with an inspiring and often unknown stunning location. This trip was all about waterfalls, wild swimming and walking. I prepared 3 lobsters from my local fish mongers, packed two bottles of prosecco and a range of tasty tapas foods for the arrival. I had my 6 first volunteers to try out my business idea and was nervous as hell.
The concept was quite simple. I plan, drive, lead a walk, cook food and take you home again. You can just relax, enjoy the experience, eat the food make some new friends and talk, walk and laugh. On the way home, I am not going to be offended if you sleep on the drive home, having exerted yourself from the five mile hike and the wilds swim to the waterfall.
I could not tell you why, but for some reason I was really anxious. The weather had been absolutely glorious in the few weeks leading up to the trip. Then, a few days before, lightening storms were forecast. I was wracked with a crisis of confidence. “No one will come.” my internal monologue was telling me. “This whole thing was a ridiculous idea. You live in the UK, you idiot, where it rains for 80% of the year. You can’t run a business which is so seasonal. It’s not going to work.” I actuality, all of the participants came! I was so eternally grateful. “You have to be braver.” I told myself after.
I lit the BBQ and smeared the halved lobsters with garlic butter. The ladies enjoyed the prosecco and olives and bread and snacks which the lobster cooked. When I brought it over to the table, it looked like a sight to behold. We feasted and chatted. One of the ladies had just got engaged, one had just announced being pregnant and the next day was my birthday. We had so much positivity to share and so much to celebrate. We were uninterrupted by impetuous children, undistracted by the pull of house chores and unencumbered by workplace to do lists.
For two and a half miles, we walked along the Eidir trail to a glorious pub bathed in dappled sunshine. The path required you to watch your feet and was moderately challenging which warmed us up and required our focus and attention. All around us was ancient woodland filled with Oak and Hazel and Beech and the river flowed by sometimes in torrents which took your breath away and sometimes in calm, rippling pools.
There are about 6 waterfalls on this walk (depending on you definition), four of which are named on the map. Each one sings a different song, each has a different character. At one point, a lady pulled some medowsweet from the bank and a fern and decorated my hair for no reason. At many points, women talked about how they would love to come back and share this lovely place with their family. Your walking partner changed along the route and we all got to make new friends.
The last waterfall is probably the most spectacular, and has a deep lagoon below. This was the place I chose for our wild swim. We had seen very few people along the paths and we were alone for a quick change into swim gear. The water was icy! But it has been well documented in recent years as to the mental health and physical benefits of cold water swimming. The usual human reaction is the yelp, scream and laugh. Two of us decided to just go for it and I am sure our laughter could be heard for miles. I have a lasting image of one lady in my mind who waded round to the far side of the waterfall with a new found friend and she stood fully under the full force of the river cascading down. The look on her face was pure unadulterated joy! I knew that she had been having a difficult time of late, and just to see her let it all go and do something magical, was a pleasure like no other. I had achieved my aim.
And so to new beginnings. Be they scary, daring, challenging and emotional. Let’s take them on together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.