I have been reflecting on the amazing feedback I have been getting recently and feeling really proud. Proud in one way, and sad in another. These levels of confidence, self esteem and happiness should be available to all kids. The use of emotion coaching and non-violent communication, should I have come across them 10 years ago, could have saved me so much pain. The ability for all women recovering from addiction, to be able to access free at point of access nature based therapy, should be wide spread and common place. But we are one small team.
My new experiment/ mission, is to offer what we have learnt to others. To other inspired, outdoor educators and educational establishments to have meaningful and insightful and practical training which can be used at a grass root level to improve outcomes and enhance their provision. In this combined approach, we have the potential to offer what we do to a greater audience. And who knows? Perhaps the stuff I bang on about all day long will be so common place, I will do myself out of a job? One can only dream…..
Since I have started working in Nature connection and woodland therapy, I have had to get used to the fact that people often cry on me. In fact, I don’t think I ever go a full week without tears. This is not because we are uncovering some deep hidden trauma within them, because I am not a counsellor, but it seems the act of being in nature creates some kind of mental release.
What does crying signal? It can mean frustration, it can mean sorrow, it can mean grief. But it signals some kind of end. “I am at the end of what I can tolerate.” It should be a big social que to those around that says “I need help and support to do this thing.”
When I take someone on an adventure day (nature therapy day), it will involve me looking after all aspects of the day. I facilitate all the food, I plan the walk, I pick them up and drive them there. They can completely turn their brains off and relax. From the outset, conversation normally revolves around what is going on in life at the moment. As we drive further away from Bristol, phone signal goes off. There is now no internet. No social media. They put their phones away and look out the window. They start to wake up from digital coma and suddenly see the world around them. They understand that they are no longer “on call” to anyone.
When planning an adventure day, I will spend time asking what aspects of the outdoors inspires them: Mountains? Forest? the sea? raging rivers? breath taking views? I will build a bespoke day based on what makes their heart sing. Why? It makes you breath. You know, when you drive up a long steep hill and suddenly see for miles and miles? What do you do? You take a huge, deep inbreath. This is the thing that flips a switch in your brain and screams “I am alive”.
And why do people feel better after an adventure day? It is not about problem solving your issues. It is not about me offering advice or solutions. Most humans are at the end of what they can tolerate because they actually don’t feel heard. Some humans are at the end of what they can tolerate because they don’t understand the emotions behind what they are feeling. People, especially women, are so accustomed to fulfilling everyone else’s emotional needs that they have actually turned off their ability to hear their own. This can lead to massive feelings of frustration and anger, without fully understanding why. And often we think this is down to the practical and physical indicators rather than the emotions that are actually underneath them.
“I am mighty pissed off at continuously picking up my families socks. I have asked them over and over to, but they still don’t. If I see another sock I am going to scream! I don’t want to do this any more. (sobbing). I am crying about fucking socks!”
Me: “What I am hearing is that you feel like your family undervalue you. The sock is a symbol. What do you think it may represent?”
“That I am worthless. That I am not good for anything other than touching their disgusting, smelly socks. I have a joint honours degree for God sake!”
Me: “I am hearing you maybe don’t feel entirely fulfilled?”
“I put my career on hold for my husband to chase his dream of becoming a partner. I have done all the kids stuff and now they are reaching secondary age. I feel like he is never here. He said early on he had to do this to “prove” himself, but then when he achieved his goal, it got even worse. I feel like a have been a single mother the whole time while wearing a wedding ring.”
We reach the beach. We both just stand and watch the waves coming in across the sand.
“I am going to talk to all three of them. I am not able to go on feeling like I am there to serve them. We are all in this family and we will all participate. “
Me: “I think that sounds really reasonable.”
Three hours later.
“I think I am going to do a PHd. “
I love the life epiphanies people get while out in the wild. It never happens when you are in Tesco. You don’t suddenly find peace in the middle of the work day. You need a change of scene, to be somewhere that feels truly awesome and you need to be completely relaxed.
Strangely, I don’t cry. It was a mental mechanism that was turned off in me as a child and I do remember the moment it happened. Someone close to me when I eventually broke down said to me “Good. I am glad you are crying” and from that day, I have never really cried. I think that this has caused me a lot of problems in life because we all know in the fabric of our soul that crying means being broken. I have reached the most I can tolerate of this. And so I have always been described as “Strong” or “Brave” or a “warrior”. No one can be those things. Well, maybe sometimes. But it would be to deny our beautiful human existence, to not feel at the end of sorrow, grief or frustration. And so we are all having emotional journeys from which we are all trying to heal and grow from. Mine is to work on crying. Sounds totally weird, doesn’t it? Almost uncomfortable. We are told for most of our lives to supress our emotions. They make people uncomfortable. But we all reach an age eventually that actually, making people uncomfortable is the only way to move through the distress or pain they are causing us.
So imbedded in our culture is the drive to mask our emotions, that most of us don’t even have the vocabulary. I asked three children (age 9 and 11) to write down all the emotion words they could think of between them. They could come up with 7, only two of which were positive. This totally shocked me! Shouldn’t we be teaching this in schools? My kids have a weekly spelling test. When I last asked my son how he did, he said “Great. I got 9 out of 10”. I looked at the list for the week. I asked him “Do you know what ‘disenfranchised’ means?” The answer was no to 7 out of the 9 words.
The work I do is based on two practices, Emotion coaching (by John Gottman Ph.D) and Non-violent communication (Marshall B Rosenberg).
Most of the sessions are not about crying. Mostly it is laughter, talking, stories, me being a nature nerd and showing you medicinal plants and fungi, and magical sea weed to boost your immune system and invigorate your metabolism. Most of all the session is about fun. It could involve wild swimming, fire pit cooking, milk bottle fishing, paddle boarding or body boarding. A long hike or a walk through a local park.
Adventure days can be 1:1 or small group. Each session is bespoke to your particular interests and time constraints and include food and transport. Prices from £20 per hour. Available during the week or weekends.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.