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SENsory Forest school

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.

Nelson Mandela

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?

  1. When they are interested. Is it fun? Is it inspiring? Does it foster my curiosity?
  2. When they are involved. Can I touch? Can I smell? Can I ask questions?
  3. When they have choice. I would like to burn some energy. I would like to do something calm. I would like to eat.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

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Nature therapy as a cure for mental burnout

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.

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Wild Women escape: Waterfalls

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

Robert

“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.”

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Into the wild – January Newsletter

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.

A child’s depiction of Goram

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.

Vegan meatball stew for Hawthron Project

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.

New year's re(s)volution

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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.

How to love Christmas

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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.

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What is Forest school?

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
Octopus dissection

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…

Forest school is my happy place