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.
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.
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!
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.