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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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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.

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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

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Man down!

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.

Snail and babies hiding under a log till it’s warm.

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.”

Last week I was selected as one of the top adventure blogs in the UK. https://blog.feedspot.com/uk_adventure_blogs/ Which is wonderful and fabulous and helps me in my mission to connect people with wild places.

But this week I was reminded that it is our connections to each other and not the places we go that make us happy.

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Thunder thighs

A Bikini, my worst fear

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.

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The gift of time

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.

http://www.airbnb.co.uk/bristolwaterfalls