Play is the highest form of research – Albert Einstein

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

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 group of people standing next to a tree

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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.

  • Creative play

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.

How does forest school nurture connection between participants and the woodland environment?

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.

Bristol Autism Project – Event

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:

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.

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.

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.”

Teaching is not about having the answers, it’s about having the questions

This is what I woke up to. This is my seven year old. It is 6am.

Me: “What are you doing Zephaniah?”

Z: “I am making potions.”

Me: “Cool. Where are all those bottles from?”

Z: “From under the sink.”

Me:”Do you know what they are?”

Z: “No. “

Me: “Do you think any of them could be dangerous?”

Z: “Which kind of dangerous?”

A great question, I thought. We then went on a exploration of Hazchem symbols and talked about being toxic, explosive, corrosive and discussed volatile organic compounds. He liked the symbols of the bottles, as he hates reading. He was upset to discover that some were poisonous to wildlife.

I then pointed him to a food drawer. You can use anything you like from here. I explained. He and his brother played with bicarbonate of soda, fizzy tonic water, food dye, flour, yogurt. I gave them some Calpol syringes and eye goggles from a wood work set they had from Santa. They squealed with delight at it bubbling over and changing colour, and becoming thicker. This went on for over an hour.

“What did you do at school yesterday?” I asked casually. “I played computer games in the inclusion room and I did a bit of maths.” I sighed.

People often are curious what we do on our home school days. The answer is, all kinds of mad and unpredictable stuff. “How do you know how to teach chemistry? I would be scarred I was not covering the right stuff or telling them something wrong.” I have had this a load of times. The problem with education is to me a really simple one. We have stopped thinking of kids as just smaller adults. They are still people, and there is not fixed amount of knowledge they absolutely have to have in their heads in order to be functional and happy adults. If you want categoric evidence of this, central government change the primary syllabus every year so it can’t be formulaic.

Octopus dissection.

If you were at work and you did not know the answer to a problem or question, what would you do? You would probably google it. Or ask someone who has the knowledge, or go to a library. Teaching is exactly the same. Even teaching my specialist subject which I have been doing for a million years (well sometimes it feels like that) I do not know that answer to every question students might ask me. And it is only a good teacher who is willing to admit that to their class.

Students are not vessels which we pour our knowledge into. This would be a fixed and static thing. Students are the drivers of a mad space rocket and we are merely passengers. Our job is to make sure they don’t crash and die, or get completely lost. And if we have done our job, they should be much better drivers than we ever were. The student should and must excel the teacher. This is how humanity drives forward.

What is “Child led learning”? You would think the answer is obvious. Last Friday I took Zephaniah for his home school session. I asked his teacher what their topic was for the term: South America. Interesting, since he had thought “it was to do with planets and stuff.” Zephaniah had been really interested in a story I was telling him earlier in the week about a Phoenix. While I made lunch, he watched a short documentary about animals in South America. We then went down to the city farm and fed the goats and sheep and pigs and he noticed how llamas are not that different to sheep. We then picked his brother up and went to a small shop run by a Venuzulean family. The man there showed us his empanadas and churros and we discovered some interesting Argentinian sweets. We brought some home. Zeph and I made a collage of a Phoenix and then researched and compared South American mythical creatures with British ones. He made this …. wall hanging?!? Possibly more achieved in 6 hours than 6 weeks of school. This is child led learning. It is experiential, hands on, negotiated, fun and memorable. It involved: English, ICT, Citzenship, Geography, RS, Art, DT, Food, Science (biology) And languages. It didn’t involve a work sheet from twinkle.