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.
Living under lock down conditions is really hard for me. I hate being in the house under normal conditions and if I am in the house past 9:30am, I am most likely ill. I have always felt my mental health improve just for a drive to a new location and a long walk. I am energised by people. I am a social person and love the company of anyone. So, my usual bag of mental health tools are now totally useless and I am having to create new ones rapidly.
Other ideas: I am better with a project/ focus. But, I am very impatient. Learning a new language or instrument, are not instant enough for me. I find it difficult to see progress and wallow in the parts I am failing at. I think my kids/ most kids are the same.
This week I have asked my two boys to come up with 5 themes for each day, and I would devise activities around the theme. Luckily, because I am a big hoarder, we have a lots of kit and materials in the house, so you may not be able to do some of them, but on the whole I am trying to use basic household materials so that others may be able to do them too.
Yesterday was “Swallows and Amazons.” We watched the film recently, and for a few days after, I would come down to breakfast to see them watching it again and again. I think they liked the idea of escaping from their parents. I think they also liked the “battle” element between the two groups.
I remembered in my childhood using a used tea bag to make paper look old, and then burning sections with a lighter. We did this out on the balcony with a damp cloth and the boys delighted in making a map of the house. They enjoyed using this to hide Daddy’s birthday presents and making him find them using the map.
I asked them both to think of a country they would love to explore in the future and then use this to have SCREEN TIME (a rare thing in our house) to research it. I asked them to draw the outline shape, add major cities, find out the capital, draw the flag, investigate the language and find out how to say “Hello.” “Goodbye” and “Thankyou.” I then realised that I would have to give them separate further tasks as older one needed more challenge. 9 year old loves Football, so we used this as further research and older 8 year old loves nature, so the Amazon readily provided a source of interest. You tube provided some good 5 minute films about their chosen countries.
Feeling smug at having shoehorned in some Geography and ICT, I decided that I would get them to find a national dish we could cook for tea. T had to find a main course and Z a pudding. The challenge was finding something they could make with what we already had in the house, so this proved more of a problem solving exercise than you would already imagine.
Home schooling my kids is probably a lot easier for me than most. Firstly, I cannot really work form home at the moment and I only work on day a week usually. Secondly, I have been a teacher for 16 years and thirdly, I have already been home schooling my younger child part time since September.
Atfer a chat with my friend in Italy, it only then become obvious to me that everyone else does not have this skill set, so I thought I would put together some top tips to hopefully keep you sane!!
1) Don’t expect them to do more than 2 hours total of “Proper work”. It’s not the same as school. 1:1 is intense and exhausting. I realised this when I started doing 1:1 tuition. I went home and had to lie down for half an hour, and I am the adult!
2) Get your core learning (writing, reading, maths stuff) done early morning. If you try and do it after lunch, you will find their minds have switched to ‘lift music’ and you will both get frustrated.
3) Use the afternoon for physical/ creative activities which is still learning, just using your left side of you brain. Right side has gone for a mental vacation.
4) Try as much as possible to make the tasks real, hands on and meaningful. I told the boys they were cooking for the family and sneaked quite a bit of maths in with the measurements. I set them tasks to write to Grandad or make a shopping list. They enjoyed making pop up cards for Daddy’s birthday on Sunday, and it involved a fair amount of DT and science.
5) You may find you need to reframe how you view “learning”. Worksheets are not evidence of learning. They are evidence of obedience and they are designed to show OFSTED that “progress” is going on. If school has emailed a load over to you, you are not obliged to do them. The school will be struggling on how they can feel like they are helping you, and sitting a child at a table and making them fill them out for hours is not how you want to remember lock down.
During the boat building, we talked about buoyancy, surface area, centre of gravity, materials, ballast and steering. They investigated sailing, submarines, catamarans, tillers. Filling out a work sheet with a sentence with words missing, (but cunningly typed out at the bottom!) does not make the learning more valuable or memorable.
I am taking lots of photos, partly for the blog, but also because we are recording all we do in a scrap book. This is my project and this is what helps me stay happy during lock down. Enjoy!
I have to be honest, I am quite enjoying myself so far, but we are all on a massive learning curve. I have discovered that both boys have developed some strange habits from school.
Firstly, they insist on shovelling their lunch down as fast as humanly possible, avoiding any contact with cutlery if possible. This has come about from the idea that they get more play time if they eat fast. This is so extreme, I have worried they will choke a few times. “Cut the meatballs!!! For Gods sake!” The one thing we do have dear children, is time.
Secondly, they have no independence. Older son walked upstairs to find me yesterday while I had escaped to the shower. “I can’t find the butter.” he shouted through the door. I have realised the drill now. I shout back “Have you tried looking?” …. “No.” he replies. “Find a solution. I am in the shower. I am not coming back down.”
The “Home school” has been the biggest eye opener. Their answer to everything is “I am rubbish at X.” They are not, coincidently rubbish at playing online with their mates on Minecraft. They totally fear failure. There is a lot of crying, lying on the floor, blaming the brother for “distracting them.” There is a lot of “Can you help me?” which actually means “Can you do this for me?”
But when you can coach them out of it (rather than teach) the outcomes have been magnificent. The issue with teaching is that we are looking for a predefined answer. Coaching involves wholistic development of the individual to improve within the best of their ability and at their pace. It is not competitive. They are not being compared to their peers. They are problem solving, rather than being given the answer. They are thriving within their own zone of proximal development. They are energised by challenge (mostly).
My biggest challenge has been keeping my temper. No one can press your buttons like your own children, add to that a highly stressful situation and no foreseeable income from us both being self employed, and it is a total temper bomb waiting to explode. I hope that we all manage to survive this things mostly unscathed with an intact marriage and untraumatized children. I would prefer not to have a mental breakdown, if at all possible. And so I am writing down our daily achievements as a way to stop me from going mad. And when this is all over, I am going to party like it’s 1999.
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!
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.
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.
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.
What is the rationale for forest school programmes?
Forest school sessions are about using outdoor environment and adventure experiences to nurture people in a holistic way. Activities are ‘learner led’ and often involve creativity, problem solving, play, cooperation, and meaningful human interaction. The purpose of the activities is to build self esteem, confidence and happiness in a calm and inspiring setting.
The sensory nature of Forest School can be very therapeutic for children. Screen led learning is a two dimensional and adult led. In the outdoor setting, one can smell the wild garlic, hear a cacophony of bird song, feel the grass below your feet and see the trees dancing in the breeze. It is a feast for the senses. A strong connection to nature helps one to feel grounded and in tune with the world.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.“
Children are in fact just smaller versions of ourselves. The answer to the question about how we learn best, has the same answers as if you asked an adult. Within the boundaries of safety, we don’t believe they need to learn to obey, sit still, be silent or be confined to learn. Real learning does not happen from a book or a screen. So here are what some of the children said:
When do children learn best?
When they are interested. Is it fun? Is it inspiring? Does it foster my curiosity?
When they are involved. Can I touch? Can I smell? Can I ask questions?
When they have choice. I would like to burn some energy. I would like to do something calm. I would like to eat.
When they can be creative. Can I express myself? Can I tell a story of my experience? Can I hear my friends tell interesting things? Can I just experiment?
When they are valued. Can I tell you my knowledge (it may be more than the “teacher’s”) ? Can I help my friends and work in a team? Can I be told when I have done well? Please get to know me.
For some children, school in an incredibly challenging environment. It can be too loud, noisy, busy, bright. For some, if one of their senses becomes over stimulated, it can send them into meltdown or just a type of shut down.
Sensory art and science is a club in which we try, as much as possible, to follow the children’s lead. We will often have three activities on offer, all of which are optional. It is intentionally placed on a Friday, where lots of parents tell us is the day in which children have become most tired and over stimulated. Our philosophy is that education is about using all of the senses and about using nature as a source of inspiration and creativity. Kids today are also over stimulated by being digital guinea pigs. Phones, tables, computers, and games consoles are often contributing to feelings of anxiety and sadness.
By having fun, creative and sensory stimulating activities in which the children can learn together, we hope to create a feeling of calm and happiness which will linger on into the weekend. Fostering strong and meaningful connections to others is at the core of the sessions through communication and humour.