I have worked as a qualified teacher for 16 years and in the last 2 years have branched off into the world of independent education. This idea began when I decided to take my 7 year old out to “Flexi school” two days a week. Within 3 months he had gone from a reading level 6 to 23, his confidence had grown and he now enjoyed learning. For years I had been told by school that he was not very capable and that he was getting further and further behind his peers. He has started to spend 80% of the school day out of the classroom and had refused to write anything down.
Last November he was diagnosed with ASC (Autistic spectrum condition) which is a big umbrella term, but for him, his sensory processing needs and his social communication were a huge barrier to him learning in school. In an attempt to give him a new circle of friends (he was labelled the naughty boy at school) and to have gentle social interaction, I hired the local scout hut and began to run a Sensory art and science class, designed for kids on the Autistic spectrum, but open to all. Through this venture, I began to work with 10 families, with children with a range of learning needs. We had ASC, PDA, Dyslexia, Tourette’s, ADHD and high anxiety. This group took me on an amazing journey and the most incredible training on SEND I could ever go through. By having most of their parents also there, I was able to learn so much and get instant feedback on the learning, something I only did for 10 minutes, once a year when teaching at a school.
For a long time I had realised that schools were not getting it right and the rising crisis in mental health of young people pushed me to retrain as a forest school leader. I realised that I had found my calling and that I wanted to be free to work with young people and their families to allow them to develop in a truly wholistic and free way without the constraints of league tables, national curriculum and tests.
I have been providing private, personalised tuition since January 2019 for children with SEND which is goal led by parents. But what kinds of things do we do? We have built a radio from scratch. We have written a book. We have worked on an enterprise project to make Kimchi. We have researched the food and culture of Norway. We baked Peppernuts, a delicious Nordic dish. We went on a field trip to a waterfall and learned about Native trees. We have worked on using ICT to develop packaging design and discussed the ethics of marketing. We have investigated the geography of Canada. We designed and build bridges using Minecraft as a design tool. Today we recorded a podcast. After half term we plan a trip to the local aquarium to write the underwater scene in the book he is writing.
Each day is new and shiny and provides new learning opportunities. The progress is exponential, when learning is reframed in this way. Project based, experiential and learner led.
Please call me to talk about your child’s needs and the type of tuition you are looking for. I am always happy to chat.
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.
I have not blogged for a long, long time. The daily fire fighting of surviving 2020 with my mind intact has been enough to cope with. But since we approach the end of the year, I want to reflect on what has happened and look forward to the future.
This time last year I was doing a lot of really fantastic voluntary work with some incredible outdoor education veterans. I was learning and loving my new work every day. I was married. I had financial security and life plodded on. In the last 12 months, all those things have gone up in smoke.
Being locked in a house with someone for 15 weeks obviously makes or breaks you. Everyone around here is either having a lockdown baby, a lockdown puppy or a lockdown divorce. (I would recommend the dog option, it is by far the cheapest). My two boys and I have had to evolve into a new state of being. I realised that our communication skills, especially with our emotions, were critically under par and we needed to upskill rapidly. We had been locking away our hearts and our pain, but with it we had locked out the joy and happiness too. A sense of duty kept us all just edging along our existence with a blindfold on.
I had picked one hell of a year to go freelance!!! On the 23rd of march all my work went up in smoke (only one of which was paid of the 4) and I could not access any government aid as I have been self employed for less than 12 months. Thank God we had really good weather for most of those 15 weeks so we were all able to get out and go for walks and bike rides. So many friends have spoken to me about how they really, truly loved reconnecting with nature. They bonded with their families while going for long walks. They found new interesting pockets of nature right by them in the city. But for me, I had been born again, the year I started “52 new adventures in 2019”. That was the start of this whole journey, the blog, this website, my new career.
Coming out the other side of 2020, I am filled with hope, even still with so much uncertainty. My little business has really grown in success and I am now having to turn people away. My autistic Forest school class has had a massive upgrade from the local scout hut (with one tree and plastic grass) to the spectacular 20 acre Tortworth Arboretum. I have accidently carved a niche for myself in being able to deliver 1:1 tuition to ASC children. I have seen them slowly uncurl and blossom and have the confidence to be their true selves. And the work I do with adults recovering from addiction honestly makes my heart sing. These women are some of the most resilient, strong, charismatic and interesting ladies I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with. If these guys can stay optimistic, what right do I have to feel melancholy? I find me giving myself a little metaphorical slap after each session with them.
But this much I have learnt: When your life suddenly implodes, you really see what people are made of. Bristol, I salute you! What an amazing community of love, support, connection, cake, what’s app calls to check in, tea and tears. I look forward to 2021 knowing that the sisterhood is here is hold each other up. The thing that has made this year so hard is that we have had 9 months without the very thing that makes us human: Connection. Real, physical and emotional connection.
Happy Christmas people! And a VERY happy new year.
I tentatively began running small group sessions over the summer having no idea how it would go. Would anyone show up? Would kids be afraid? Would parent’s be shouting “2 meters!!” every 20 seconds. Would it be like normal? Would anything ever be normal again?
I survived the hard winter months doing my first year of freelance Forest leader work, only to be robbed of the good seasons. And my purest hell, not being able to go out. For the families who had been coming to me since October, I am sure they felt it the hardest. After the struggles of overcoming the heightened anxiety of doing something new, in a new location, with a bunch of people they didn’t know, to have it ripped away again, was incredibly difficult. Most of the children I work with do not attend school. They mostly have alternative provision and in this situation, being able to socialise with other children is challenging. Then the pandemic hit, and we were all now isolated.
SENsory forest school had it’s first official session last week. But it was not as we knew it. The scout hut where we used to run before March 23rd, was still not open, so it has been moved to a 20 acre arboretum 20 minute north of Bristol. There are native and exotic trees, a stream, a round house, therapy goats, a lake, a bamboo forest, an extensive climbing area and a number of swings. There are three fire pits, two in open air and one under cover. We have resident Muntjacs and hares and bunnies and a plethora of birds to investigate. In short, we have had a massive upgrade.
But the core ethos and rational behind the group is the same: Be yourself, be kind, get involved, be curious, enjoy nature. The sessions are designed for children on the Autistic spectrum, but open to all. Because, mostly when you design for inclusion, it benefits all. Our children are not experiencing the world in the same way we did. I was chucked outside every day after school. I was encouraged to go out and explore, preferably as far away from my parents as possible and until tea was ready. Children today are having a solitary, two dimensional experience of the universe through a screen. And although I am not saying digital culture is entirely bad, I think it is bad for our soul. And the thing with lockdown was, apart for 1 hour a day, what were we forced to do? Put our kids in front of screens so we could work from home.
Being able to run forest school sessions again has unlocked the pure joy in laughing with friends, it’s not the same through zoom. We have relished running our hands along the horsetails, hugging the goats, climbing the trees and discovering a bird’s nest. We enjoyed sitting around the flames of a fire and talking about our dreams, even if it is 2m apart. We have all loved the river walking, eating blackberries from the bushes and feeling the sunshine on our faces. We are able to be human again.
None of us knows what the next few months may hold, but for now we are enjoying the present. It is called so, because it is a gift.
I am often asked why I chose to leave Secondary schools to work in AP (Alternative provision). “It is broken” is my short answer. I have worked in a variety of schools for 16 years. I love working with young people. I loved teaching DT which is a really creative and flexible subject, and because it is non-compulsory, there is not much pressure for results. I only realised in the last six months that I was never really teaching, I was coaching, which is an entirely different kettle of fish, if you understand it. And as I now know that I have a son who is not neuro-typical, I now acutely understand that actually, there is a whole bunch of kids who are entirely failed by “the system”.
Today I ran a “forestry fun” session for BAP (Bristol Autism Project). This is a fantastic organisation which is set up to run free events for Autsitic children and their siblings. I have been fortunate to have been working with BAP since January. I never really know who will turn up because Autistic kids have high anxiety for things which are new and given 15 weeks of lockdown, just going outside can be too traumatic. I am told 10 kids should turn up between age 4 and 18. What actually may come is 6 kids of age 6 to 10. I have to improvise and be responsive to their needs. And “Autism” is a massive umbrella term. It is almost meaningless, it varies so much. Two teens spoke to me continuously for 20 minutes to catch me up on the last 6 moths of their lives, talking over each other. It was a test of my multi- tasking skills. One child who I had not met, I asked his name and he did not possess the language to tell me. I understood he loved the fire, although he could not tell me. When I put it out, he stood in the smoke, trying to taste it.
One of my favourite revelations, in training to become a forest school leader, is that for the first time, being brown and small was a GOOD thing. I can lie hiding for HOURS and no one finds me. In my processional life, being small and brown was a significant disadvantage.
Today a took a beautiful 4 year old on a flour trail to find 10 Hydrangea flowers. She was so content to wander through the woods of Ashton court and find the treasure. Back at base camp, she and I made a crown for her from a Laurel twig. It was one of the most beautiful moments of 2020, which may sound super melodramatic, but given how hard I have found it, it truly stood out.
So this is the thing. If a child needs to spin. Cool. If a child just wants to wander off and lie down and stare through the leaves, amazing. If you need to just stare at the flames of a fire for a while, no one batts an eye lid. But the gentle suggestion of a good forest school leader, to collect fore wood, kinding, or to search for a forest treasure, that is a skill they definitely don’t teach in teacher training. There is no discussion of considering the mood, feelings or emotional state of the children in your class.
I have some families who have been coming to me since October, and talk of the definite transformation of their child. Given time and space and the gentle guidance of a trusted adult to focus on a task, for a purpose, do you know what?? They learn that they are not useless, or stupid, or without value to society. They learn that they are not demonised, that they are not an encumbrance to their family. They are told that they view the world through a different lens, and their is no right or wrong lens. And each lens is unique, and valued and highly important in some way. If the lens is understood, it could be the very best and amazing contribution to the world.
There are definite challenges to having an Autistic mind. I know that there are some things my son will never do. But he will equally do many things that I have no ability to do. Our job is to allow them to shine in their own way, not an OFSTED way.
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.
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!
Morning lovely people. I have been having a think about a sensible and rational policy regarding the Corona virus and reading up on scientist and government advice (Not media hype) have decided the following: We will suspend cooking/ eating activities until pandemic status has been dropped due to working on multiple sites with no running water. Ensuring we have enough water with us for people to wash their hands for 20 seconds is a LOT of water to carry. But we will still carry on with Forest school activities.
Having considered a detailed risk assessment for possible transmission of the virus, we have assessed that the food preparation, cooking and eating present the most significant chance of cross contamination. Games, tree climbing, den building, craft work etc, present a very low chance of transmission either by contact or close working proximity and therefore at this time are permitted with the usual health and safety boundaries as set out by the forest school leader.
Thoughts? Ideas? Questions? Please give me a bell: 07747776958
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.