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Forest school in a post Covid world – what does it mean?

Forest school leader – Syreeta

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.

Brothers on the new swing

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.

Exploring the wonders of nature with a microscope

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.

Tortworth Forest CIC Wotton Under edge
Sessions for SENsory forest school are Fridays 1pm till 3pm.

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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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Resilience by Nature

This is a tiny ballet shoe which I bought a few years ago. I have a lot of nostalgia for red ballet shoes because it reminds me of a childhood dream. People often comment about the shoe when they see it in my house, but no one has yet asked me why.

I always loved dancing and from the age of 3, my mother took me to classes. At age 8 I was doing really well. I had two distinctions and if I got a third, it meant a scholarship to London to study at the Royal academy. My dance teacher was fantastic and was so encouraging of me. Then, she moved away. My mother found another teacher, but this one told me, point blank, in the first few lessons that I would never be a professional dancer because my little toes curled outwards.

Looking back now, it was a ridiculous statement, but as a small girl, it was easy to totally shatter my dreams with one comment. The teacher was angry at herself, I would imagine, at not having had the success she dreamed of. My first teacher saw the potential in all and saw her success as measured by our achievements. The second saw us as competition. I bought this little shoe to remind myself to never let anyone tell me that I cannot do something. I had a whole wealth of evidence telling me that she was wrong, but I let her poison my confidence in a instant.

Tortworth arboretum

Today I have been applying for what I felt could be my (2nd) dream job. Then I had a “Ballet shoe” moment. As an adult, I have been trying to devise ways to overcome the shoe. My current mechanism is to go off into nature. It is both humbling and inspiring to stand in amongst giant Oaks which have been on the planet for 200 years. I walked though a rainbow of leaves. I doubt very much whether the maple has a crisis of confidence about dropping it’s leaves for the winter. I somewhat struggle to imagine, a mushroom having an anxiety attack about whether it is time to pop out and spread it’s spores. The squirrels don’t produce an excel spread sheet about how many chestnuts they have collected.

In nature, things just “be”. Seasons change, winds blow, rain falls. Does the nut hatch mourn summer? Maybe. Is it stressful trying to feed and shelter their families, probably. But there must be an acceptance about the inevitability of it all. And I think that we must all try to seek the evidence of our talents and abilities and achievements, without the shadow of doubt eeking into and spoiling it all.

This week I will be inspired by nature to just “Be”.

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Learning to take risks and living with disappointment

This  morning, I should be taking 7 ladies on a walk round a mountain range. I had bought bacon, gin, bread and worked hard on getting guides and maps laminated. Tomorrow I have a meeting with a guy to see if I can start of project with which I would have a lot of autonomy.

It is weird because when I was a teacher, I had spent years telling kids to “Be more resilient”, and to “take more risks.” I had lots of training on developing a “Growth mind set” and it is only now I realise that I have never done any of those things. Starting a small business means doing all this stuff on a daily basis. You don’t need a degree in business to succeed, just a big pair of balls. I am on a humongous learning curve.

The met office have issued a yellow weather warning with a big pink blog right over the Brecon beacons. It is one thing to be a pansy about British weather. It is another to risk hypothermia and getting lost in the name of resilience.  But it leaves me with a growing doubt in my mind about trying to carve a new profession which could be so seasonal.

Trying to stay positives about the victories this week, I loved my Wednesday and Thursday work. I honestly wake up excited and look forward to going to work. I devised this weeks creative activity. I was inspired by a conversation I had with my brother earlier on in the week and used this to create a “Bristol rocks” idea. I did not know if grown women would go for this, but it was lovely to see them show enthusiasm, and when I went back and told my brother about it, he also wanted to make one.

The idea is that you decorate a pebble or stone. You can write a message on the back if you want to and the idea is that you hide it somewhere in the city for someone else to find. They can take a photo, upload it onto the Facebook “Bristol Rocks” page, and then they re-hide it in a new location for someone else to find. A simple idea, but with a lovely message.

My Thursday forest school was all about running about in the woods with 6 and 7 year olds all with a dragon theme. I got to draw dragons on trees, turn knots into dragon eyes, play catch the tail and drink fiery dragon brew (ginger tea).

Taking risks and doing new things takes tenacity, grit and resilience. All of the things I have managed to avoid doing to 16 years, but if I can do it, everyone can.  

The subtle art of being skint

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How to live life on the edge of your pants when you don’t have shed loads of money to throw at fancy trips.

Becoming a parent is absolutely humbling. That, and just about the most challenging thing any of us would ever have to contend with. Just imagine someone gave you a precious sports car and told you to drive it through the Namibian dessert at night. Not only that, you don’t get a map, you have never had a single driving lesson and you actually have gone temporarily mad due to 3 years of sleep deprivation and worry about said trip. Your body will feel like it has been battered with a hammer during said torture and you have forgotten what a hot meal is. It’s a winning combination for success. If we approached the work place with such a lack of preparation, it would be insane, but instead you have to study for years, get some experience, have a mentor check on you and a bi-annual review.

My children are constantly re-educating me on how to be a human. Hedonism is something which is slowly drilled out of us as we get older. My quest this year to complete 52 micro adventures has led me into all kinds of new and terrifying experiences. We also stop taking risks and I think as we do so, we progressively stop believing in ourselves. The biggest asset my new year’s resolution has given me is a massive confidence and happiness boost.

I am currently at adventure #41: Go on a cray fish hunt.

Here are some of our best family Micro adventures (with minimal cost)

#1 Go fossil hunting. My kids genuinely thought they had found a fossilised dinosaur poo. They were thrilled.

#2 Make art on a beach with found items. It never ceases to amaze me how children can only concentrate for 10 minutes in a classroom but hours on a beach.

#3 Breakfast picnic. Our favourite is to go to a bakery early (one of our kids wakes at 4am) and sit in the park on a sunny morning in complete solitude apart from us four, the birds and the flowers swaying in the breeze.

#4 Climb a mountain (or big hill). You may have to invent a creative game to entice them up, but the views are humbling to all. Seeing places you recognise gives you a humbling reminder of perspective in life.

#5 Go on a fungus hunt in a forest. My kids get points for each different type and bonus points for especially ugly, colourful or massive ones. It is amazing how attentive they are. They nearly always triple my score.

#6 Tell a shared story around a fire. Anyone can make a fire and we could all make up a tale, but google has replaced creativity and experimentation. Sometimes I long to not know the answer to a question, to ponder and consider. Some of the times my kids have absolutely laughed the hardest is about one of my ridiculous stories.

#7 Make dinner together. We have arrived at a really strange state of cultural climate where it can feel like our offspring are small princes with which we constantly serve. Kids these days don’t seem to do chores, partly because the likes of dishwashers, washing machines etc have made life easier, but I am constantly astounded at how the art of cooking, a basic human need, is one which we leave too late to teach. Kids bloody love cooking!

#8 Collect forest treasures. The world is full of wonder and awe when you are 5. I have rediscovered my inner child by finding pleasure in examining acorns, looking for four leafed clovers and singing Victorian songs long forgotten about nature.

#9 Draw an observational sketch of a found object. There is a great deal to be gained from slowing life down and disconnecting from screens. Children’s vocabulary is suffering in this digital age. The sheer act of using language to do art together is deeply wonderful. They will disclose all kinds of weird and wonderful thoughts about the universe.

#10 Watch clouds. Do you remember that? Being bored as a child and finding the mundane fabulous. Nebulous thoughts are so relaxing. Sharing this moment with your children is an act of bonding.

So let’s try to stop distracting our kids so we can “Get on with stuff” and realise that perhaps it is the stuff, which is distracting us from our kids. Because they are the most precious and important thing we have in our lives. Everything else is just glorified dust.

Fire up your soul

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The lost art of fire building

One of the very things that makes us uniquely human, is our ability to make fire, and yet we so rarely use it these days.

I don’t know anyone who says “I hate fire”. There is something primeval and spiritual about sitting around one, whether it is in a home, while out camping or one a beach. It brings people together and opens up conversation. Or it allows people to sit together silently watching the flames flicker. Not that long ago in history, it was the only way to cook, heat water and warm your home. Everyone was taught from a young age how to light one. Now it is a lost art which you can pay a lot of money to learn on a bush craft course.

Fire pit bread

I recently took my two boys to a “Story telling in the woods” holiday session. At the end of the walk and story telling, a fire was lit and the children all made stick bread. It probably cost pennies, but they went crazy for it. Even if it was too doughy or singed and crusty, it tasted of success. Everything tastes better from the fire. There was no shoving or arguing. They helped each other. There was something beautiful about it.

On holiday recently, I spoke about how we made a fire on the beach and cooked scallops, venison sausages and sardine fillets. I was worried beforehand that I did not how to do it. Which way do you put the sausage on a stick? How do you know when the fish is cooked? Am I going to poison everyone with the shellfish? Turned out, we all got involved and did what people have done for thousands of years, we put it on, if it wasn’t working, we changed the plan. We used intelligence and problem solving, we had to be resourceful with what was around. Are we gong to set fire to our sticks, who knows? I know, lets soak them in sea water first! The boys loved this improvised group learning. The reward….an absolute feast, washed down with a mini bottle of prosecco.

We wandered home with salty lips and smoky hair and slept like babies, dreaming of adventure.

At my forest school training last week, we cooked every day on the fire. Everyone got involved and helped in some way. The food was delicious and each person contribute a different food item. Traditionally, I am sure this was how we were meant to cook and eat. The conversations around the fire varied hugely each day, but they were all punctuated with laughter and camaraderie.

I now wonder if this missing piece is contributing to rising mental health problems? You just don’t get a sense of achievement from the ping of a microwave. You don’t squeal with delight when the gas hob lights. No one feels they have earnt the central heating warmth, like you do when you have walked through a forest gathering kindling. These small achievements lead to a shared group/ family experience which leaves us all with a warm glow on the inside too.

Nature connection

Why are our kids being made to stay indoors, stay still and shut up?

Nature reserve….please be quiet.

Sometimes I genuinely wonder if I am cracking up? I like working with children. They are hilarious. They have really important stuff to say, and they don’t hold back. This week big son said “I don’t want to go to school.” Hmmmm. ‘Why?” I enquired. “They make us stay indoors ALL DAY! And we learn the same stuff over and over.” Well…I pondered. Not much surprised. “If you stay home I will work you like a dog and make you think till you cry.” He thought about this……. “it’s a better option.”

The thing that everyone in education has forgotten is that people (kids) want to learn. Giving them a carrots does not change it, giving them the stick makes very little impact. My Dad (love him) when I went into teaching said “I don’t know how you do it without the cane!” P.s. my Dad never wacked any of us. He is a true born pacifist and a beautiful grandfather because he has endless patience. So why does he think this is the answer? It is totally weird.

This week I went to Ashton court. The “Nova” trail is four miles long and surprisingly technical. Not like the above photo, nob head-was too busy trying not to die, that I could not take a photo. Don’t judge.

It is a four mile section of trail with everything. But after I was exhausted. The van needed work. I needed to stare into an abyss. The kids were arguing about sweet F A.

Sensory stimulation for the soul

Pembrokeshire coastal path with crashing waves

Last weeks of Easter break have been incredible. I managed to squeeze 4 adventures in, and I have been able to share them with my favourite people.

Adventure #22 : pack a picnic and your toothbrushes and see where you end up.

We stayed in an unusual b&b and ate at a local pub with a kids play area and open grass. I sat inside and enjoyed the peace while the other three played fotty. We feasted on steak and lasagne and things we would never eat at home.

The beach was deserted as we went after breakfast and we enjoyed chasing the squealing gulls. At the end of the beach we found Victorian gardens abloom with carefully selected fauna to create a reason to be present on the cusp of spring.

Bridge building

The point at which we stop playing is the point at which we have lost joy in our lives.”

Syreeta

The next day of weather was terrible. I had found a new forest park to explore, but everyone else was reticent to say the least. Heldon forest park is cultivated for people , to be sure, but it has the charm and usefulness of all forestry commission sites. It is 3,500 acres of woodland just 15 minutes from Exeter. There is a really good cafe with a covered outdoor eating area and a log burner inside if the weather turns funky. We sat and drank hot chocolate while the windows turned blurry with rain. Eventually it did ease off and we stomped up the hill through majestic trees. The boys were singing and I was breathing deeply the smells the fallen rain had thrown up from the forest floor.

One of the activities we did at a Forest School training the week before was called sitting tree. You choose a spot and sit for 10 minutes. As she said it, I could feel panic rising in me. I have always suspected that I have ADHD. This would feel like 3 hours. I would immediately ‘out’ myself as a weirdo with no concentration. But an interesting thing happened. I took my shoes off and felt the grass below me. I felt the breeze on my face. I listened to multiple bird songs. I touched the different ferns around me. When the tutor finally called us back I was surprised. “How long do you think you were there for?” I was convinced it had been less than 10 minutes. “It was actually 20.”

Smells of wild garlic in spring

“How was it that I don’t have ADHD in the forest, but struggle to be in a room for 2 minutes? And how is it that my son has autism in school, but is suddenly cured at the beach?”

The world we now occupy is ever more 2 dimensional and this is getting exasperated by screen culture. On a screen you are seeing, and maybe hearing something but that is it. What we probably call naughty behaviour in children and depressed behaviour in adults could be seen as types of sensory seeking. A craving, if you like, for those parts of the brain we are not exercising. People are under the impression that over stimulation stops kids concentrating, but what if it is the other way round? Nature is a beautiful multilayered, multi dimensional feast for the mind. Interesting smells, sounds and textures are bombarding us from all directions. And are also constantly changing. We did not evolve inside four walls. We have spent hundreds of thousands of years living in and with our natural surroundings.

Perhaps the reason we all have a connection to nature because we actually feel at home and the man made buildings are actually the alien environment. Important neural connections are made by tiny babies who are touched and spoken to. Baby sensory classes are very popular because of research telling us that this is important for brain development. What if, in fact, this does not change with age?

My quest for 52 micro adventures has created in me the headspace to reconsider all of the reasons I thought I felt stressed and tired and stuck in a rut. I have been emancipated by my adventures. And dear reader, this is the most impressive part! You don’t need a shit load of money, nor time, nor permission from anyone. You could go and find a micro adventure right now.

Musings of wanderlust

Today I had my 25th adventure. It has been an incredible week. I have made 16 new friends and kindered spirits. I have acquired more knowledge in that time than in 16 years of “training days” at work. I have arrived home each night mentally tired but emotionally ignighted and fallen into a deep and restful slumber. I have had dreams! What happened to those night time narratives which were common place when you were a child and become a rare occurrence as an adult?

“The best adventures are spontaneous and unplanned.”

But let me take you back to New year and what happened between then and now….

Adventure #2 : I dug out my trail running shoes and went for a chubby jog through Blaise castle estate. I had stupidly taken the boys bikes which meant that one sped off and high speed, and I had to stop every 5 minutes and wait for the other while he had 50 melt downs. I really enjoyed passing the cathedral of trees and skipping over roots and rocks down by the river. It felt good to open up my lungs and reassure myself those days weren’t over.

Adventure #3 : An off road bike ride between one Severn bridge and the other with the 6 year old. We took a picnic and a hammer to go fossil hunting at the other end. My lack of proper planning meant the 8 mile ride was too much for him and we nearly ended up in complete darkness with no source of light for miles. Still, we will laugh in years to come after he has had therapy, I am sure.

Adventure #4 : Take another family and break into an illegal mountain bike pump track. In the Forest of Dean is a 9 mile “family trail.” Part way round we found an old quarry with some incredible downhill sections. The children grew in confidence quickly. We end with a fat burger at the bike centre where the floors are muddy and food simple but they have a log burner and the portions are generous.

Adventure #5 : Woodland and river adventure around Hanham. I had been feeling like a caged animal. I struggle with winter anyways and I just want to be outdoors sometimes even if the weather is not great. I can cope with anything except high wind. My son sings and tells me stories and tells me he loves me for no reason. This would never happen at home.

Adventure #6: Leigh woods trail and hot van soup. I try to think of ways to make outdoor adventures more appealing in cold weather. The kids would rather stay in and watch cartoons. We go to local little supermarket and choose nice soups and fresh bread from bakery section. I bought a single micro stove a year ago and have still not used it. It represents lots of well intentioned ideas that never quite take flight.

I have always totally committed to my New Years resolutions. I have no idea why. I am a totally lazy bastard who is a queen of finding excuses for justifying anything. Bound up with this is the guilt that follows when you have spent money on something, or promised a friend you would totally do a triathlon with them! Part of the success of this journey has been completely summed up by something my wonderful forest school teacher defined this week. She asked us this question…

“What is the definition of play?”

Because the course was made up of 50% teachers, a number of answers were immediately forthcoming, all of them incorrect. The answer, dear reader, is that it is completing an act that is entirely functionless. Hmmmmmmm…..