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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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Why schools are failing

In my day, everyone was not diagnosed with something. There is a label for everyone now. “

In my day, you were just stupid. We didn’t call it dyslexia.”

Me: In your day, school was a very different place because in your day, there was no OFSTED and no league tables. Kids were not tested every week. We did not get assigned reading levels. We were not told we were failing all the time. We did not have homework from the age of 4. There was no literacy hour nor numeracy hour. We learned through projects. We were left to our own devices a lot. We had unstructured play and a lot of time was spent outdoors. We were not pacified with screens and we mostly had our mum’s at home, to drop us in school and pick us up. Mum’s now have to work just to pay the obscene mortgages we have hanging round our necks. Kids are spending 10 hours a day at school.

In our day, we were not bombarded with adverts and pop ups and billboards selling us messages of a lifestyle we would never have. Adverts, by their very nature are designed to make you feel sad. If you liked yourself, you would not need the face cream, perfume, or holiday abroad. But by being told you are ugly, smelly and depressed, you spend money.

This generation are guinea pigs for how phones, tablets, laptops and 24/7 TV can change brain architecture. These are tools for which often kids have no respite. And we constantly wonder why young people are in an absolute mental health crisis.

This picture is of my son before he started school. He looks very different now. Today I went to see a prospective secondary school. They showed me the isolation room. They explained the detention system. DETENTION, a word we use for prisoners.

I went for a coffee with a lovely friend afterwards. “What changed a few years ago, Sy? Why are all these kids suddenly not coping?”

We started trying to solve a behaviour without asking what the reason was for the behaviour. In simple terms: we stopped listening.

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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.

Grow up!

I am definitely not going to be nominated for any parenting awards, any time soon. In fact, my older son said to me recently,

I was nearly sick finishing my food, but then I stopped myself.

Trip adviser for parenting 4 stars!
Adventure #40 Symmonds Yat

Yesterday I found myself uttering those immortal words “Grow up!”. I was exhausted, I have had three weeks on my own with the boys and we all need a break from each other. We were in the car and I pondered the phrase I had just yelled at them. It actually held a deep philosophical resonance with me.

When I started the Micro-adventure challenge on January the 1st, it had been because I had woken up and realised I was deeply unhappy, over weight, underchallenged and generally not enjoying life. I was exhausted all the time and felt I was failing at everything. Micro Adventures were an idea I conceived to empower myself to start loving life again. A micro challenge has 3 rules: It needs to be no more than 2 hours from home, it needs to be free, or very low cost and it should bring you new joy.

Adventure #1 was a Wild boar hunt in the Forest of Dean. We had all been stuck inside and kettled with family members for most of Christmas. Getting out with the breeze and the trees made us feel alive again. This week I took the boys on adventure #40: We scaled a summit and looked down on the world. It was breath taking. We stood in awe and watched people canoeing down below. We skipped along wooded paths, we played a fungus hunting game. We made up silly stories.

Children never hate the rain. Puddles and umbrellas are just another adventure.

52 Micro adventures has led me to start writing a blog, retrain to be a forest school teacher, have the courage to give in my notice in a comfortable job and be a bit more brave in my relationships. And all of this was possible, not because I grew up, that was in fact the source of the problems. It was possible because I started to view life like a child, with wonder and awe and noticing the beauty of small things around me. I stopped getting bogged down with thoughts of economic doom, and career progression and the creaking car, well I am trying. It is all a work in progress.

If you have any ideas for micro adventures, please write them below. Maybe we can compose the ultimate list.

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.

Less screen time, more green time, even when it’s raining cats and dogs.

Eastville park

My mood is really effected by the weather. It has been a really difficult week, but I know that I could cope better if it had not poured with rain all week.

I read a fantastic article on Wednesday about how a long study saw a very significant correlation between incidents of mental health decline and being not around nature. Inner city concrete jungles are making us depressed. Not really a revelation. The thing I did find surprising was how little changes, a few trees, a couple of raised beds in a small communal square, seemed to make a difference.

I had been avoiding going to my allotment. It can be really bitter sweet. You have a busy week and don’t see it for a while and come back to a cornucopia of goodies. Or you can return to find you are only doing a roaring trade in nettles and Blackberries and your patch resembles that scene at the end of sleeping beauty where the prince has to hack through thorns and brambles for hours. It can be humiliating when the person next to you has lawn that resembles a bowling green and fruit trees which would make the garden of Eden itself blush.

I forced myself with rain drops dripping from my nose and not another living soul around. I was expecting everything in the green house to be dead, for the grass to be up to my waist. When I arrived, I realised I had been catastrophising.

Pumpkins and pea shoots greeted me. There were lettuces and broad beans and chard and random potatoes I had not even planted. Nature is wonderful. And I felt so thankful. I went into my potting shed and drank in its smell. I love it. I felt much happier. It is my private little space. No one can tell me I am too messy, or lazy or useless. I can’t miss deadlines or get numbers wrong in a spread sheet. It is my space and I can do as I please. I need to reclaim it.

When the weather is terrible, we tend to stay in and cocoon ourselves. But rain is not toxic. We can stand and feel it on our faces. Sometimes the joy is in coming home after, putting on the log fire and having hot chocolate with a loved one.