Risky Business

SPIRAL“Hello Mr Woodlouse, would you like to come into our bug cafe?”  I asked, perhaps a little unconvincingly to a group of infants who had been using leaves, twigs and dried grass to make mini structures for little creatures.

“He hasn’t got a mouth.  He can’t talk,” one 4-year-old boy quite rightly informed me.  With that, he trotted off on his tiny little legs over to the tree and began shimmying his way up it no problem.

“Am I allowed any higher than this?” he said, fluttering his big, blue eyes, already way above the height of my head, leaning over a branch.

“No, you just stay there,” I replied, mustering some pretence of calm.  By this time I was hovering under the tree, pale-white palms ready to catch if anything happened.  He was deeply disappointed.  This boy did not  have time bug hotels.  This boy had adventures to live out.  Sticks to wave around, ropes to swing from.  Forest School Leaders to worry.

And who was I to stop him?

The biggest challenge that I am facing in my self-led Forest School training at the moment is how to manage my own anxiety so as not to taint the learning of the young people whose education I am supposed to be facilitating.  Obviously, a key part of our role as Forest School Leaders is keeping everybody safe and I cannot stress enough the importance of this.  However, it’s a delicate balance between maintaining the safety of the group and allowing them space to take risks which may expose them to failure or disappointment.

Failure, as I have learnt as a teacher and student, is an essential component to learning.  We have to “not get it right” sometimes in order to learn how to get it right.  We can’t be expected just to get it right from the offing, otherwise we wouldn’t be truly learning.  This is something I personally have struggled with all of my life and it has prevented me from taking many risks which may have led to important learning experiences.

Of course there’s a difference between failure that results in learning and falling out of a tree and splitting your head open.  But this is where the difficulty lies.  Our task as Forest School Leaders is to be discerning in such a way that we can distinguish between when a situation is truly dangerous or whether it is an acceptable risk which could lead to some good learning.  Climbing the tree a little higher is not likely to lead to falling out of it (most children are perfectly capable of managing their own risk, especially if we endow them with this responsibility) and is more likely to result in a sense of achievement and increased physical dexterity- to name but a few of the benefits- but it’s hard to put your own feelings of fear for the child aside and let them be.

MY DENTo become discerning in this way we must truly observe the children with all of our senses and have faith in our instincts.  It’s a tough call, but in terms of creating a more resilient, self-confident and curious generation; it’s worth it.

This week I pursued my own risks and pushed the boundaries of my own learning by undertaking my Forest School Level 3 practical assessment.  Despite all of my frustrations and silly mistakes over the past seven months, at last I have made it and I cannot tell you how good it feels.

Now on to finish the portfolio……


On Being Enough

wld wood pic 4For those of you who think I’ve turned into Bear Grylls since I started my Forest School qualification; I haven’t.

One thing I have learnt about myself is that whilst I’m brimming with imagination, practicality is not my strong point and I’m more at home with stick man than a bow saw.  Here are some of the “mishaps” that have led me to this conclusion:

-Almost burning a homemade pizza on a campfire after putting it on while there was still flames, instead of waiting for the fire to die down.

-Getting myself lost whilst establishing the “boundaries” of the woods.

-Turning teaching my sister a clove hitch knot into a semi-erotic “Sammy the Snake and his cosy little hole” tutorial.

-Bringing back green holly when asked to bring back holly twigs for fire kindling.

-Making building a toilet tarp shelter into a 45-minute project of which was the result was something of a spider’s web.

-Waving a flipchart board around to get my pitiful fire pit up and running (everybody knows the woodland is full of flipcharts)

-Nearly stabbing myself in the eye when going to collect kindling.

-Using the water that was for putting the fire out to clean the toilet (because hygiene trumps forest fires….)

The list goes on.

At times, it’s been hard not to feel disheartened, with an overwhelming sense of; am I really cut out for this?  Maybe I should stick to board pens and laminated cards, at least I’d be in my comfort zone.

But there’s fight in me yet and even though I’m certainly not a bushcraft expert, doing this is so aligned with where I want to be and what I want to be doing.

So I’m sticking with this mantra; I am enough, I am enough, I am enough before I run myself ragged with anxiety.


Making hapa zome art at Little Diggers gardening sessions in Moss Side Community Allotment, inspired by a Forest School session
Making hapa zome art at Little Diggers gardening sessions in Moss Side Community Allotment, inspired by a Forest School session

Lets face it: playwork sounds like an oxymoron.  There’s work and then there’s play.  You get paid for one, you pay for the other.  One you do because you have to, the other you do because you want to.  All nice and neat in two separate categories, just as us human beings like it.

Yet the concept of playwork is one of the founding principles of Forest School and it’s something I’ve been learning about over these past few weeks since I started doing weekly Forest School sessions at Elmscot nursery.  Picture this: 4 adults, 15 3-years-olds let loose in the woodland for an hour and a half with hammers, billhooks and hand drills.  Obviously, I’m partially kidding about the tools as the work we do with tools is very controlled, but I’m not kidding about the letting loose.  The first time I did forest school I was led down a leafy path by three 3-year-olds who were on a mission to show me the “mouse hole” (a secret den where some locals had put a couch and a table) and then we used mud to paint on the trees (and a little bit on ourselves).  Yep.  That’s my job.

The billhook: a classic children's play accompaniment ...
The billhook: a classic children’s play accompaniment …

But this isn’t just chaos for chaos’s sake because we want to re-live our childhoods in a wild setting.

The  theory behind playwork is that play is not only healthy but is in fact an important element of human development and is absolutely fundamental in childhood as a means of acquiring vital skills which can involve anything from essential survival skills to basic social and cognitive skills.  According to playwork principles:

We are born with the potential to be adaptable. Through play we develop and refine that ability. We now know that play activity stimulates the brain in such a way that brain cells retain their ‘plasticity’. If we don’t play, our brain cells rigidify, and our flexibility of thought is reduced.

So what do they mean by play?   From the horse’s mouth: Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated.  Or, a little more bluntly, doing stuff because we want to.  For a child, that might mean making a mud sculpture, poking a worm or sitting and staring at a tree.  Playwork recognizes all of these as valuable ways to spend our time, if we are motivated by our own desires.  By making mud sculptures, children develop cognitive skills and express their creativity; by poking worms they learn about the natural world and by staring at a tree we learn about the tree and the importance of relaxation.  All pretty important stuff and I’m not even really scratching the surface.

When I heard about playwork I couldn’t help but think:  What about me?!  Is play good for me too?  All I know is this: over the past couple of years I have been working to align my work with my passion.  I’ve read the self-help books, I’ve been on the courses, I’ve had the life coach and what they consistently said was to find what it is that you love, don’t do it for big reasons, choose the work that you get lost in.  The work in which you’re not counting the minutes, where time passes by without you even noticing.  The work which makes you forget that you’re even hungry.

That mantra has taken me to many places and one of them has definitely been forest school.  I get to play hide and seek in the woods.  I get to go look at forests to see if they are suitable sites for forest school work.  I get to tell stories- make houses for little people.  This has got to be somewhere approaching play.

And that’s how I know that finally I’m on the right track……

Foraging for Wisdom

The stick lady strikes!  Teaching children how to make wig whams at the little diggers allotment club
The stick lady strikes! Teaching children how to make wig whams at the little diggers allotment club

Since embarking on this forest school journey, I have become “the stick lady”.  I have even been known to prize a long, sturdy stick from the jaws of a bull terrier that dared to challenge me .  And guess what?  I’m not the least bit ashamed of it.

Becoming a Forest School leader gives you a whole new lens through which to view the world.  See that flower poking through the cracks in the pavement?  Edible.  See that green leaf that’s fallen from the tree?  That would be great for hapazome art.  And that mangled stick that’s fallen off the tree?  That could be a paintbrush, a magic wand, a dragon…..  I feel like I’ve found a portal to another dimension of magic and wonder.

Last Saturday I went on a free foraging course in Queen’s Park in North Manchester.  We were shown the edible marvels from every layer of the woodland from those that littered the forest floor to those that darkened the canopy above us.  So many delicious plants to chomp on and not one raised bed or watering can in sight!

Much as I enjoyed listening to the “man-off” of the two foraging experts (one a participant who was also an expert, one the guide) as they dueled over who was the most thrifty (“oh yes I make all my pesto from ground elder”) and heard them debate over “the pullers” and “the cutters” (methods of harvesting) as if it were as divisive as marmite – what was more valuable to me was the door that they opened.

mmmmmm delicious garlic mustard
mmmmmm delicious garlic mustard

Foragers look at the world differently because ultimately their task is to observe and really look and understand, not cultivate.    They are not seeking to control their world, rather they seek to know it and allow it the space it requires to manifest it’s abundance.  Of course they observe boundaries; and might harvest their crops in a particular way so that they thrive but they recognize that they themselves are not the source of abundance, but rather nature is.  In this way, they are benevolent opportunists, harvesting and delighting in what nature puts in their path, trusting that it will meet their needs in one way or another and hence they are  tirelessly optimistic.

In the uncertain world in which we live, a preventative and cautionary approach may seem like the most rational option.  Protecting ourselves from all potential dangers or hurt (as if we ever could).  Making sure there’s money in the bank, arming ourselves with qualifications and accumulating acquaintances like allies in a war rather than pursuing deep friendships where we really allow ourselves to know the other and be known.  Whilst all of this has kept me “safe” for most of my life, I wonder if in spending so much of my time preparing for the worst, my powers of discernment have been sacrificed.  By that I mean my capacity to think on my feet, to react with wisdom to the circumstances that life puts in front of me rather than pour so much energy into trying to control the way my life will unfold.  And that involves trust; the trust that nature will provide but also the trust in myself that I am capable of reacting to change or shock without breaking.  In other words what I have spent so long in search of: resilience.

ground elder (great for making pesto apparently)
ground elder (great for making pesto apparently)

And so another learning journey has begun both for myself and (hopefully) for the learners I will be leading.  This is another kind of learning.  Without lesson outcomes and targets.  This is authentic Forest School learning, responding both to ourselves, each other and our environments, loosening the control on the educational process and allowing the learning to gush through.

I want my new approach to both learning and teaching to be that of a forager rather than a farmer.  I am not cultivating learners, guiding them through every step of the way but observing their unique qualities and giving them room to expand wherever possible.  In the same way, I want to be fully present with my own learning and trust I will be perceptive enough to detect the rich lessons I am given every day.

Forest School Fool

forest school team
My Level 3 Forest School team 🙂

Sensible.  Academically gifted.  Mature.

All words which may have been used to describe me at some point in my life.

So how, at 27 years old, have I found myself repressing excited giggles, crouched behind a tree, waiting for my course mate to finish counting to 10 and try and find me?  Why am I kneeling in the mud wielding a crudely constructed mallet (think The Flintstones) trying to split wood?  And what the hell am I doing almost in tears trying unsuccessfully to tie a clove-hitch knot using the story of Sammy the Snake to guide me?  Those were the questions I asked myself last week as I began my Level 3 Forest School course.

Suitably awkward icebreakers
Suitably awkward icebreakers

It began with 12 strangers meeting in an awkwardly tiny upstairs room, clutching our cups of teas as if they were our last straw of dignity before we played some suitably uncomfortable icebreakers.

I didn’t know that day that I was departing from platform comfort zone on a rickety train ride full of highs and lows, each one more thrilling and enlightening than the last.  Neither would I ever have imagined myself using tools which could be classified as lethal weapons and putting my hand through fire (with welders gloves on of course).

little people
Building a Starbucks for the “little people”

But it wasn’t all in the name of rock and roll.  At the heart of Forest School is not the intention to create a generation of axe-wielding 6-year-olds.  What we learned throughout the week, was how much these experiences; whether they be re-building a community for the “little people”, doing co-operative juggling or using old twigs to make a story, all help develop emotional intelligence.

Sammy the who?!?
Sammy the who?!?

This was the region of development in which I found myself most stretched last week.  Starting with the knots, after a few attempts both from my patient course mates and course leaders to explain these to me, I soon found myself tied up in 50 shades of frustration.  Why don’t you get it?  Everyone else can do it.  They’re going to think you’re stupid.  That was the dialogue I had with myself.  The same dialogue I have had with myself in many learning situations since I was a child.  That dialogue has prevented me from pursuing so many interests and I thought back to my tangled feet in salsa classes, the dread of year 9 Design Technology classes and a whole chain of abandoned hobbies.

Then I thought of all the children in school who must have felt similarly frustrated, especially those that have their self-criticism re-affirmed by their poor exam results; the alleged measure of your worth as a human being in our education system.  I never had that problem, at school I was one of the winners.  Top grades?  No problem.

A* student or not, my education fell short of any sort of emotional education that would equip me for the life-long learning I was to pursue when school was done – and that’s where forest school really fills the gap.

me whittling
Me with a lethal weapon

Later in the week, as we learnt how to whittle trees into tent pegs and mallets and I saw myself make something beautiful and practical out of a branch (yes-me!), it all came together.  With every stroke of the knife shaving off the hardy, weather-proof skin of the tree, I felt myself feeling lighter and more open to my own learning potential and my relationships with my course mates were deepened and enriched as the journey progessed.

If I can provide anything like that sort of learning to my students in years to come, my role as a teacher will be fulfilled.