Podcast Episode 12. The forest is a great place to learn about ourselves as well as the rhythms of nature, according to Laura Ashfield an outreach worker at the Surrey Wildlife Trust. More than this, she passionately believes the forest is a place that can help us discover our place in the world.
Discovering a place in the world, we know as parents to children with additional needs, is very important. Sometimes feelings of insecurity can be overwhelming. Maybe the forest and forest schools could hold part of the answer.
Laura shares her experiences as an outreach worker, and gives some uplifting examples of young people she’s worked with. The ethos of forest school is straightforward: it’s all about developing resilience, self-esteem and independence.
Forest schools are self-directed to give young people, who may in other areas of their lives feel like they have little control, a space to be themselves and do what they want to do in a safe but challenging environment. Laura also points out that there is time in the woods to just be and that ultimately boredom breeds creativity.
[.50] – All about Laura, role and what the Surrey Wildlife Trust does
[2.00] – What a forest school is all about which is self-directed learning
[2.30] – Opportunities for risky play within guidelines and with support
[4.50] – Ethos of forest schools – building resilience, self-esteem and independence
[6.00] – Learning to cooperate, negotiate, work as a team and express positive and negative emotions
[7.55] – ‘Adults not on Top on Tap’
[8.30] – Using the woods to develop motor skills
[9.30] – Allowing time in the woods
[11.25] – Boredom breeds creativity
[12.40] – Finding your own forest school and what to do when you’re out there
[13.40] – Age is no barrier
[14.50] – Finding perspective
[15.30] – Getting into ‘flow state’
[18.40] – It’s the process not the product that matters
[19.30] – Transferring skills learnt to outside the forest
[20.45] – Self-knowledge leads to resilience and persistence
Using outdoor places to find a place and space in the world
Boredom breeds creativity
DEBRA: This week we’re talking to Laura Ashfield. She’s an outreach learning officer for the Surrey Wildlife Trust which is based in the UK and we’re talking about things such as forest school. Welcome Laura.
DEBRA: Tell us a little bit about your role and yourself?
LAURA: I’m an outdoor learning officer for Surrey Wildlife Trust. Broadly speaking, I go out into the county of Surrey and engage children and local communities with their wild spaces, their natural green spaces.
DEBRA: So, a little bit about the organization, tell us about the Surrey Wildlife Trust. What it does…
LAURA: So, Surrey Wildlife Trust is a charity. Its sole focus is wildlife protection within the county. Broadly speaking, a sort of three elements of the trust, there’s land management so we managed over 80 reserves across the county for the good of wildlife. We’ve also got our ecology services so we do surveys but we also go out and monitor the species that we’ve got here in the county. And then we also have our people in wildlife angle and that involves outreach education, center space education, (there are actually 2 education centers. Now we’re in Leatherhead and Bay Pond in Godstone) adult education and community engagement. So various different people-based projects trying to engage people with their local spaces.
DEBRA: I guess, I’m most interested in is the forest school for young people with additional needs. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
LAURA: So, forest schools is a child-led education initiative. It’s basically engaging children with the same woodland so it’s regular over a period of time. The same children will go out to the same place and then they’ll be in charge of their own self-directed learning. So, we’ll set upon education environment for them and provide activities but really, they’re able to follow their own interest and develop their own skills. It’s also an outlet for opportunities for risky play. So, we provide them with a chance to take risks and it’s led by qualified forest schools’ practitioners.
DEBRA: What kind of students do you get?
LAURA: So, we work with children from all backgrounds, it can also be for adults as well. I’m currently working on a project which aims to engage adults with mental health conditions through the forest school ethos and as a result it’s really appealing and accessible for children with additional needs, particularly of secondary school age. Forest schools can be accessible for people with physical disabilities as well as other special education needs such as autism, OCD, children with mental health issues. It really is just accessible for all children.
DEBRA: You mentioned before about the fact that it’s led by them, what kind of things that they like to do when they come?
LAURA: So, we provide obviously the setting, it’s a woodland setting. We give them opportunities for engaging with campfire, cooking, set fire lighting, responsible fire lighting. We teach them fire safety; how to manage and look after a fire safely and put out in the end. So, with that, you got a whole host of activities you can do like artwork, you can make charcoal, you can cook endless meals. Food is a big part for our schools, generally. And as well as that, as I said, there’s an opportunity for risky plays so we can provide opportunities for tool use. So, we can teach them how to use bezels, log poles, axes, knives, all safely and it’s a really good outlet for natural art as well.
DEBRA: What do you mean by natural art?
LAURA: So, using the woodland resources to make mandalas which are like pictures on the floor or using clay to make tree faces, whatever they really want to do. Like I said, if you make charcoal on the fire, you can then use that to make natural paints. You can also use chalk and stuff to make an actual paint as well.
DEBRA: Our focus really is on independent skills. Do you think that this sort of thing is really useful for building skills like that?
LAURA: Yeah, definitely. So, forest schools are built upon six principles which I’ve just touched upon briefly but the six principles are that it’s a regular, it’s self-directed learning, it’s led by qualified practitioners, it’s risky. But one of the really big things is it’s holistic. So, it’s all about all-around development of the child. You can bring in elements of natural curriculum and use it for teaching points but really, you’re looking at building a child’s resilience, their self-esteem, their independence, coordination, those sort of life skills, that sort of thing that they need to get on in life, really. So, it’s all about the whole of the child not just what they can do, academically.
DEBRA: So, the same group each week, do you see that they’re developing?
LAURA: Yeah, definitely. I’ve worked with the school in Leatherhead and I was doing forest schools with a cohort there who are mixed age. So, there’s a secondary school and I’ve seen some kids from coming in at year seven right up until when they left. And the changes in their personalities and in their skillsets thought out time is really inspiring. I was watching them grow up which is lovely. And forest schools, they all have additional needs and they’re very, very grip and watching them develop their self-esteem. They were given social skills (or they develop not given, they weren’t given them. They have them anyway but they) develop their own social skills through their own directed learning. And they learn how to cooperate with each other, negotiation, team-working, that sort of thing. How to express positive and negative emotions. All of that forest schools gave them a platform for that development.
DEBRA: Why do you think the main reason, is that because their leading it?
LAURA: I think so, yes. So they’re given the opportunities to direct their own learning and they’re following their own interest and that’s not to say that you can’t structure that sort of secretly in some ways to get them to go to a point that you want them to go to but if you engage a child on something that they’re really interested in learning, it’s much easier than to bring in the other things that you might want them to learn. So, for example, if I want them to learn how to a negotiate, I could give them more loads of handouts or handouts or set them up in a scenario where they each got an assigned role that I’ve given them and then they have to complete some kind of set task.
But a lot of children with additional needs, they struggle with that structure. So, being given an opportunity to get to that point themselves, say through an activity that they can engage in themselves such as den-building; That den-building, they’re having form their building, a structure but they’re doing that in a group so they’re negotiating with each other: how is the den going look, where are we gonna put the den, why are we’re gonna put it there, what shape is it gonna be, was in the right shape, we’re gonna have a door, we’re not gonna have door and all of that is happening naturally without too much adult input. And as a result, they’re far more engaged because their engaged in that situation and they’re picking up these negotiation skills. They’re building their self-confidence. They’re achieving something because that’s massively important, that sense of achievement but with minimal input from, really. We have a saying in forest schools and that’s Adults not on top but on tap so we give them as many opportunities for self-directed learning as we can and then we’re there for them to ask questions and to maybe enable them to follow their own interests.
DEBRA: You talked about building resilience; what kind of things do you do to help them build that?
LAURA: So, tool use is a really big one especially with some children who have more physical additional needs. So, using tools can develop fine motor skills as well as overall motor skills so being out in the woods anyway and navigating through a rough terrain, uneven paths. Some children are quite phobic of the woods, haven’t necessarily engaged with woodlands before they’ve come out with us so it can be quite like dauting for them so I give them that opportunity to build off that confidence and that resilience. Staying outside while it’s raining. (Why would we?) but we do, we go out on all weathers.
DEBRA: So that’s part of, as you say, building resilience?
DEBRA: Can you give some examples of where it’s been really challenging and how you’ve dealt with it?
LAURA: So quite often we’re engaging a mix cohort so obviously they all have their own foibles and conditions and things to deal with. So, it’s really tricky to maybe give one setting where all of them are instantly comfortable and things like that. That’s just not how they operate. Well what forest schools does allow is time and it affords time. So, you all take you into the setting but if they are uncomfortable there, then you don’t force them into the setting but they got time to adjust and get used to it.
We’ve had cases where we have a child that he just came out and just didn’t speak for the first four sessions, just didn’t speak at all, looked quite uncomfortable but we made them as comfortable as we could; made them wear appropriate dress, we put it at top and places like that. And then I think it was about a week four, he just suddenly turned to me and was like “Forest is great” and it was just really shocking because I’ve never heard him speak and I thought he’d been having horrible time. But actually, we’ve just provided him with a setting, where it took him time to get comfortable and once, he did, he was engaged and once he was engaged, he was already chatty and we couldn’t shut him up. So that was really nice and its that self-directed opportunities for free learning and free play, I think. And once you’ve unlocked that child and you’ve engaged them, their development then is really quick because they’re less shy, they’re more like to ask for help, they’re more like want to try new things, all that sort of thing.
DEBRA: Do you find as well that they then encourage each other?
LAURA: Definitely and we’ve had the flip side as well of not so much not encouraging each other. That flip side I’m saying where we’ve had a child who every week, he checked forest schools and then he just goes and sit. There was a mount in the middle of the site and he go and sit on top of the mount when everyone else is engaged or we had activities that we’ve given them and it was kinda like Is he alright? Is he having fun? Anyway, he always come down for hot chocolate then take that back of his mount and some of his friends would go with him. So, it’s obviously not that he doesn’t feel uncomfortable with the peers because he’s happy for them to join him. So, in the end, we just asked him one week like You sure you don’t want to join any activities? Are you happy up there? and he was like Yeah! I’m perfectly happy up there. It’s the only time in my week where I can sit and do nothing, have a cup of tea and chat with my friends and catch up.
And it’s like amazing because we fear boredom and we fear our children being bored but boredom breeds creativity. And by allowing children to age at boredom first place, they will find their own interests. They might not be getting bored, they might just be literally having a rest, because he would say “My life is so busy, after school I go here, I go there, I’ve got football, I do this, I do that and this is the only time where I can just sit and catch-up with my friends” and that’s what he wants to do. And it sounds like, he was just having a bit of a journey within this forest schools hour, what was he learning there, but actually he’s learning self-care because he’s learning that he needs to have time for himself where he just stops and take stuck and processes the stuff that’s going on in his life. He needs time to engage with his peers and to build those relationships and to get to know his friends and it was really amazing. And in the classroom after he been doing forest schools, he’d calm down a lot and it’s partly because he got time, I think, to process a lot of stuff that he doesn’t have time to process before so then he’s more likely destructive and lash out in the classroom.
DEBRA: So, you’re giving him space?
LAURA: Giving him space and sometimes that’s all he needs and forest schools allows that.
DEBRA: The people looking to get their young person engage in forest school, what’s their next step?
LAURA: So, if you’re looking to engage in forest schools in an informal way, there’s plenty of woods out there. We encourage people to engage with their natural green spaces. You don’t necessarily need somebody for that. If you feel like going for a walk in the woods, that will do wonders. Being out in the woods is so good, well about being outside, so good for your mental and physical health.
DEBRA: What would you say then to welcome the woods, it’s boring?
LAURA: Okay, fine.
DEBRA: What do you give them, some tools to sort of say, go to the woods but we’re going to do X or Y?
LAURA: So, you can think of an activity to do, there’s loads of free resources online. So, there’s a nature detective, there’s wildlife watchers, there’s a genie and bunch of the wildlife trust. We run holiday clubs, and holiday sessions, and we run family events as well. So, on a second Saturday of every month at Newlands Corner in Surrey, we do with families so you can come along with your family.
DEBRA: You think they get to certain age where they don’t want to do it anymore? You got older people? You made mention about adults.
LAURA: People will say that but I think you can engage anybody if you just know to. My background is youth work so I was taking 16 to 25-year old’s out with me doing consolation tasks and in the end of every task, they would want to play games and cook over the fire.
DEBRA: So, age is not a barrier?
LAURA: I don’t so, no. Definitely not. You might do different activities because obviously teenagers are probably less likely to make a clay face on a tree.
DEBRA: Did the outdoors seem to facilitate a more open communication?
LAURA: I think so, yeah. You know, you got space to breathe outside. You don’t have a physical boundary and I think that helps you just to break down boundaries in your own mind and we’re doing communication as well. It’s proven that being outside is really beneficial for your mental and physical health. As I’ve said, like you step outside, your heart rate instantly decreases because the power of nature (all sounds are hippie) but really the power of nature helps to calm you down. You’ve got the space, you’ve got the freedom, you’ve got opportunity. It’s that sense of feeling of I can do anything and I go anywhere. But also, that sense of perspective of actually I’m quite small in the great scheme of things and so therefore my problems, in some ways. It gives you that perspective that you maybe don’t get when you’re inside, trapped in a classroom being constantly over-thinking everything that there is wrong with you or bad about you.
DEBRA: It’s true, isn’t it? And also, think when you’re out in the woods, you can be silent for some. Because if you went shopping or in a coffee shop, you have to talk to them. And you got people around you that you haven’t met.
LAURA: And I’ve got way more than that as well, so it’s like when they’re doing the tool use and stuff, they get into what we call Flow State. So, flow state is when you do saw or anything that you do with your hands that then makes your mind go blank. That’s flow state, so when you’re in flow state, you’re much calmer, you’re processing loads of stuff subconsciously and you’re relaxing. And also, you’re building that skill, that whatever is it that you’re doing but also, you’re still engaged but you’re calm. So, if I speak to you when you’re in your flow state, you’re more like to retain that knowledge even though you’re not necessarily engaging with me. Because you are listening but you are not necessarily actively listening. Active listening is really rarely done. A lot of people think that they’re actively listening and they’re engaging with you, but actually they aren’t really listening because I know what you’re saying and I’m waiting for you to finish so I can say what I want to say to you in response to what you’re saying. But actually, I might be listening to what you’re saying. Do you see what I mean? So, flow state for example is really achievable during forest school activities and it just calms them right down.
DEBRA: When you’re doing that, is that a strategy or is that just something that happens organically?
LAURA: No. I wouldn’t unless I needed to. I won’t necessarily talk to them but they might be more likely to talk to me as they’re doing it. It has never happened to me, personally. And hope it never will, so that’s some sort of disclosure might come out.
I run a program as well for 15-25 years old’s in the county and then, they do practical conservation work together but with lots of chill out time during it and at the end. And again, it’s like without that, they didn’t know each other from the start of the program but by the end of the program, you can meet people doing a similar bowtie. So, you’re decreasing that level of isolation and you know I’m sixteen, I’m not really academic. I don’t have any qualifications, I’m not very confident, I feel like how I don’t have many skills like what is the point of me? And no one should feel like that at sixteen and it’s more and more common as we’re going on through this mess.
DEBRA: Simply for young people with additional needs who are already a little bit separated. Some falls from society because of the way they feel about themselves.
LAURA: So, forest schools provides that neutral social setting and we really often get reports from teachers like that someone’s really annoying and defensive in class but outside, he works really well with everybody else and they get on really well and then you he’d quiet, doesn’t really speak in class. Very academic, very clever, but very shy and again out in the woods she’s all chatty, sorry or whatever and it gives the kids that aren’t academic or do you have additional needs. It puts everybody back on an even footing and gives enough time to shine and achieve because we provide them with lots of activities that are achievable.
And with forest schools we’re all about as well that it’s not the project of what you’re doing, it’s the process by which you’re doing it. So as long as you’re doing this process, this is my week I’m out with it at the end. Like you’ve achieved something because you followed that process. So, my stick man, might not be as good as your stick man, but it doesn’t matter because I’ve made a stick man and that is an achievement. Whereas my stick man, yours is really great, my clay face is amazing whereas yours is more what’s that?
We got time to afford to the children really and they do peer support each other. So not only they’re getting that feedback from you as an adult or as a practitioner, they get that peer support and exemptions from their peers as well and their cohorts.
DEBRA: For the kids with additional needs. Does this help them when they go back out in big wide world then?
LAURA: Yeah, I think so because if you’re more confident and you’ve got a positive experience to draw back on and then everything is a good grounding for kids that are struggling, academically. So, persistence is a big thing that we push at forest schools as well. So, it’s taking you ages to light that fire but you keep going, because you want to light the fire and you wanna see the spark. So, then teachers say that when they’re back in the classroom and the kids struggling say with Math’s problems, they really to have to keep trying though because remember how good it felt and it’s all about the feeling of the achievement. So, I remember how good it felt when you carried on and kept going and you lit that spark then you got that fire. If you keep going here, you can solve this problem and then you can have that positive feeling again.
And that’s a transferable skill, you can take off into life, anything, that’s what mindfulness, that’s what well-being. It’s being in that present moment and thinking I can do this and it might be, I can do this because I’ve done it before and it wasn’t in the same situation but I know I can persist and try. And but also the resilience, it’s like Well actually I did try and I did fail. But I didn’t die, nobody died. It’s all fine. Like I’m not really good at that but you carry on with it. And now I’ve got that self-knowledge that I’m not regular and I should not do that but I know I’m also equally good at this. So, it’s like the resilience to deal with the hard stuff and the persistence to get good at the stuff that you’re good at. And those are really key factors of being come out to forest schools.
DEBRA: Thank you very much Laura for your story.
LAURA: It’s alright.
DEBRA: We’ll put all the links in the show notes for people if they want to have a look and engage in some forest school activities. Some of that’s coming up in the UK. Thank you very much.
LAURA: Pretty and thank you.
DEBRA: Key takeaways this week. Well, using outdoor places to find a space and a place in the world is something we could all use more often and also that boredom breeds creativity.
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