Forest School at Limmud
From December 22-27 I attended the UK's largest Jewish gathering, Limmud Festival, in Birmingham, with over 1600 people attending. Limmud is really special because all sessions are presented by Festival participants, who can submit sessions on whatever they'd like to present. This year, there were over 700 sessions, led by 420 presenters. It was my third time attending Limmud Festival, and I've also attended five other Limmud events in Mumbai, Winnipeg and Edinburgh.
At Limmud Festival 2023, I led four forest-school related sessions, which I will reflect on as part of my Forest School journey.
My Forest School Space
When I arrived at the Festival complex on Friday morning, I went around the wooded areas around the back of the hotel to look for suitable areas to run my programmes and to do a bit of a risk assessment. There were several clearings in the woods. In the end, I picked one that was fairly close to the path leading into the hotel, which made it relatively quick and easy to get there and back for the sessions.
Since the sessions were short and simple, we needed minimal set up and equipment. I brought a simple tarp which went on the ground. Some people chose to sit on it, while some stood, and some leaned on a nearby tree branch. I put all of the supplies down on the tarp, and people could choose what they wanted to use.
There was a bit of trash on the ground when I arrived on the Friday, as the space is possibly used as a teen hangout, and it's also across a hedge from a dumpster at the back of the hotel. I picked up a handful or two of litter and put it in the bin. Each day, I could tell that a few pieces had blown in. On the Wednesday, when I left, it was quite severe from the storm, so a good reminder to always check, even if I've used the space recently.
My first session on Friday afternoon was called 'Friendship Bracelets in the Woods'. In the session description, it said 'we'll be outside, dress for the weather', so participants mostly came prepared, although some checked in and then ran back to their rooms to grab jackets. There was one participant with a walking stick. As this session was less reliant on using elements of nature, I gave the participants options of where we would go. Some were quite keen to be in as natural an environment as we could find. Some didn't seem fussed about being outdoors, and were more excited to learn to make friendship bracelets.
In the end, we opted for the furthest option, which was a sort of cleared garden area, a bit further along the path, but with many benches for people to sit on. This did have its downsides. It was quite windy there, with no trees for protection, which made people colder than we would have been in the area with trees, the supplies were blowing around, and the wind and cold made it difficult to do the actual activity. I think we would have been better going to my main forest school space, but I didn't know what to do about the participant who couldn't sit on the ground, stand, or walk on uneven wooded ground. I'm not sure if there's a protocol, if it needed to be clearer in the session description (which is difficult because there's a word count limit), or how to address this situation in the future.
For my following three sessions, everyone who came was able to walk on uneven ground, and find somewhere to either sit or stand for the activity.
At Limmud, each session is 50 minutes. Ideally, more time would have been good, although Limmud has a fixed format, and it definitely did work well enough. If the session started at 11:00, it was at least 11:05 by the time people came to the meeting point, and then some people wanted to go to their rooms and get jackets. After every session, I had people coming up to me in the halls saying they had wanted to come to my session, but we were already away by the time they arrived.
It's difficult, because we want to allow time for people to arrive, but also don't want to waste people's time or cut too much into the session time. It also took 5 minutes to walk from the meeting point to the Forest School Space. We then did about 3 minutes of intro, 10 minutes exploring the texts and ideas of the specific session, and then had 20-30 minutes for the activity. Overall, I think it went well. It was short, but just a wee taster and brought new ideas, so I think the timing went well, although it could also be expanded for more time for exploration. In the future, I could make a sign which we could leave at the meeting place to help direct people if they want to join us later.
Forest School Ethos
Each of the three adult sessions had a specific focus and activity set out for the session, although there was definitely flexibility if people didn't want to do it, or just wanted to chill and take some time outside. I heard from several participants that it was really enjoyable for them just to take time to be outdoors, and that's definitely part of why I chose to lead these sessions, since my first year at Limmud I didn't leave the hotel at all for the entire five days and I think it negatively impacted my ability to participate. Several participants told me that my sessions had been the highlight of their Limmud experience, and I think that the opportunity to get outside, involve all the senses, and try out something new is really a novel experience, and so important.
Getting in the Zone
The meeting place for the sessions was in the middle of the hotel lobby, with loads of people going back and forth to different sessions, as well as people mingling in the cafe, bookshop, bar, help desk, etc. In order to make myself obvious to people looking for the sessions, I made myself an ivy crown which I wore, and I think helped get me into the Forest School headspace, more earthy and informal, and also helped people identify me.
Friendship Bracelets in the Woods - Friday, December 22, 2023
This session went well. We really just made friendship bracelets. As mentioned above, the wind did make it a bit difficult, and I think it would have gone more smoothly if we had been in the wooded area, which I chose not to for the accessibility issues discussed above. There were around 15 people, most of whom didn't know how to make friendship bracelets. People stood in clumps in a circle, which made it a bit difficult to demonstrate the process in a clear way. The timing was also a bit rushed, with people just arriving to Limmud, and also getting ready for Shabbat, but overall it went really well, and I think people enjoyed picking up a new skill which they were able to carry on throughout Limmud. I saw several people working on their bracelets throughout the week, and several came up to show me their progress.
The Torah of Leaves - Monday, December 25, 2023
I think this was my favourite session out of all of them. There were around 15 people. We started with looking at some of the places where leaves are mentioned in biblical stories, or used in Jewish traditions. We didn't go too in depth with the source sheet, both because of time, and because the theoretical background of the sources wasn't super relevant to the participants engaging in the activity, but the sources were there if any of the participants were wanting to explore that on a deeper level.
I had brought lots of different supplies, showed a few examples I had made up, and then let the participants have free time to explore what they wanted. People did lots of different things. Most tended towards some sort of leaf embroidery with cotton thread, but people also used tape to make collages, cut holes, etc. Some just collected and explored leaves, and a few did rubbings. I didn't really provide much instruction beyond the examples, although I did help a few people out with questions they had about how to carry out their visions. I thought it was really interesting how everyone came up with something so different, and really unique to them. I received feedback from several people about how much they enjoyed it, I think because it was something they hadn't experienced before.
Natural Cordage - Tuesday, December 26, 2023
This was the smallest session, only 3 people, although a few people told me they'd come late but then couldn't find us. We started with a quick discussion about where strings and cords have been used in Jewish tradition, and then we got into it. I had come earlier to pick a few nettles from the woods, although they were a bit tough and short to be really good for cordage. All the same, I thought it was important for people to connect the fibres with the plant, and with the space (we also looked at some nettles that were growing), as well as to learn the extraction process. I had also brought some dried dandelion stems from home, which were much easier to learn the actual process with.
The participants all got on well with the process, and it led to them having a really good conversation about the conflict in Israel and how they're all dealing with it. It was quite an intense conversation, and I think the process of having something to do with their hands allowed the conversation to flow. At the end, they apologized for taking over the session with their conversation, but I pointed out that textiles and handicrafts have long been something that has brought people together and created community, and so using our time together in the woods as a time to make together and speak is very much an actualization of our tradition.
The nettles weren't too stingy as it was winter. I had brought gardening gloves for the picking, but we handled them without for the stripping of the fibres. I maybe had a few prickles, but the participants were all fine. One of the participants noted that the cordage process was really enjoyable and meaningful for her because it was something that she would be able to take away with her and to use in her own explorations of nature.
Forest School for Kids - Tuesday, December 26, 2023
I ran a session for Young & Teen Limmud, for Years 3-4 (P4-5). There were about 15 kids, plus 5-6 leaders. Overall it went well, and I think both the kids and leaders enjoyed, although there were several things which could have been improved on:
Preparation + Being Outside
The kids generally don't go outside during the day, so many of them didn't have jumpers or jackets with them, and one didn't even have shoes. It was quite a warm day, the session area was well sheltered, and we moved around quite a lot, so it was ok, but it could have not worked out as well. Next time, I'd make sure to send really explicit requests to the team, to ensure that parents are aware and the kids come prepared.
It also took a long time to get ready to go outside. The session was scheduled for an hour, but it took us 30 minutes until the kids were in the right place, all the leaders were there, and we were ready to actually go outside. The programme had flexibility, so we did run over a little bit, but we needed security guards and they had to be elsewhere at a certain time, so we did have to finish. Obviously if this was a recurring programme, we would be able to cut down on some of this time, but it did just take a long time to get started since this was something new for YTL.
Once we were outside, we got to the Forest School space (which I knew well by then, as this was my fourth session). We did a quick intro about boundaries, safety, etc, and then we played a game of sardines, which they enjoyed. I had brought loads of supplies, basically all of my supplies from my previous three sessions, in order to just see how the group was feeling and what might work well. We ended up doing a combination of leaf rubbings, colours, leaf sewing, collages, etc. It was nice because there were a lot of different options for them to choose from, and everyone did what they wanted. A few kids wanted to dig around a look at sticks, bugs, etc, which I enjoyed doing with them. They also really liked the colour rubbing activity.
It was nice because the group was 80% boys, which I sometimes struggle with, but we all got on really well. Some of them said it was boring, but you could tell that they all really enjoyed, were engaged, and I felt quite confident leading the session.
Overall, I had a really great time running these sessions. It was great to get more hands-on experience since starting the course in November, and it gave me a lot to think about and also a lot of confidence to begin my practicum sessions for the course, as well as to bring back to other sessions I'll be running in the future.