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Understanding Forest School

Here we are. It's already been a month since I've been back from our first week of training, and it already feels like it was ages ago. My inclination is to run outdoor sessions, and I find myself slipping away from the forest school ethos, from this idea of being yourself, being open in the outdoors, going with the flow. It all seemed to make a lot of sense when our class was out in the forest all day, but I'm thinking maybe I need a good book, not about potential activities, but about the ethos and forest school mentality to help me understand it on a deeper level.

Yesterday I went to check out a local Forest School to see what it was like and how these things actually function in the real world. It was really incredible. From seeing them setting up the site, getting it all ready, to interacting with the kids, seeing everyone come together, and just witnessing such a lovely environment, it was really lovely to be able to witness it.

Here are some of my takeaways from seeing it:

My Mental State

I felt very grumpy when I arrived, tired, stressed, and not really looking forward to being in a youthwork setting. But being in such a lovely woodland, getting dirty, and focussing on what was around me made me feel so much better. I began to feel lighter, much less stressed, and very present, and I left the session feeling infinitely better. I also felt this during the week in Dumfries. Being outside makes you feel so much better.

It's a Long Time

The session ran for three hours, plus 30-45 minutes for prep, then there was a small break, and I left, but the leaders had another whole session. It's a long time, and a lot of work to be engaged in this for so long. I'm used to hour-long activities, maybe 2 hours, so this felt very different. I was also quite cold towards the end.

Clever Kit

It was great to see all of the things they had. They had standards, like hammocks and tarps (check out this pic of a tarp I helped set up, and got lots of practice on my clove hitches):

But they also had a full swing set with swings and monkey bars that was suspended from a line between two trees. They had two pop-up bathrooms for kids, and one for staff, which was impressive. They also had these lovely hand washing stations with jerry cans with holes poked in and a wee stick they could step on to tip it, and the water was even warm! There were little bags of soap, that hung from a tree, and you could use the soap as it was still in the bag, and rolls of paper towel also hanging from the tree. It was magical.

I didn't see this, but they said for cooking, they have a wee toast rack which goes right over the fire, and they make all sorts of stuff like soup, baking, etc, which is really lovely. All of this was heavy. They drove it in a big white van to the parking lot, then carried it in with several big backpacks and some heavy duty wagons. They had 5 or 6 adults carrying it in. It's a complicated set up, and requires lots of people and lots of stuff.

Comparisons Between Different Spaces

It was also quite interesting to compare how things ran on the FOLA course, and how they were running it in practice. I was very impressed with how professional it all was, how many staff they had, and how well they all seemed to work together. There were a few differences and similarities which I specifically noticed:

-Speaking to the leaders, I heard about their FOLA experiences, and it was interesting how similar it all sounds, like they were talking about their handbooks and portfolios which was really lovely.

-During the FOLA course, they were very strict about wearing fire gloves at all times when building a fire or starting a kelly kettle, even when it felt like the gloves were actually getting in the way of starting the fire. At the forest school they had fire gloves and blanket next to the fire, but didn't wear the gloves when starting the fire or roasting marshmallows. One leader said it was actually a hazard to wear the gloves when starting the fire, as they're clunky and get in the way, so you're more likely to tip something over.

-One leader mentioned the 'no pick no lick' rule, which we had learned in FOLA. She said that they never pick mushrooms, but sometimes they do forage certain things, like herbs for tea, brambles, nettles for soup, etc, and said there's so much benefit for the kids in understanding this process. Foraging is really important to my process, as is understanding the journey of foods through the different stages. One kid found a scarlet elf cup on a branch, and another kid (who was 5!) accurately identified it, which I thought was very impressive.

-They set up a physical boundary, with a rope around the space, which seemed like a good and clear way to help contain the kids, without impacting too much on their freedom.

Ecological Impact

One of the leaders told me they have a PTU (permission to use) agreement with the council to use the space, and they have 10 different spaces that they rotate through in order to minimize environmental impact. There was a hillside next to this site, and apparently in previous weeks they had been sliding down it. It was looking a bit bare, so this week they set the boundary excluding the hill, and explained to the kids that they were giving it time to rest.

Tree Safety

One boy I was hanging out with was climbing trees. He climbed several, and then found one he could get quite high on. The leader explained to me that they can climb up as high as the leaders can still reach their heels. She also said that you can tell if a branch will be sturdy enough to support your weight by wrapping your thumb and forefinger around it. If your fingers touch, it won't be strong enough. This boy climbed up a bit, then couldn't really get down. In the past, I've helped kids out of trees by holding on to them and helping them jump down, but I encouraged him to think about how he had got up there in the first place, suggesting safe branches, and helping him make his own way down. It took a while but he succeeded, and I felt like it was a good outcome.

Engaging with Kids

When we came in, we started with a circle under the tarp, having lunch. There was one boy next to me who was sort of on his own, so I tried to speak to him. He gave me one word answers to my questions, and seemed a bit irritated by all my questions, so I tried to stop.

Later, he came over with a tiny baby slug to show to one of the leaders. I asked to see it too, mostly because I was genuinely interested in seeing a tiny baby slug. He seemed to respond to this, so we went off looking for more bugs and slugs. I showed him some slime growing on a tree which I had seen before. He was telling me about grubs, and I wasn't quite sure what they were, so we went off to look for some. We ended up spending maybe 20 minutes flipping over and digging through this deadwood tree, picking up wood lice, smelling the wood, and exploring it. I had a genuinely great time, and I feel like I really got into a flow state, and I think this kid also enjoyed it, felt supported, and I felt like I was able to form a bond with him by engaging in this activity (and also I really benefitted from it).

Play Frames

There were many times when I felt like a should be doing something. I tried to think about modelling, and being engaged myself. I tried to stop the urge to intervene unnecessarily, not to adulterate or intervene in the situation. I tried to support, respond to their play drives with valid play responses, and enjoyed watching the activities play out.

Holiday Integration

As it was the last session before Christmas, there were light Christmas activities mixed in. The leaders all had Christmas hats, the kids received a wrapped up oak branch as they left, and there were activities like making reindeer food (bird food) and picking up candy canes with a stick. It was good inspiration for how I can subtly add Jewish content without being prescriptive.


So all in all, it was a great afternoon, and I'm so happy I had the opportunity to see some of these ideas play out in person. It refreshed my excitement for running my own sessions, gave me so much to think about, and was very helpful!


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