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Play Spaces

Children’s play is like nature; It will find a way, because that is what it is ‘programmed’ to do. The great childhood social equaliser. Play is how children understand the world, how they learn, how they make sense of it all, socially and physically. Children will find a way to play wherever they are.

This week we have been reflecting on our site and play spaces; what’s working, what isnt, what do the children return to again and again, why, does it provide enough challenge, is it suitable for our current and future children, is it fit for purpose, could it be better and how…etc

I am mindful whenever making decisions about the space, that we are making decisions based on our observations, our understanding, our experience as practitioners. To quote H.M. Tomlinson “We see things not as they are but as we are” 

We see things through our own filters, like individual kaleidoscopes made from a trillion fragments of memories, observations, knowledge, education, beliefs and ‘ethos’, opinions and future ideas. Whether we are aware or not, these things shape us and have an impact in the decisions we make.

In many respects I think we are drawn to working in the early years due to a sense of playfulness that we never outgrew! In the ‘outdoor learning’ world you often hear that people want to give kids “experiences like we had growing up”. I think this playfulness and empathy with childhood is a great strength in early years working. But lest we forget, we are no longer children. To forget this removes a key element of the ‘calculation’.

Play in childhood is intrinsic, self motivated and can be born of spaces and things that we as adults with all our filters have ‘complicated’ and simplified at the same time. A house doesn’t need a door and windows and a picket fence to be a house, in fact you might argue these ‘features’ limit a space from also being a vets or a castle or a spaceship.

I am reminded of the articles from Tim Gill about play in ‘dangerous’ and ‘unsuitable’ places and the ‘playgrounds’ created in the wreckage of bombed out buildings during wars. Children claiming a space as their own and playing, because that is what they do. The photographs of children playing in the street or the spaces between back to backs, children in poverty but (more significantly) children at play.

Children’s play is like nature; It will find a way, because that is what it is ‘programmed’ to do. The great childhood social equaliser. Play is how children understand the world, how they learn, how they make sense of it all, socially and physically. Children will find a way to play wherever they are.

The benefits of loose parts play and open ended play spaces is well understood and providing stimulating and learning rich environments is a key element of what we do. Whilst the desire to play is innate, that is not to say it can’t be stimulated or adulterated by the environment and practitioners (the arguments for and against this still rage on in my brain and are not yet ready to be born haha).

 

Recent visits to The Highland Folk Museum and local Culbin Forest have inspired the team with many ideas for building structures from natural materials, sourced in our own woodland; place based creation and a revival of heritage skills, a reconnecting with paths trodden by these children’s own ancestors.

So yes I have a Pinterest board of all the new things we could build or develop to enhance the space, carefully selected via my very own prism. I am excited to get the tools out and build some open ended, heritage skill rich, gross motor developing structures which will act as a physical representation of our ethos and provide ‘just the right amount’ of accessibility and challenge.

I am also going to attempt to hold this with a ‘light touch’, we’ve all known the kid who would rather play with the box on Christmas day than the expensive toy within.

This Image is from Hertfordshire resident and playing out ‘area activator’ Rob Schafer who has led a project in Tring, his home town, gathering local residents’ play memories from their childhoods from the 1930’s to today. Playing Outside: Past, Present & Future is a book of photographs and memories from the project.

Highland Folk Museum

Following in Froebel’s Footsteps – An evening with Kathryn Solly

Reflections from an evening with Kathryn Solly & training with Juliet Robertson – The Outdoor Practitioner Hokey Cokey

Last Monday we (Stramash Elgin Team) travelled to Aberdeen to hear a talk given by Kathryn Solly in the theme of leading children’s adventures in nature through risk and challenge. Right up our street! 

These opportunities often follow a familiar pattern for me. I am excited to hear an expert validate what we do as FS and outdoor practitioners, I am keen to know how we can further develop our practice, site and learning opportunities for children and I am without fail, at some point, amazed by the echo chamber I live in!

This last realisation is important, particularly here (Highlands, Scotland) where the ‘outdoorsy life’ is more common and accepted. Where access to incredible green space is not only a local park or the corner of a playing field but acres of ancient woodland! 

Children in our nursery know a pine cone from an acorn, they know how to climb a tree and build a den, not only do they know how but have the regular opportunity to practice and develop these skills. They can find badger prints and deer couches, light fires from fire rods and some have better knot skills than me (well nearly!)

I have come from inner city sites, where the things our children take for granted are seen with awe and wonder. I have known settings who ‘buy in’ sensory nature items without any provenance for the children or context or discovery. Our children however have seen men climb trees with chainsaws to fell the dead branches; where do we go from there?!

Something Kathryn said (almost as an aside) really struck a chord with me. We do less. We follow their lead. We allow them (shock horror) to feel ‘bored’ – or at least not ‘kept entertained’. Because that is when the magic happens, that is the preceding stage to creativity, to problem solving and flexing their imaginative muscle. That is when they can take ownership of their own learning and experience. This is the chance for them to enter deep child led play & flow.

We provide the environment (and dynamically risk assess it) we enrich it with loose parts & seeds of suggestion and then we begin the ‘practitioner dance’ of retreat, observe, wait, advance the learning…and repeat.

We are also privileged to work closely with Juliet Robertson within our organisation. Juliet is a passionate and articulate advocate for ‘teachable moments’ within a setting like ours. She is on a one woman mission (if needs be, but fortunately is not alone!) to act as a translator or interpreter, making clear the learning that is occurring within an outdoor setting – the maths, literacy, fine and gross motor skills & things like ‘pre-handwriting’ skills etc. I often wish I could download her brain when writing up observations as she sees those links so automatically (fortunately I can read her books!)

We are in a time where that dialogue is critical. We know that what we’re doing works (learning & development) and that the wellbeing and health of the children (and practitioners) is far higher than an indoor setting. However we are still a minority. Its easy to forget when this is your daily experience but what we do is really very far out of a lot of peoples comfort zone. We have to ‘show our working out’ when reflecting on our practice, making decisions and identifying the learning.

Kathryn’s talk was (rightly) aimed at anyone in an early years setting. It was aspirational and practical with a focus on the evidence and benefits of some/any/all learning outside through risk and challenge. I feel we are somewhat ‘doing the practitioner dance’ with the early years ‘industry’ at the moment; sowing seeds of ideas, creating a positive learning environment, retreat, advance, support. Keep on doing and communicating. 

Attending great talks like this always lifts the spirits and gives opportunity to reflect on the bigger picture. Its exciting to be here, now, in a society that is progressive in its outdoor provision and attitudes to what we do. And it’s always good to meet others doing the ‘Outdoor Hokey Cokey’!

Unbusy

The importance of time to reflect

Today is my last day of annual leave (because as we all know weekends don’t count!) 
Annual leave when you love your job is a funny thing. Often it feels unnecessary, you know that you’ll be spending your time in similar places (woods & beach) but without the responsibility of 20 small humans. As it gets closer you imagine all the TIME you’ll have, all the sleep, all the things you can DO! 

However this time i’d ‘planned’ to do things a little differently. See I am a ‘busy’ person, with a busy mind & busy body. I come from a family of busy people, who work really hard, check their emails at 4am and go on lots of ‘holidays’ and short breaks, where they see lots of things, walk many miles and then race back to resume busy lives.

There is much benefit to this and as someone with the aforementioned busy mind, staying physically busy, working with my hands, moving my body is often the best way to quieten it! The downside to this is that it can become too effective at silencing my mind. The quiet inner voice which speaks my truth. The one voice I need to hear.

The voice you need for useful reflection. The voice you need for appropriate change. It needs a space, it needs time to filter through. I needed to check in, slow down, be in this new space (I feel like I just woke up in) and reflect on where I am.

It also gave me time to reaffirm my goals, the ‘next level’ thinking that becomes so difficult to do when your mind is full of the immediate daily thoughts or frustrations. I felt very ‘busy’ in my previous life, but I realise now that the structure of my work/life balance did allow room; I had a long commute (driving time is great thinking time for me) and I worked mostly alone so had a couple of hours set up & pack down time in the woods alone, to notice, to reflect. 

Before coming here I also worked with other forest school practitioners and was part of a network of FS people, so there was an assumed consistency in approach, which was wonderful in terms of delivering Forest School. However my new setting affords me much diversity in my team, with many different approaches and experiences for working with early years. It is an incredible opportunity to learn, but so easy to lose confidence in your own approach or abilities without time to reflect on that learning. 

So I have spent a week being unbusy. Sleeping, walking, taking long baths, cuddling my dog, staying up very late and having conversations with my husband. Reconnecting with why we are here, lighting the log burner and drinking lots of tea. A conscious slowing down, dedicated introvert time. Keeping it simple. Less output, more input.

The result is I’ve started reading again, my mind has opened up and I’ve devoured blogs and articles (sometimes whole websites) related to Forest School, Reggio and Montessori. I can see the connections and begin to assimilate this learning into my own practice; where ideas cross over & feel authentic to me.

“All magic comes with a price” (Yes I’ve also been binge watching Once Upon a Time) and what we do as Forest School Practitioners or indeed anyone working in Early Years is certainly magic. The price you pay is it is all encompassing, it is the most incredible job in the world and in a 40 hr week it will require you digging seriously deep into energy reserves. To bring your best self for 8 hours a day, whatever the weather, whatever the cycle of the moon, when all around you are losing their wee minds, takes whole body and mind strength.

So I’ve been paying back into my personal bank account & its the best ‘use’ of time I could have chosen. I’m off to put the kettle on & enjoy today.

Summer in the Wilderness

Is anyone still out there?!
As I wrote in my last post (all the way back in April) great change was coming. Its taken until now, some 5 months later to have time to write about it!

On May 2nd we officially moved to the Highlands, sadly our stuff didn’t arrive until May 4th so we spent a few days camping in our new house & trying to get our bearings! May 8th I started my new job at Stramash Outdoor Nursery in Elgin.

To say the 1st week was terrifying is an understatement. I was tired, I mean ‘to my bones’ tired having just moved 500 miles following an intense and emotional month before. Anyone who has worked (or lived) with 2-5 year olds will tell you it is FULL ON. New team, new kids, 40 hour weeks. I was TOAST. 

I was wildly unprepared for nursery life, but I loved it. I mean really, profoundly, unexpectedly loved it. I still do. I sometimes wonder (when changing a particularly stinky nappy) how I got from axe swinging to here, but the care aspect has become an intrinsic part of my journey and delivering the forest school ethos here.

We care for each other, we care for ourselves and we care for nature.

The site is incredible, a mix of ancient Oak & Beech woodland with a few Western Hemlock and Scots Pine. Great swathes of bluebells appeared in May and ferns blanket the banks and clearings. Dappled light permeates the forest floor and illuminates the mud kitchen, tyre swings and parachute. 

During holiday club we explored the coast with campfires on the beach and rock climbing. I learned to make rope from seaweed, collected seaglass and built obstacle courses. I even made dens as part of a local music festival!

There have been compromises, there are things I cannot do here which I enjoyed before. I always assumed I did the marketing side of my job to fund the forest school side, but ironically I miss it. However I have had some opportunity to do a little within this role, creating some videos and promo images & ads so maybe this will develop further. 

I miss the networking events from ‘down south’ 😉 but I have just booked to go to one up here, hopefully I will make some new forest school friends.

I’ll leave you with some photos from the last 5 months, as I’m sure they tell the story better than I can. I’ll try to be back with a proper Forest School blog soon!

If you want more regular updates on my Scottish adventures, follow me on Instagram @forestschooljess 

Change

Hello folks,

Apologies for my absence. If I go quiet it is generally down to one (or both) of 2 things; I am busy doing what I write about or I can’t talk about what I’m doing just yet!

So the news is out, the notice period has been worked & thoroughly emotional! A new adventure beckons.

I remember feeling like spring was bringing forth big change this year, in fact on reflection I wrote about it in my last post. I too will be changing my job, home and country!

As you can imagine it’s bedlam trying to get everything ready and sorted to move a family 500 miles away…or indeed you might say ‘a bit of a Stramash’

So until I have time to sit and update you properly, have a little look at my new workmates, the Superhero’s of the future.

Spring Musings

I don’t mind winter; I like the frosty cold days and the heavy snowy skies. ‘The rain never bothered me anyway’ is a version of Frozen more suited to the UK climate & one I could fully support!

Afternoon all,

I had written a blog all about pricing, about setting your session rates and what you might need to consider. I’ve had a lot of emails in through the site asking for this kind of advice so thought it would be a helpful piece to have here.

Sadly I’m a contrary so and so and don’t feel like talking finance so that one is shelved for another time.

Instead of that well thought out, helpful, edited & precision piece of writing, what you’ll probably get is more stream of consciousness ramblings; I’m in a thoughtful mood. Best strap in!

Imbolc has just passed and signs of spring are everywhere. My site is awash with snowdrops and the promise of baby sheep & cows (yes, I know they have proper names!) any day now. I don’t mind winter; I like the frosty cold days and the heavy snowy skies. ‘The rain never bothered me anyway’ is a version of Frozen more suited to the UK climate & one I could fully support!

Yet when the days start lengthening and warming a little and the starkness of bare branches give way to buds there is a part of my heart that does remember the positivity of it all, the looking forward, a ‘waking up’.

We watched a BBC doc on a year in the Lake District last night. Aside from being stunningly beautiful it interested me that the ‘year’ ran from April (1st Herdwick lambs being born) to December (Christmas) – presumably the Lake District also observe Jan/Feb/March? It was an honest representation of a zeitgeist – the months reserved for slowing down, looking in, preparing for the year ahead – a pregnancy (literally and metaphorically).

There are changes afoot in our industry too. The FSA has made some much requested adjustments to its membership system allowing those delivering the high quality, ethos centric, principle following Forest School to be recognised. There is a new Chair Person – Lily Horseman, a considered, thoughtful and inspiring practitioner. Lily’s ‘Quality Forest School For All’ mantra seems to be the ‘signs of spring’ we have been looking for as an organisation – although as she is in Cumbria, if the BBC are to be believed she may only be available April-December 😉

February half term marks the beginning of our regular sessions returning. The new Fairy House Trail (installed in the wider Arboretum which our Forest School calls home) has encouraged families back out into the world after their winter hibernation. Lured out by the promise of magic and wonder…and possibly afternoon tea!

New Year is said to be from Jan 1st, but I’m with the Lakes on this one! A new day starts not at 00:01 but from whenever I wake up.  The world has seemed a pretty dark place of late; it would be easy to lose heart in the dark night of the soul we have been facing. But a tree doesn’t fear the losing of its leaves in autumn, the sap will rise, new leaves will close the canopy once again. Good humans doing good things abound and that includes us as Forest Schoolers.

Time to wake up, Spring is coming.

Sharps & Tools – Cutting straight to the point

People see danger, where in reality there is true opportunity; building responsibility, a sense of achievement, developing concentration, self esteem and independent risk assessment.

 

A couple of weeks ago I attended a CPD (Career/Professional Development) day on sharps safety and skills. It is a cornerstone of our responsibility as forest school practitioners to continue to improve our skill set & deepen our own knowledge and understanding, as well as gaining new ideas to keep our delivery fresh and engaging. These days also give us the opportunity to meet & work with other practitioners & share ideas and thoughts about our own practice and our industry as a whole.

All good stuff.

I have delivered more tools based stuff in Forest School since visiting Ed at Free Rangers nursery near Bath last year. It’s a pretty idyllic setting and so inspiring to work with children who have such a firm grasp of the safe use and opportunity of competent tool work. I (like many newly qualified practitioners) was nervous about integrating tool work into such a young group, working with Ed really gave me the confidence to start scaffolding my own learning & confidence, to then begin building this with my groups.

As I mostly work with the early years age group there is quite a large developmental range in terms of capability within my group. I have found that for many, the opportunity to learn through play & get dirty in an inspiring and engaging play space is ‘enough’. However those who have been coming to me for some time or are at the upper end of the age range are looking for more challenge.

These children have been attending forest school for some time & I have been able to scaffold their learning to develop both the physical capability and also their safety awareness to be able to use tools in an appropriate way. I have spent entire sessions with children who just wanted to split wood, creating kindling for fires to keep their friends warm or to feed a Kelly kettle for hot chocolate.

I am reminded of the Scandinavian Kindergartens, where many children have their own pocket knifes and experience childhood within a society where responsible ownership of such an object is a part of ‘growing up’.

And yet people still flinch when they see pictures of children holding a knife, using an axe or with a saw in hand…

People see danger, where in reality there is true opportunity; building responsibility, a sense of achievement, developing concentration, self esteem and independent risk assessment.  Yes these tools deserve respect, yes they need to be used in a safe and responsible way but so do kitchen knives!

We have become so removed from our self reliant heritage. Knife crime is discussed in schools while knife skills are not. I believe children should be given the opportunity at a young age to learn how to use and respect these tools for their right purpose at an early age.

One thing I experienced first hand during my training day was how immersive tool work is. Whittling and sculpting wood, watching the humble stick become a whistle, a ‘chunk of wood’ become a delicate flower. There is a sense of craftsmanship, a reconnecting with a more primal part of our ancestry where we made things by hand rather than buying them, mass produced. Beautiful and unique things created from humble and ordinary beginnings.

So however ‘imperfect’ the results, the time spent making it, immersed in an activity (immersion lowers our heart rate, our blood pressure & makes us feel good) has been the true gift. Why would we deny our children that same opportunity?

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PK Talk – Permission to Play

So whether it’s a website, or a PK talk, or a conversation with someone at a bus stop we are the representatives of an incredible concept; that is pretty cool.

Hello!

Firstly I must send out an enormous Thank You for the wonderful reception this site has received in the short time since it went live.

I am genuinely thrilled beyond measure by the people who have already contacted me via the site and social media to let me know that you like it. I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know you’re out there!

I have said that one of my ‘hopes’ for this site is about spreading the Forest School message. Getting what we do out there to a wider audience, taking time to explain and make it relevant to their lives and their experience.

9 months ago I got chance to speak at the Flatpack film festival in Birmingham. The  ‘theme’ was film, the audience all adults – now we know as practitioners we sometimes have to get creative, so I decided there was definitely still an opportunity to talk about Forest School and Play!

Below is the result.

I was desperately nervous having done zero public speaking before & the sound quality isn’t amazing. I ‘um’ a bit and lose my words at one point (which still makes me cringe!) But no-one in that room knew about forest school before…and now they do.

So whether it’s a website, or a PK talk or a conversation with someone at a bus stop, we are the representatives of an incredible concept;  that is pretty cool. Go talk to someone who doesn’t know what Forest School is, get through awkward, forge through fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and remember we carry with us something so precious and so special that the odd ‘Um’ or typo does not distract from the message.

Be brave, your tribe is with you!

 

Diving in

I hope that it goes some way to furthering the forest school message and that it becomes a useful resource for my fellow practitioners or trainees.

Here it is, my 1st blog post.

Well technically its my 100th blog post as writing them (mostly for other people) was my job before forest school.

But this is a special one because it is the first on forestschooljess.co.uk and this website means a lot to me. I hope that it goes some way to furthering the forest school message and that it becomes a useful resource for my fellow practitioners or trainees.

I’ve spent a lot of time marketing and communicating for other people, compromising my own voice in an effort to best represent theirs. I love the ability to do that and do it well, I like establishing a clear brand message and delivering. It makes writing pieces to ‘fit’ much easier, but I miss being able to form my own thoughts and opinions.

However the idea of them becoming public makes me think of the above image; being on the edge, vulnerable, open to a torrent all set to carry me away. Then I remember how I felt in the moment that picture was taken; calm, intrigued, present, noticing the bubbles, textures and wonder of nature.

So I had a ‘warm up’ run at it and I didn’t get swept away.

You might have caught my guest post on Forest Schooled – a fantastic forest school blog

Click the link below if you want to check it out

Guest Blog – Forest Schooled

See you again soon

Big Love

Jess x