2017 Forest School Practitioner to Outdoor Nursery

What a journey it has been…

Jan-April with my dear friends and colleagues San & Helen (who I still miss working with every day) and the wider Arboretum team. Telling my parents and families, saying goodbye, handing over to the fabulous Denise; I truly was so grateful to meet someone who I trusted to support the people I love & keep going with the changes and work we’d started! She was certainly delivered by the universe at just the right time.

Then May bought a new job, new team, new setting and new places to discover. Terrifying, exhausting, emotional, challenging, fulfilling, beautiful, adventure. I’m almost ready to write more fully about the steepest learning curve that is changing your whole life, so that will be on the blog soon.

I know great change is again coming for 2018, but before taking a deep inhale and cracking on, I am breathing out, taking a moment and reflecting with such gratitude on 2017.


Forest School Is Dead, Long Live Forest School

‘Forest school is dead, long live forest school’. I know there are those in our community who feel frustrated, tired, like the message is being diluted or not getting through.

Dear muddy, wood smoke scented warriors take heart, the tide is turning. ‘Education’ is an enormous ship to turn around.


Today’s blog post is one I’ve been mulling over writing for a while. It was going to be a very different post, one of pleading, of frustration and ultimately based in fear (expertly worded of course 😉 but the intention would have remained the same). But that didn’t fit the ethos of the blog, of me.

Serendipitously this week I also attended the launch conference for the new Care Inspectorate Standards. Guys, I come baring VERY good news! This is the change we have all been waiting for, the good news story amongst all the fear and frustrations. I will be writing more specifically on the new Standards and how we as a team at Stramash interpret them into real practice over on the Stramash blog in the near future – I will post links on here when they go live.

So until then all I will say is that the conference itself was a heartening and inspiring look at how these new values and ethos driven standards celebrate what we do. How they reflect the holistic view of the child and the Care we provide. How they recognise the benefits of time spent outside, of play and the Scandinavian model (which was mentioned specifically).

‘Forest school is dead, long live forest school’. I know there are those in our community who feel frustrated, tired, like the message is being diluted or not getting through.

Dear muddy, wood smoke scented warriors take heart, the tide is turning. ‘Education’ is an enormous ship to turn around. Change is uncomfortable for many and takes time. I understand the daily battles that so many of you face in your settings trying to explain, protect and encourage others to value what you do in the face of (at times) unrelenting pressures of time, curricular, risk aversion and assessment. It is almost impossible to know that outside our woods and green spaces, people in boardrooms (in suits and shoes free from mud) are discussing the value of what we do.

These people, with the power to effect real change are listening, recognising and starting to make the changes we have all been asking for. Early years are leading the charge, however with the new ‘free hours’ increase they are also arguably under the most immediate pressure to adapt and grow. We also know that for every £1 of investment in early years we save £7 – Getting it right in the 1st place, early intervention & investment SAVES money.

So the blog post I’d intended to write was one of an appeal; an appeal to a FS training provider, to consider the implications of its decision to release a fully online Forest School qualification. I still have many thoughts on this but they are superseded (for now) by the more positive realisation/remembering that we are part of a bigger family, a bigger movement. Many of us are related ourselves to a wider network of getting it right for kids; Play-workers, teachers, outdoor educators, family support workers, childminders, parents, social workers, trainers and forest school leaders – we all wear many hats.

What we share is we ken! We share a knowing and deep understanding of the power and the benefits for children spending time in the natural world – forest, beach or garden, whatever you have. We know it from scientific study and from our own observations. There will always be people trying to make a quick buck, calling this whole thing a fad or finding some way to undermine what we do, ready to jump on the band wagon and deliver an inferior service then wonder why (or worse, not care) why the results are not the same.

I have talked before about care with a small and big C. I am in the ‘business of Care’ but how that plays out in practice is all down to how much I care. I care about society, I care about the world these children are a part of and I care about how their whole lives are affected by the people who are making decisions on their behalf. I know that what we do and the way we do it every day matters.

I do care when people make choices that I don’t see as being in the best interests of these children or the industry as a whole, but care (both big and little C) take up a LOT of energy. We are trail blazers and mind shapers.

To challenge every one directly would be to turn ones life into a ‘Forest School themed’ game of whack a mole! I’m going to maintain my focus, keep providing and sharing best practice. Keep getting excited and sharing positivity. Keep my focus firmly on the people who matter – the children this is all for!

Forest School is an ethos, an idea, a ‘model’; it lives within those of us who still deliver, who still care and who keep it alive. We are forest school, so if it’s dead it’s because we’ve let the fire go out. I don’t believe that’s true and there has never been a better time to prove it.

Who’s with me?

The Shieling Project

Combining learning from history, the rich and descriptive Scottish gaelic and the place based skills with a forward thinking, sustainable approach which makes the best use of new technology and scientific knowledge (power from renewables, composting toilets and the like) seamlessly combines the ultra modern with the ancient.

“The Shieling Project is an off-grid learning centre based in Glen Strathfarrar, near Beauly in the Highlands of Scotland. The project is all about outdoor living – from looking after our livestock to making real buildings, from weaving baskets to making burgers from the meat we have raised here. 

The tradition of the Shieling where folk lived outdoors all summer herding the cattle, gives us a window onto the past, but also helps us look towards a sustainable future.” 
The Shieling Project Website

It is also now the home of Summerlings outdoor nursery, and never one to miss an opportunity for a skills share (tea with like minded folk in a beautiful place) I petitioned my boss to organise a visit. This was easier than I’d first imagined as he was already in contact with the project due to the existing nursery and Gaelic links.

I am a total living history nerd, whilst much can be learned from books and the ‘telling’ of history, to be able to physically step back in time and see, hear, smell and experience the world as our ancestors did has such a profound effect. 

Much has been lost in the pursuit of progress. I’m not suggesting that all change is bad or that I’d prefer we were still setting dye with urine and living in a world without penicillin, but living in a way that is in harmony with nature and as part of a community, with knowledge and skills built from generations of people observing the natural world and our place in it, well that is a sad loss indeed.

I come from a place of industrial revolution. ‘Black by day and red by night’ is how my ‘homeland’ was described, as they built over farms and land to build factories for glass and iron or steel and ‘brummigen’ (little metal things). This is my heritage and it has left its mark on the people, on our work ethic and the insatiable need for the new, for progress.

But I have seen 1st hand the fragility of it, how when the resources ran out or progress moved on to ‘cheaper’ pastures, it left subsequent generations of people (born from the flood of people to cities for work) without the opportunities of their fore fathers. Some adaptable people took roles in the business or service industries, retail and later tourism, as the bright twinkling lights of Britain’s second city attracted others to come spend their money. We evolved, because the way things were was not sustainable. Those who could not evolve were left behind. There are still a great many ‘left behind’ people. The fear of becoming left behind is a constant companion.

How sustainable is the current model? Well that is to look at the capitalist western society in which we live…I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that; build me a campfire, put a chipped mug of cider in my hand at about 1am and you’ll get my opinion but until then…

Back to the Shieling Project! As an immigrant to these wild Scottish lands I am obviously FACINATED by the history, the stories of Stoorworm and Selkies, the folk traditions and the Ceilidh (kay-lee). I am also heartened to see that the consideration for the sustainable is a key consideration of their evolution. Combining learning from history, the rich and descriptive Scottish gaelic and the place based skills with a forward thinking, sustainable approach which makes the best use of new technology and scientific knowledge (power from renewables, composting toilets and the like) seamlessly combines the ultra modern with the ancient.

For the children I work with this is their heritage. Basket weaving in 2017 might seem like a ‘nice craft activity’ rather than the necessity of rural living it once was. However as with forest school the end product is not the goal. When we started mass production of things it was to ‘get to the goal faster’, make more profit, be most efficient. We lost individuality and craftsmanship, we saved ‘time’ – what did the maker gain from that time? Flow state, problem solving, creativity, opportunity for quiet contemplation, mindfulness, the opportunity to become an expert at something, sense of achievement, pride, community, songs and stories, building relationships. We have ‘given that time back’ for people to do ‘other things’ but with it have gone all those benefits to the individual.

Now one can buy a basket online for next day delivery then download a mindfulness ap to our ‘smart’phone and hold back the pressures of modern living from crashing in for another day! 

You sometimes see a similar mindset it the forest school world, decisions made in the interests of efficiency or progress which do not allow for or at least account for the significance of the ‘moments’ in between; because we can’t always articulate them, or we don’t monetise or curriculise *made up word!* them. There is a value in staring up at the tree canopy, of the smell of woodsmoke drifting through a frosty woodland, hearing birdsong, being alone, being with others, having animals to care for whatever the day or weather. 

‘Wellbeing’ is a bit of a buzzword in education circles just now, but for me the key to it is the reconnection with your inner spirit. Recognising the divine spirit in others, in all things. Valuing the moments, seeing, being, the essence of Namaste. Because when you do, the choices you make and the person you are changes fundamentally. Wellbeing could just as easily be described as ‘at peace’ or caring – whole lesson plans could (arguably should!) be designed in ‘giving a shit about yourself, others and nature’! It is our job to care, to model caring, to inspire those who follow us to care, for they won’t protect what is not valued in the unrelenting face of ‘progress’. If not us who, if not now when?

So you might visit the Shieling project to learn more about Scottish history, a skill or a craft, I am in no doubt you will come away with some fantastic ideas for place based learning and rural skills. I am also sure like me you will enjoy the opportunity to reflect on your time and what it is to be human. I highly recommend a visit.

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’!


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 


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.