We were recently invited to be interviewed for The DIY Learner podcast hosted by Laura Armer all the way from Texas, USA. She had been inspired by our story of empowering children to get outdoors and learn for themselves through child-led play.
In the podcast, Laura asks us about how we got to where we are today, our approach to outdoor learning and where we’re heading next.
The DIY Learner podcast, features interviews with leaders in nextGen education and stories from successful DIY Learners. Each week the podcast will inspire you to take learning into your own hands, with how-to’s for getting skills and credentials without a formal degree, advice on self-directed learning, mentorships, internships, apprenticeships, and creating portfolios and other ways to show your work.
So what is DIY Learning? The show’s host Laura Armer explains, “Well, it doesn’t mean learning alone, but rather taking charge of your own personal lifelong learning path using next generation learning options and strategies.”
“There’s never been a better time in history to learn whatever you want or need to take your life or career to the next level! Join Laura and her guests on this wave of change in learning, and you can help push over the tipping point at which unconventional learning one day becomes conventional. Let the learning begin!”
If there is one thing you can guarantee in this country, it’s rain! We get a lot of rain, but if we let it stop us from doing things we’d almost never do anything or go anywhere.
So, we say embrace the rain, work with what you’ve got. Use all this water and mud to your advantage. It’s a resource to be cherished, after all, it is a giver of life and we wouldn’t have such beautiful countryside if it wasn’t for the rain. I thought back to the last time I went on holiday to a hot and dry country, beautiful but scorched landscapes with plant life struggling to survive, and then the feeling of returning home to the UK and seeing all the lush green abundance of growth around me. I know I felt blessed that I live where I do.
That said, the rain can and does get you down at times, especially when it seems relentless, but here at Woodland Classroom we try and find ways in which activities can still go ahead despite the weather and actually work with it, using the weather to our advantage. This is where the mud kitchen comes in…
We’d seen lots of pictures on Pinterest about mud kitchens so we dug out some old pots and pans, a few planks of wood, some tree stumps, wooden spoons and an old camping kettle; set it all up. The kids added the final ingredient… imagination.
It was the first time we’d done this activity but the kids new exactly what to do, some made apple pie, some made Christmas cake and some just liked the feel of the mud on their hands. For the youngest tots we say how they simply enjoyed pouring mud and water from one container to another.
One intrepid group of adventurers went in search of fallen apples to add to their mud pie. They came back with hazelnuts, pine cones and all kinds of ‘ingredients’ for their creations. We were over the moon at how much the kids loved it, it was easily one of the best activities we have done to date and so easy to set up and (best of all) it cost nothing.
If you want to try this for yourself and don’t want to use your best pots and pans from your kitchen then you can pick up suitable stuff at junk shops or charity shops for next to nothing and we promise it will be worth it. A little corner in your garden dedicated to a mud kitchen will keep your little ones happy even in the worst of weather, just kit them out with good waterproofs and you’ll be well away.
We decided to make a quick video showing you how we set up our mud kitchen and to show you that it doesn’t need to be fancy or overly engineered, so take a look for some inspiration for setting up your own mud kitchen.
Here is an account of one of one parent’s experience after watching our video:
“We set up our mud kitchen after your prompt over the holidays, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages… Took no more than 10 minutes, and they all have played and played out there. Lleucu was out ’til dark making snow soup this evening and only came in cause she was soaked through, literally down too and including her pants and she was freezing.” Belinda Knott (parent)
So what are you waiting for? Get out and get cooking. Mississippi Mud Pie, Chocolate Log, Stone Soup and more will be on the menu. What will your child cook up?
So… it’s winter. The days are cold and short, but it’s still a great time to be out and about and see a host of things in the woods that you’d not see at other times of the year. Winter leaves our countryside bare, open to deeper exploration and let’s you poke your nose into all sorts of nooks and crannies that would be walled off with greenery come summertime.
Kenneth Grahame, author of the popular children’s novel The Wind In The Willows, painted an evocative picture of the countryside in winter, which hints at the secrets that are waiting to be discovered;
“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off… He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”
There were plenty of winter adventures for Mole, Ratty and Badger, so in order to inspire you to make your outdoor experience one that the kids will love too we have devised an awesome Winter Scavenger Hunt that will stimulate all the senses of your child. The only sense we haven’t got covered is taste – but we’re sure a nice hot chocolate at home after the walk will tick that box. We hope our scavenger hunt will make going outside in winter a memorable and exciting experience for the whole family. Give it a go and let us know how you got on.
You can share pics of your scavenging adventures on our facebook page, we’d love to see them.
We always host a great range of activity days right through the Autumn and Winter months, because we believe it’s important for kids and adults to get outside more than ever during these times when many people shut themselves away indoors. You can check out our upcoming events HERE.
Wintertime in the woods changes things quite dramatically. The cold, wet and early darkness means thinking differently about the activities we do with our children. Something that the kids look forward to as we approach midwinter is our Winter Wishes activity, something that’s simple enough to recreate yourself.
As the nights draw in I’ve found the children are naturally drawn to the campfire, they head for its light and warmth. Here stories can be told, chestnuts roasted and fire-sticks made. There is also a magical feel to this time of year that can be embraced as well as encouraging the kids to think about what’s going on in nature around them.
Children are full of excitement and anticipation for Christmas and the school holidays. They are mesmerised by the darkness and the dancing flames, it is a time for wishes and wonder and staying close to each other for warmth and protection.
Winter solstice (which falls between December 20th & 21st) is a turning point where (in the northern hemisphere) we are at the peak of the darkness, it being the shortest day and longest night. There is the knowledge of more light to come, as from this day forth the days get slowly longer and with that comes a deep sense of hope, new beginnings and the promise of spring.
At our Forest School we like to mark the winter solstice as this is all about welcoming the returning light to the earth and it gives the children a chance to reflect on their year just gone and their wishes for the coming year.
We mark this occasion with out Winter Wishes activity. Whilst sat in a circle, away from the campfire, each child has a turn to light a candle and make three wishes;
One wish for themselves
One wish for their community
and one wish for the Earth.
We don’t insist that the children speak their wishes out loud if they don’t want to. This gives them the option to make a very personal wish that they may otherwise be too embarrassed to speak out loud to the group.
As each child lights a candle and adds it to the growing cluster of others the light increases, mirroring the increase of sunlight and turn of the wheel of the year as we move through winter and toward spring.
“Winter solstice is a moment of pause between two cycles, a moment of transition that can be held and savored….take a moment to experience this edge between these two great cycles. It is also a moment to look forward, to name the new seeds and intentions we wish to take into the next cycle.” Glennie Kindred, Letting in the Wild Edges
I feel that it is important that we give the children a chance to wish for the wider community, especially as at this time of year it can be very easy for kids to get wrapped up in themselves as they receive so much over the Christmas period. Setting good intentions for the world can be their way of giving.
There’s plenty of other fun and games to be had in the winter woods. Our kids cook damper breads on a stick, use flashlights and Morse code to send messages through the dark, they light their own fires and cook baked beans in their tin (cowboy style) to share. All this helps dispel the fear of the darkness and develops their night vision by using all their senses. The kids go back to their homes with rosy cheeks, smelling of wood smoke and full of tales of shadows and mystery. Outdoor learning and play certainly doesn’t need to stop just because it is winter.
This is a guest-blog written by Loretta Hourigan, author of From Little Acorns to Mighty Oaks: Creating a Path to Happier, Healthier Children. This article was originally printed in the magazine ‘Independent Schools’ in August 2015.
“A Student led approach to learning in the great Outdoors”
Forest Schools are sweeping through the UK and despite the notion that the concept is relatively new; this type of Outdoor Learning pre dates back to the 1800’s where in Scandinavia ‘friluftsliv’ (free air life) remains a childhood staple.
Forest Schools offer children the opportunity to take part in regular outdoor sessions, often in all weathers in a woodland environment where leaders act as facilitators rather than teachers. A broad range of skills are developed; problem solving, conflict resolution, confidence and communication. Crucially Forest Schools differ from other organisations in their awareness that children need to attend regular sessions of Outdoor Learning over an extended period of time in order to reap the benefits. An evaluation by Liz O’Brien & Richard Murray support this theory, stating “a number of children took a long time to become familiar and confident with Forest Schools”.
The evaluation found that parent’s attitudes to the outdoors changed over time, including how they perceived risks in an outdoor setting (making fires, using sharp tools, climbing trees.) Rather than excluding or avoiding risks, at Forest Schools risks are managed. Far from traditional lesson planning; most activities evolve from the spark of interest a child demonstrates in a particular task and around which future sessions are planned. This leads to engaging experiences meaningful to the children.
James Kendall, an experienced Forest Schools leader set up Woodland Classroom in 2013 with Lea Wakeman; both have seen children who struggle to perform within a traditional educational setting thrive in the woodland classroom. I would highly recommend the video on their website which answers the question “What is Forest Schools’ succinctly. (You can find that video HERE)
James explained how one of the key features of every Forest School session is to gather around the fire circle. “Firstly, in a circle everyone is equal. Ideas can be readily passed around; games and activities all work well in a circular setting. Minus the constraints of four walls; children’s confidence increases alongside their freedom to roam further away, the fire provides the ideal base to return to.”
Forest Schools don’t quantify success through standardised testing; how therefore can we be confident that spending time outdoors really does benefit our children? Apart from numerous studies on the subject, a simple way is to reflect on how you felt when you played outdoors as a child.
My own memories of jumping through long grass and hiding beneath the cool boughs of the weeping willow provided much of the inspiration for my children’s book ‘The Adventures of Cameron Carter, Knight in the Forest’ where a young boy sets out on a series of outdoor challenges following the discovery of a tent in his garden.
Sessions are available from qualified Forest School leaders using a suitable green space in your school; alternatively at an established external location. Children learn and develop through outdoor play and with many links to the National Curriculum; Forest Schools are engaging both children and adults alike.
At a time when many children are being wrapped up in too much cotton wool (not literally) to keep them safe from the perceived hazards of modern life, I’ve become more and more a champion of allowing the children I look after (at Forest School sessions) to take risks and show they can be responsible for managing their own safety. So, with that in mind, we’ve been chopping firewood together, using a very sharp axe, and here’s a little video which shows you how I teach those basic axe skills to kids. I’d encourage you to try it for yourself.
Autumn has definitely arrived here in the UK and with the long, dark and cold nights closing in my mind’s turned to getting some firewood in. Yes, like many others I’ve left it late again. It’s always good to have some help with tasks like this and I’ve found that chopping firewood is an effective and simple activity for kids to get stuck into as well as a great introduction to the axe. Kids can understand the task and (most folks agree) splitting logs is very satisfying to do. So what about giving a razor sharp axe to a child? Well, here’s what the children’s author Roald Dahl had to say about risk;
“…the more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to take care of themselves. If you never let them take any risks, then I believe they become very prone to injury. Boys should be allowed to climb tall trees and walk along the tops of high walls and dive into the sea from high rocks… The same with girls. I like the type of child who takes risks. Better by far than the one who never does so.”
Mabli (one of our regular Young Rangers) is just six years old and it was really encouraging to see her progress recently from using the potato peeler (which we give to kids first to practice their knife technique) to using a proper whittling knife. She was confident, calm and sensible with the tool, which I like to think she learnt through clear mentoring, encouragement and close supervision. There’s a voice in my head which jostles for centre stage telling me that there’s going to be a terrible accident and that it would be better to just let kids like Mabli play at something safer. But of course, children are just like us, they don’t want to hurt themselves, so along with a good mentor (like any parent), they’re their own regulator.
Anyway, back to the axe and chopping wood. I think this is a great introductory activity for kids to sharp tools as with an axe you have a fair distance between the sharp edge and little fingers. Also, whoever heard of such a thing as an ugly piece of firewood? So, no fine craft skills are required. You could even follow wood chopping with learning fire-lighting so that they get to burn what they’ve chopped themselves. I’ll give the last word on ‘risk’ to Richard Louv, author of the fantastic book Last Child in the Woods;
“An indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger.”
So, would you use sharp tools with your own kids at home? Have you had success with whittling, wood chopping or using a saw with little ones? We’d love to hear from you.
If you enjoyed this video, we’ve got MORE videos on our YouTube channel giving you ideas for engaging kids in the great outdoors. You can find it by clicking HERE.
Using the computer game itself to get the kids off the screen and outdoors!
At Woodland Classroom we decided to do something a little different with our Forest School sessions and meet the kids on their level.
James was inspired by a brilliant book he has been reading “Coyotes Guide to Connecting with Nature’ where he read about taking what is popular with young people at that current time and transforming it into an outdoor activity. Well that was easy as Minecraft has taken the world by storm, it is hugely popular amongst children of lots of different ages and is easily transferable to the outdoors.
The game itself involves building your own world using blocks, there are tasks to complete like building a shelter and a fire before nightfall, this will keep the creepers away.
You can mine for rocks and minerals, you can make or craft things that help your survival, this is done by following a ‘recipe’ or a list of things needed to create your item.
Any way I’m sure all you parents out there already know this and much more as kids seem to be absolutely enthralled by this game.
With this popularity also comes concern about the amount of time the children are spending on the computer when they could be outside in the fresh air, getting exercise, interacting with others and developing lots of social and emotional skills.
So we launched our first date at Denmark Farm, Lampeter, during the school holidays, it was booked up within four hours of putting it on facebook, so we set another date, this too booked up straight away.
We spent the first few weeks of summer doing our research about Minecraft, talking to children and reading Minecraft magazines and watching it being played.
We came up with a lesson plan for a day of Minecraft activities and got crafting ourselves, we made wooden chests, green cloaks for the creepers and painted stones for iron ore and emeralds.
On the 17th Aug we ran our first Minecraft day, we had a great time, it all went very well and the kids loved it!
The second day also went well, we even had children travel up from Swansea to attend our day.
Here are the children at the end of day one:
Some children who attended were known to us because they attend our weekly club ‘Young Rangers’ and a few had never played Minecraft before but this did not matter, it was totally inclusive to non-Minecraft fans also.
Some of the skills developed through these activities were communication and negotiating skills, each team had to delegate jobs to the team members and they could trade items with other teams. There was also a huge emphasis on team work.
Here is Briar trading an iron ore with another team.
Some other skills involved using numbers as each precious stone was worth so many points, they had to work out whether trade was worth it to them or not.
There were many other skills being developed as the activities took place and as always we encouraged their learning about nature itself, we dropped lots of small lessons into the mix about wildlife and allowed time for free play within the boundaries of the game and as always we allow choice in our activities. There was no pressure on any of the children to complete all the tasks, they did which activities they preferred and there was a sense of them being in charge of their own play and experience, we just provided the platform.
We are now planning on running four days at Aberystwyth over the October half term and the response has been incredible! We are in talks about more dates to accommodate all the interest.
We are also working on a published version of our lesson plan so people can use our ideas to run their own events so watch this space!
Thank you to everyone for the amazing support we have had.
Want a great and simple way to get kids engaged in the outdoors? We’ve uploaded a video to our YouTube channel showing how to make yummy wild teas and how successful this has been with children. Enjoy!
So, to recap….
We used the following common plants in our wild teas; stinging nettles, goosegrass or cleavers, dandelion (petals only) and mint.
You can play around with the combinations of these and there’s plenty of information out there in Google land on other wild plants to use to flavour your teas.
Try making your very own herbal teas or “woody waters” as our Forest School group calls it. All you need is a cafetiere. It’s a great excuse to go for a walk in nature, get kids looking closely at the plants around them and dip your toe into the wonderful world of wild food and foraging. You’ll be pleased to hear that the plants you’re looking for are easy to find and identify.
Picking nettles without getting stung can be tricky but a great trick to impress kids once you’ve mastered it. Most of the stinging hairs are on the top of the leaves so grab the plant by the bottom of the leaves or the stem. Of course, you can always use gloves if you want to be extra safe. The tastiest parts of the nettle are the young tops. Once you’ve got enough nettle leaves place them in to the cafetiere, pour on hot water (which you’ll be pleased to hear also eliminates the sting) and leave to brew for a few minutes before pushing the plunger and serving up.
For a sweeter brew, try adding some mint leaves and even the fussiest eater should enjoy the refreshing tea especially if they have foraged for the leaves and made it for themselves.
Everyone knows the dandelion, and when in flower they’re easy to spot. The petals have a sweet taste to them, like liquid sunshine. You can also eat the leaves, though they’re quite bitter – give it a go.
Let us know how your experimental recipes go. We’d love to hear from you.
Here in the UK, the government and health boards tell us we need to get our ‘5 a Day’ of fruit and veg into our diet. So, what about nature time? I say we should introduce a minimum ‘1 hour a Day.’ After all don’t we get essential vitamins from sunlight too?
By Lea Wakeman.
I have always wanted to work with children in a therapeutic way and never more than now! After running over eighty Forest School sessions with my partner James, I am really seeing first hand the therapeutic benefits of natural play.
Let me take you back 7 years… I first noticed the beneficial effects of nature and the outdoor environment when I worked in a primary school. My role was specifically supporting children who had challenging behaviour or were classed as vulnerable. I found it was instinctual for me to remove a child who was displaying extreme stress and take them outside. Why?
Well, firstly, it removed any possible danger to the rest of the class, as chairs would sometimes be thrown. But what I found was that the child in question responded positively to the open space by eventually calming down. If the child stayed indoors it took relatively longer to calm them, there was so much stimulus inside the building and nowhere they could be alone.
I learnt to keep my running shoes by the school entrance so I could quickly change into them when a child left the building, it was usually a state of anger that led them to go outside without permission in the first place.
Sometimes, they seemed to stay angry for a long time but this was different to them being angry inside the school where children (or adults) could be hurt. Indoors, there seemed no escape for them from their emotions, it just escalated until they became too tired to carry on being angry.
Outside it was different, the open space seemed to clear their busy minds, the flood of emotions and rage was given breathing space somehow, it had somewhere to go and there was a sense of freedom, a release from being trapped.
There is a common way of thinking which takes the stance that outside the confines of the school walls lay danger, children could be taken, in bad weather there was the risk of them falling on ice, getting wet or sun burnt. This apprehension has been compounded by the media as well as valid concerns about fast traffic and playing near roads. Yet I saw the children were always drawn to the the playing field and school grounds.
While working in the school there were times when I could take the kids out into the garden and let them plant flowers and dig in the soil but the busy curriculum never allowed much time for this, it was seen as a treat rather than the norm. Teachers needed to be creative in their lesson planning to incorporate nature and the outdoors into everyday school life and that only really happened with teachers who already had a passion for the outdoors.
Once or twice a year the class would get to go for a walk in the countryside or visit the local woodland, in fact, this is where I had my first experience of Forest School and it completely fired my imagination. The activities were so simple yet so much pleasure was had, there was no completion of a task to be ‘marked off’ and graded, no child was put into a group based on their ability, all kids were equally able to contribute something to the activities, in fact differences were seen as creativity in action. Yet days like this were few and far between, the national curriculum just doesn’t allow for much time away from the classroom.
Now, I don’t want to make that particular school sound bad in any way at all, it was a wonderful and nurturing place with a dynamic and forward thinking Head and staff, I learned so much there. There are also some great examples of in-school projects where teachers are incorporating nature into their lessons. But since I’ve been running regular Forest School sessions myself I can reflect back on the way the general schools system can compound the growing disconnection of children from nature. I still hear from angry parents about kids being kept in at play times because of snow, so things have not changed all that much.
But the good news is, we’re getting there. Over the last few years there has been a huge push towards outdoor education, but this is still only in addition to the current education system, we would still do very well to look towards Scandinavia and their model of education where being outdoors is integrated throughout school.
So what can we all do to help? It isn’t just our schools that need to adopt a different attitude to this subject but every person, whether a parent or not. We need to follow our instinct, that gut feeling we all know to be true, and start shouting about the great outdoors as the place where healing occurs and as the place to go in order to prevent emotional and physical imbalance in ourselves and our children, whatever form that may take.
What do we mean when we say natural habitat? I remember a day when I was visiting Llyn Brenig in Denbighshire, and I heard a comment that got me thinking about our perception of what is natural.
As the couple gazed at the view, one of them said “What a beautiful natural landscape.” I took in the same view and this is what I saw from lake to peak; a man-made reservoir (Llyn Brenig itself), improved pasture for grazing, a forestry plantation of conifers, followed by a moorland managed for grouse shooting, topped off with a few wind turbines.
All of these are very much managed features, sculpted by human influence. There was nothing ‘natural’ about the view whatsoever. However, this is how the visitor perceived it. The reality is that in the UK, we don’t have any wilderness left. Every piece of land has had management decisions imposed upon it, for better or worse.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I agree that managed habitats can very much be appreciated and inspiring in themselves, but they should also be recognised for what they are – unnatural. So, many people’s perception of wildness can be a little skewed and much of modern life can serve to detach us from the natural world from which we came.
Human beings have thrived far longer outdoors, living from and with the land, than we have in houses. So perhaps we can say that the outdoors is our natural habitat. I feel it’s important that we all make time for nature and reconnect with the land around us in whatever way we can. Time invested will increase our understanding of the habitats we see and the ecosystems that are entwined with them.
At Young Rangers we give children an early start in encouraging this understanding. At their most basic level, sessions can be simply seen as ‘time spent in nature’ and Denmark Farm has a wide range of habitats for visitors to explore including broadleaf woodland, wetland and grassland. There are areas of the site where nature is left to its own devices, but even this ‘non-intervention’ approach is a management decision. What makes Denmark Farm different is where its priorities lie. Land is managed for biodiversity and wildlife first, rather than for agricultural output and the value that this sensitive approach has for environmental education is huge. Children who come to Young Rangers (and all visitors to Denmark Farm) get the opportunity to see the effects this approach has on their habitats, compared with the surrounding landscape. We hope such experiences will fire imaginations and lead children to ask more questions so they can make their own decisions about the land around them and what they think of as natural.