Are you looking for a simple but tasty treat that could go head-to-head with marshmallows as the number one campfire snack with kids? Well look no further…
We cook A LOT of marshmallows over the campfire with kids when we host our Forest School sessions and Woodland Birthday Parties. We know children love them, but they are not exactly a nutritionists best friend. They also contain gelatine made from pork or beef and we’re getting a lot more requests from parents who want vegetarian or vegan friendly campfire snacks for their kids when they come out to the woods with us. Last but not least, they’re sticky residue is a nightmare to get out of your clothes. Luckily, we have the solution.
Toffee Apple Slices are our alternative to marshmallows and kids love them! Granted they’re still coated in sugar but kids are getting some fruit down them and this recipe is vegan too. Our favourite sugar to use is coconut blossom sugar, as it less refined and less processed than regular sugar but any soft brown sugar will do the trick. They make a great hot campfire snack anytime of the year, especially in the autumn when you can walk out to an apple tree and pick the fruit straight from the branch.
Light or Dark Brown Soft Sugar
Cinnamon and Nutmeg – add to taste
To get a fire that really makes the most mouth-watering toffee apple slices it’s best to let your flames die down and roast your apples over the hot coals – just like you would with a bbq. This will save them from burning.
First gently roast your apple slice over the fire until it begins to go soft and the pulp starts to bubble up.
Next, dip your hot apple slice in a tray of soft brown sugar until it is well coated. Be careful it doesn’t fall off the stick.
Roast your coated apple slice over the fire again until the sugar starts to melt.
Now for the final touch… let your apple slice cool for a minute and the sugar will harden up and give your apple a crispy toffee coating – simply delicious.
Eat and repeat!
For a slightly spiced variant on this snack then try sprinkling some cinnamon and/or nutmeg into the sugar. Ginger would work well too.
Which Wood Should You Use?
For your roasting stick we would recommend using either a hazel, willow or sycamore stick. At Forest School this can be a whole activity in itself, identifying the tree in the woods, cutting a suitable branch responsibly and reducing the damage to the tree, then practising some basic whittling skills by slicing away the bark near the tip and making a sharp point.
We would recommend using green (fresh) sticks from a tree as they are more resistant to the fire than dead twigs, so will last longer.
Sycamore – the winter twig and full leaf.
FUN FACT:Sycamore (Acerpseudoplatanus) actually contains it’s own natural antibacterial and antiviral properties, which is one reason why it is very sought after for use in kitchenware. This makes it a really safe wood to use for roasting sticks when out in the woods with kids.
Full disclosure, I personally can’t stand marshmallows, even though I cook so many, so I was very glad to discover this tasty alternative. Thanks to the Forest School Leader who shared this cooking idea with us at a skill share training day in Derbyshire last year, I can’t remember your name but we’re forever grateful 🙂
Happy cooking everyone.
James & Lea Kendall are the creators of Woodland Classroom. “Through our passion, enthusiasm and experience we help people connect with nature, feel healthier and have meaningful experiences through positive activity and creative play.”
“We are experienced outdoor educators with a background in bushcraft, forest school and nature therapy, who love what we do.”
Want to be healthier and happier? I’d say you need more wildness in your life! We, as a species, need to rewild ourselves. Practising bushcraft and taking time out for ourselves in nature can be our vehicle to honouring our ancient, wild selves. You may have seen plenty of stories doing the rounds about landowners who are letting wildlife do it’s thing as farms, forestry plantations and gardens are allowed to go back to nature. Whether it’s called rewilding, natural regeneration or non-intervention, the aim is usually the same; to benefit wildlife by increasing biodiversity. The results in many of these projects have seen a huge increase in the variety of animal and plant life, as well as the joy and happiness that comes to those who get to watch wildlife thriving around them. Species of insects and wildflowers have exploded and following them, all the birds and mammals that come with them. All because humans have withdrawn their input. Let’s take a step back and understand just what rewilding is…
“Rewilding is a progressive approach to conservation. It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. Through rewilding, wildlife’s natural rhythms create wilder, more biodiverse habitats.” Rewidling Europe
So, can we also apply this approach to how we live our own lives? Absolutely!
Rewilding Your Body
The health benefits of being outdoors is one topic I find fascinating. As well as being the co-owner of a Forest School & Bushcraft company, I also work in mental health as a counsellor. In my work I have always been interested in the idea of our inner hunter-gatherer. Studies have shown that our brains are still wired up to a live in the world of our ancestors where our priorities were to hunt and gather for food, build shelter, connect with our families and communities and use plants to heal ourselves. Occasionally we’d experience the stress response to run away from danger or fight to protect ourselves from harm. In the world of the hunter-gatherer these stressful instances would have normally been short lived and with the immediate danger passed we’d soon return to the safety of our tribe, an ongoing cycle of relaxation to stress to relaxation, completed and no harm done. Fast forward to today however, and our modern, fast-paced lifestyles mean we spend much of our lives in this stress state. Cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone) is racing through our systems steadily and rarely do we get much of a break from this to reconnect with our tribe and loved ones and complete the cycle, allowing the brain to get it’s much needed rest.
Society has changed in the blink of an evolutionary eye, and our brain wiring has nowhere near caught up yet. It’s still happier picking berries, whittling spoons and bonding with each other whilst sat round the campfire under the canopy of the trees and stars.
Research by Mark Berman at the University of Chicago says that if you add 10 trees to any given urban block, residents report a 1% increase in wellness, if you wanted to give the same effect using money for increasing happiness you’d have to pay each household $10,000 or make the residents 7 years younger. Trees, nature, wildness, they all increase our happiness and well-being. So, why don’t we choose to spend more time immersed in nature if it’s so good for us?
I’ve recently discovered the process of fermenting wild greens. This is an ancient technique to preserve foods and to increase the nutritional value which greatly benefits the overall health of the body. This further led me to develop my understanding of how the gut plays a major role in our mental health too. It was fascinating to discover that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, it’s like the body’s second brain. Eating fermented food is incredibly good for us and up until very recently in western history we have been preserving food in this way.
The average body contains around 39 trillion microbes & bacteria in the intestines. Our lack of exposure to dirt and animals along with the cleaning and disinfecting of our crops and environment with chemicals, has reduced the biodiversity in our guts, and like the health of the earth, our own overall health has declined as a result. We are our own ecosystems, and some scientists are suggesting we even need to rewild our intestines with bacteria from indigenous people – its sounds crazy but it’s already happening. Want to know more about this subject? Check out Mary Beth Nawor’s Ted Talk on YouTube.
Many of us already know how to rewild our back gardens, letting nature take over or by planting native plants and bee-friendly flowers. We can also increase the ‘wildness’ of our gut by eating healthy, fermented and ‘dirty’ wild food, but how do we rewild our spirit, our emotional, cognitive and social selves?
I believe that positive mental and physical health can be achieved through the art of Bushcraft and being mindful in nature. Here we are doing two very simple things; we are honouring our inner hunter-gatherer and living in the present moment. We are also surrounding ourselves amongst trees in a beautiful forest. Those trees have been scientifically proven to have their own natural healing powers, but that’s a story for another time.
Bushcraft – Just What the Doctor Ordered
Our good friend Nick Hulley is a Bushcraft Instructor based in Staffordshire who brings Mindfulness into the very core of his life. When hosting a woodland skills session, mindfulness informs how he moves about the woods, how he uses all his senses to feel the forest, how the trees nourish him, how he pauses and calmly absorbs all about him: likewise for his learners on the courses he delivers for them. Let’s let Nick explain in his own words…
“After my ‘safety-rounds’ along the rides, the trails and the woodland fringes; I ease into the fire circle glade. I lower my rucksack, remove the kindling from home along with the tinder, heft my axe into a couple of logs, light the fire and boil the kettle – wood smoke, tea, crackling billets, fresh cut logs, the fire light flicker, the outer focus stillness and yet the inner calmness continues to enrich my wellbeing. I ground myself, cross-legged and centred. The following fifteen minutes of the breath, the inner sight, the acknowledgement and the continued return to the breath sets me up for the day: this marriage works, forest environments, Bushcraft and Mindfulness: even if it is just a short centre and pause whilst doing.”
Nick will be one of the four experienced tutors hosting our
“It is wonderful to now be aware that for all these years, working as I do in a forest setting, that research has been going on with the intent to establish positive links between woodlands & improved health. Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing in Japan) and its beneficial outcomes is one of the many researched avenues involving forested settings; which provide a life enhancing backdrop to the union of Bushcraft activities and primitive skills learning complimented by Mindfulness, with its slowed, peaceful and thoughtful considerations of the natural world and our impact on it.”
Practising Bushcraft doesn’t have to mean taking on extreme survival skills, pushing yourself to the edge of your endurance or eating up a dish of witchetty grubs, ala Bear Grylls. For me, Bushcraft skills are about slowing down, tuning into nature, connecting with our ancient past and being present in our natural environment. Through Bushcraft skills such as tracking, carving, nature awareness and plant identification we can become extremely mindful and train our brain to leave the fast-paced, modern world behind even if just for a few hours. Bushcraft and Mindfulness are the perfect partners to leading a healthier, happier lifestyle, enriched by nature, sharing time with like minds and learning some very old, new skills.
by Lea Kendall (Counsellor, Mindfulness in the Woods Practitioner and Outdoor Activity Leader)
Woodland Classroom are hosting a whole weekend of Woodland Mindfulness & Bushcraft at the National Trust’s Chirk Castle estate in North Wales this September. You can give some time to your inner hunter-gatherer for a weekend of mindfulness in the woods accompanied by a range of bushcraft activities aimed at focusing the mind and increasing awareness & appreciation of the natural world. If you’d like to know more about this event, just follow THIS LINK.
“In wildness is the salvation of the world” Henry David Thorough
We’re giving you our Nature Scavenger Hunt that we’ve had loads of success with at our outdoor kids sessions. It’s a FREE download which works great whether you’re a teacher or activity leader running an outdoor education session, or you’re a parent who wants to spice up a walk in the woods with their kids.
With some children, a walk in nature can be a hard sell if they prefer to stay indoors, watch videos or play video games. Many children might think twice before grabbing their coat and hat to head out into the woods for a day’s exploring. But could they resist the lure of a treasure hunt?
At Woodland Classroom we run lots of Forest School and outdoor education activities and one thing we’ve discovered is that kids love treasure hunts. So, we came up with a hunt of our own, which we use regularly at our sessions. Now you can use it to entice your kids outdoors during the colder months as they go looking for treasures from nature. You could even come up with a prize if the kids find everything on the list.
A couple of reasons why this particular Nature Scavenger Hunt works so well is that it is not season specific, so all the treasures can be found year round. Also many of the items are open to the child’s own interpretation, so it makes their experience a personal one. This activity also stimulates children’s natural curiosity. It’s the unexpected things that kids discover whilst looking for the items on their list that make each walk special.
You will notice one of the items to find involves a bit of litter-picking. This is our way of having an opportunity to talk with the kids we work with about litter and it’s impact on the land. We would, of course, advise that you check that the chosen litter is safe to be handled before adding it to the basket.
And for any parents thinking twice about heading out on a windy day, remember this; you can’t change the weather but you can change your attitude to it. An old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as the wrong weather, just the wrong clothing.” So, download your Nature Scavenger Hunt, get yourself and the kids wrapped up, grab a basket, a flask of hot chocolate and get exploring.
The other day I saw a news report that in the UK there is a staggeringly large waiting list of 51,000 children who want to join Scouting groups across the country – you can read that article here. This one fact alone shows how much demand there is currently for regular outdoor activity sessions for children. Alongside this huge demand, I think there’s an equally growing groundswell movement of outdoor education, not only in the UK but in America too. It seems that everywhere there are initiatives, community schemes and small businesses springing up to offer children (and adults for that matter) quality wild time experiences.
Here at Woodland Classroom we’re one of many growing outdoor education service providers across the country and it’s great to be part of such a thriving community. Like so many others, our business is growing and new opportunities to get kids outdoors are coming to us all the time. We wanted to tell the story of another fellow outdoor educator, who only last year started out on his journey to create his own outdoor education company. It’s also the story of how we were able to help him set up his new forest school and outdoor education enterprise.
Meet James Dunlop. He is the recent founder of Wild Thyme Outdoors in Essex, England. Wild Thyme Outdoors aims to create exciting adventures for people of all ages; joining them in British woodland and the wider great outdoors! They are currently delivering; Forest School programs for school, youth and charity groups, also woodland adventure birthday parties for all ages. They have the privilege of unrestricted and sole access to several beautiful patches woodland which they use and care for to run their wildly exciting programs.
I think it’s the passion of the people running outdoor education today that is really key to it’s increasing popularity. Activity Leaders like James are all so passionate about their subject matters, about engaging people of all ages in nature whether it’s forest school, woodland kindergarten, Scouts & Guides, summer camp, or any of the many forms outdoor education can take. It’s the old tale of the teacher who inspired a child to ignite their own spark for learning about nature and enjoying quality time outdoors. I take my hat off to all outdoor activity leaders (especially all you volunteers) who are passing their enthusiasm on to the next generation.
We sat down with James to here the tale behind Wild Thyme Outdoors and what inspired him to go it alone and become a part of the growing outdoor education scene. We’re happy to say that we were able to play a part in his success story too.
LW (Lea Wakeman) Hi James. Thanks for talking with us. Can you tell me why you wanted to set up an outdoor education business?
JD (James Dunlop) “It’s just part of who I am. Outdoor education is an expression of me as a person, an unapologetic nature geek with a fiery passion for working with children. They are so much smarter than we are, so much more aware! I learn so much just teaching young ones. There is however, an upsetting lack (in my honest opinion) of outdoor provision for young and old alike. We treat nature as if it is something totally separate to ourselves, even the word nature, a label, is a separation of ourselves from all that it encompasses, what many don’t realise is we are nature too! I want to set up a outdoor education business to give people the opportunity to realise, we are not separate from the natural world, nor should we be afraid of it.”
LW I couldn’t agree more. Tell me about your background and how did you get to this point in your career?
JD “As a little one I grew up in a suburban part of Wales not too far from Newport. It was a time before PlayStation and iPads, my favourite ‘toy’ was a pair of buckskin trousers and a waist coat that my parents had bought back from a business trip to America. I would wear these continuously always wanting to be the Indian in a game of Cowboys & Indians. I have no idea where this fascination with the indigenous people of America came from, but it still hasn’t left me to this day!”
“Long story short, I joined John Ryder of the Woodcraft School for a week as a 16th birthday present, joined the cadets, attended the Army foundation college and post military found myself at Shuttleworth College studying Outdoor Education.”
“My first outdoor education job was with Stubbers Adventure Centre in Essex where I live. Stubbers gave me the opportunity to grow as a teacher/instructor but also a canvas to develop my understanding and knowledge of the the natural world and primitive skills. I was given charge and free reign of their Bushcraft Activity Week.”
“After 6 years I entered the fitness industry. But even here my passion for all things outdoors and nature based followed me. I discovered the world of ‘natural movement’ and soon became adept and qualified to teach what is now coined ‘primitive movement patterns.’ The itch to get back to working outdoors grew and grew and before long I was in a position where I either did something about it or moved away from it altogether.”
“Enter an amazing influence! Woodland Classroom pops up on my facebook newsfeed, before I’d finished my coffee I had read, watched and consumed everything James & Lea had on social media and their website, now a YouTube search on Forest School lead me to even more! I was hooked! This was it! The answer to everything I had learnt over the last 10 years, the cure for the itch!”
“So here I am now! Standing on the edge of a woodland with my big idea; Wild Thyme Outdoors – forest school, nature nursery and woodland skills.”
LW Setting up your own woodland activity school is a big leap. What’s your vision for your business in 3 years time?
JD “In 3 years time, I would like to have multiple locations running forest schools and nature nurseries for various age groups and a committed and visionary team of individuals helping me deliver some of the best nature immersion and outdoor education training in the South-East.”
LW We first met after you contacted us about our online Mentoring scheme for forest school leaders and outdoor educators. How was your experience with the mentoring session? What did you get out of it?
JD “I’ve never had a mentoring session before, though I do recognise the power of mentorship. For months I was saying to my peers that I needed some kind of business mentor or just a personal mentor of some description. Needless to say when I saw that you offered forest school specific mentoring It ticked many boxes for me. I could have a conversation with someone who was already further down the path so I could get answers to many of my questions and also finally have that mentor, that person that I could be held accountable to.”
“You were both super open and honest about how you structure your business and what pitfalls and hurdles you came across that I should keep an eye out for. This greatly reduces my learning curve and speeds up all the boring admin bits that I hate doing. More importantly you enquired about what I had done and intended to do before I started offering forest school programmes, highlighting things that I was wasting time on and where my focus really should be.”
James has been having a lot of success with bookings for woodland birthday parties.
LW What was the one most useful piece of advice that came out of the Mentoring session?
JD “To just get on with it! I spend so much time making sure that every possible angle has been covered that it would be 2018 before I was even in the position to start. I’d say to anyone reading this, that if this is what you want, stop fretting and get a move on. Start small, run a few pilot days for friends and family (which is exactly what I did) and tell as many people as you can about what you’re doing. Before the month was out I had countless people asking me for more details and two schools interested in developing a relationship with Wild Thyme!”
LW What was the main benefit of having the Mentoring session to you? What did it enable you to do?
JD “I think the main benefit was to create clarity for me to begin, both you and James were able to put my mind at ease about so many things, and point me on the path that I needed to be on. Whilst I’m all about creating your own journey it can be a massive help to be shown parts of the journey by those who have done it.”
LW What successes have you had with the business since the Mentoring session?
JD “Since we last spoke; we have registered the business so it’s official, we have booked our level 3 Forest School Leaders training and we have a queue for birthday parties! We have also explored the realm of opening the Forest School up as a day care/nursery 3 days a week which has been met with great interest. Our website is being constructed and we have graphic designer working on the brand designs and associated media. Through several connections we have 3 schools interested in our Forest Schools program. It’s all Go! Go! Go!”
LWThanks for speaking with us James, and best of luck for the future. I know we will keep in touch.
You can find out more about our online Mentoring scheme by following the link below.
Something quite unexpected happened when I started hosting our outdoor activity events for kids. We started getting an increasing number of enquiries and bookings by parents whose children were on the autistic spectrum. The event that caused this unexpected but welcome interest was our Wildcraft Adventures. I wanted to find out why this was happening.
Children today live in a world where screen based technology and instant information is everywhere, it makes me feel quite old sometimes. The lure of video games is getting so strong with young people today that some writers are referring to this as the new drug of the 21st Century. Listening to parents talk about the battles they have with their children when trying to reduce their screen time it reminds me more of a heroin addiction rather than a popular game enjoyed by young people.
“Kids love the shiny tech as much as the rest of us. The ubiquity and pervasiveness of screens across every aspect of our lives has happened with astonishing speed with limited disconnect anymore between on and offline. This is voted as the number one barrier to kids playing out across the whole network from parents to organisations. How can we make sure we’re aware of our screen time and we find balance by making time for WildTime, offline, outside, liking other stuff like plants, trees, the sun, the rain and all the cool creatures? How do we help them navigate all this technology?”Project Wild Thing
No wonder children love video games so much, they can transport you to another world and you are constantly rewarded for your efforts. As adults and parents it’s our responsibility to help our children strike a balance between technology which is (quite understandably) attractive and the real world of social interactions and nature. I think one way we can do this is through inspiration. Igniting the natural urge to play in every child’s mind. That is how Wildcraft Adventure™ came about, but more on that later.
I’ve spoken with a few parents about their experiences managing their children’s screen time. I was shocked to learn of one parent who threatened to turn off the WI-FI as a consequence of some behaviour only to become frightened that her 15-year-old son would physically attack her. I was also surprised by one mother who was shocked to see her 10 year old son had wet himself while playing Minecraft on his iPad for the first time.
The first child mentioned above is dyspraxic and the second child (it is thought) has autistic spectrum disorder. These two children have learning differences and I believe that they are prone to get ‘hooked’ on popular computer games like Minecraft and Terraria, but so do many other children without learning differences. I really wanted to explore why.
Minecraft is a worldwide phenomenon. Having sold countless copies. It’s a game that children with ASD seem particularly attracted to.
Something about the format of video games really engages kids in the make believe world of computer games. Children rarely take complete responsibility for their actions and there’s usually an adult keeping their little worlds moving along. Kids have so little control in their real lives and decisions get made for them all the time. So, to be given the power to build a world that is totally of your own design, where all decisions are made by the child, their own preferences and choices, must be such a refreshing change and escape for them, no wonder they find it hard to come back to reality. Is this the big attraction of non-competitive, world building video games like Minecraft?
In our outdoor education business, my partner and I created an outdoor adventure game called Wildcraft Adventure™, which is based on popular video games, using lots of common themes that feature in kids favourite games. It has been a huge success with almost 100% positive feedback from kids and parents. We have also had some amazing feedback from children on the spectrum and their parents. These particular children normally find interacting in teams really difficult.
In our Wildcraft Adventure™ game the children get split into teams (known as ‘clans’) and they compete for points in a variety of outdoor challenges. The clan with the most XP (a common gaming term referring to experience points) wins the game. Thought the emphasis is definitely not on this competitive element, but more on teamwork and shared play.
We have been told by many parents that anything competitive can be a challenge for their child who has ASD but this has rarely been a problem in the Wildcraft Adventure game. There is not a prize for winning and the game is about collecting resources and completing challenges which earn you XP. The emphasis is on earning XP rather than winning the game, the gaining of experience and new skills. The game suits children who are competitive and non-competitive. While some children will focus on finding the most precious and well-hidden resource to earn them the maximum amount of XP, the other children will focus on creating a space that uses the imagination, like building a vegetable garden, which will also earn them XP but is less about competition and more about creativity. Each style of play is rewarded and rewarding in itself. If there are two different types of children in the same clan then they can go their separate ways without getting into conflict with one another. Each team member can pick and choose their own preference of play within the game, this helps group cohesion.
One session that we ran was for a Home Education group of 20 children with 6 parents attending also. There were both high and low functioning children with ASD. Within the group one child had been taken out of school because of anxiety, another child with cancer, another child who didn’t speak any English and also a child who had just moved to Britain from the USA and didn’t know anyone in this country.
The day went extremely well and we had some great feedback off the parents. One of the children with ASD managed to stay for the whole day when normally he goes home after just half a day, his Mum was so pleased. At the point he did get upset, he was given an iPad to calm him down in which he played Minecraft but every so often he would engage again with the game and was mostly settled in the woods for the whole day.
All the children had fun and engaged with the game. There were a couple of melt downs but parents were there to help calm the child and they resumed play quickly and without incident.
What struck me was that the children all spoke a common language, the video game language, so there was common ground for everyone to understand, which even crossed real-life language barriers. Whatever the need of the child, there was an understanding of the concept of the game, but instead of sat indoors stuck to a computer screen they were outside getting fresh air, exercise, socialising and learning new skills.
UPDATE (Jan 2018): Having had such a hugely positive response from parents of children with ASD to Wildcraft we have since developed the ASD Friendly version of the game which uses specially created game componenets presented as a social-story rather than reams of text. The children love it and this has also proved to work well for children with other learning diffrences including dyslexia.
Our Wildcraft Adventure days (which have been such a hit with video gaming kids) have now been transformed into a shorter, simpler, fast-paced outdoor game that anyone can run with a group of kids. It’s called the Wildcraft: Mini Game and it’s available from our website.
You can find out more by following the link below.
Thanks for reading,
Lea Wakeman is an outdoor activity leader and founder of Woodland Classroom, based in the UK. She is also a qualified Counsellor and has worked as a Mental Health Mentor.
“While we see the forest, a person with ASD will see every single leaf on every single branch on every single tree in the forest” Paul Fijal
Something that I’ve noticed happening naturally over the last couple of years is an increase in kids on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder coming to our Forest School sessions. With this trend I decided to explore deeper into how we could adapt, change or enhance the way we do things to help integrate young people on the autistic spectrum within our activities. Not only did I learn more than a few things but I also came up with my list of Top 9 Tips for outdoor activity leaders when hosting children with ASD, which I’d like to share with you.
Before starting up Woodland Classroom I had supported young people with learning differences in my role as a Learning Mentor so I have some experience of Aspergers syndrome and diagnosis’s of ASD. I have also volunteered for a day in a school specifically for children who have Autism but I still didn’t feel like I knew how to be more integrative and able to adapt within our Forest School sessions.
My experience of autism in others is also hugely variable, from kids who hit their head repeatedly on the wall and need to spend lots of time in a padded sensory room with no speech and no ablity to engage on a social level, to the other end of the spectrum such as University students deemed as being “a bit shy” who have ended up with a diagnosis of Aspergers syndrome which came as a shock to everyone who knew them. So, with all this in mind I was left feeling confused about what being autistic really means.
Among other research, I watched some TED Talks on YouTube to help me better understand the world of autism and what it might mean to us and our outdoor education business. The biggest message I gained was one I already knew deep down, that every child is different and this equally applies to kids with ASD as much as it does with any other child. Just because a child has been diagnosed with ASD it does not mean there are a set of rules which apply to the way they behave or see the world.
All the kids we have had on our Forest School sessions with ASD have been vastly different, their needs are different, their preferences are different, their likes and dislikes are not the same and their social interactions varied.
On most occasions we have kids who are high functioning attending our events and they are left by their parents for a full day of activities and 95% of the time the day goes by without incident.
On other days when we have had kids with lower functioning ASD they have attended with parents and there has been no or little impact on ourselves as activity leaders and how we need to run our sessions.
While watching different TED Talks on Autism I was particularly struck by this metaphor from Paul Fijal…
“While we see the forest, a person with ASD will see every single leaf on every single branch on every single tree in the forest”
This made me wonder why is it that a woodland, an ever changing environment with so much rich and wonderful stimulus, isn’t overwhelming for kids that can be prone to sensory overload? Come to think of it, this question applies to all natural environments and wild spaces.
One thing is apparent, nearly all children enjoy their time in the woods being themselves and partaking in the activities Forest School offers them.
I also believe that kids with ASD gain something important from their time with us, there is a therapeutic quality about the activities and natural setting that no traditional classroom can give you. There is peace and tranquillity to be found in the forest. There is space to take time-out whenever needed and even though there are lots of stimulus entering the senses, it is all natural, moving at a seasonal rhythm and it speaks to a deeper part of what makes us human.
If kids with ASD are sensitive to routines being changed then surely the slowly-changing environment out in a woodland provides a subtle learning opportunity. Children see the modern world as ever changing, it never stays the same yet in a woodland the change is gentle and brings with it new beauty and new experiences and it all happens one day at a time, one moment at a time.
What I realised is everything we were already doing in our Forest School was absolutely correct and I am always ready to remind myself that not having preconceived ideas about autistic kids and their behaviour was the best way to be.
I promised to give you some tips from my experience. Here’s my advice for anyone who runs Forest School or outdoor activities and lacks experience of working with kids on the autistic spectrum.
MY TOP 9 TIPS
FOR OUTDOOR ACTIVITY LEADERS, CONSIDERING HOSTING CHILDREN WITH ASD
TIP 1 – Ask the Right Questions Early On
We often run events where the parents drop their kids off for the day. In this situation, if a parent wants to book their child to your event and is unsure whether or not they should stay with them for the day then you can ask the parent whether their child has any one-to-one support in school. This should start the right sort of conversation. If the answer is yes, then I encourage the parent to stay for at least the first session, over time you may get to know the child enough and feel the parent staying is no longer necessary. Remember, every child is different.
TIP 2 – Invite Their Brother or Sister
Having a around can be a great help as they usually have the best understanding of their brother’s or sister’s needs and if the parent has discussed this with them in advance they could be able to let you know if something could be changed or needs dealing with to make things smoother and avoid an incident. A sibling is also a familiar face for the child, especially when coming to a strange new environment.
TIP 3 – Get an Appropriate Registration Form
I would make sure there is a good sized section on your child registration form that allows for a parent to explain any needs, learning differences or medical conditions their child has. When you get the form always read through it whilst you are with the parent and ask your questions. If the child is down as ASD or Aspergers for instance, you can then ask the parent if there is anything you need to know that could help their child enjoy their experience and if there are any needs that they haven’t written down that may help.
TIP 4 – Get the Right Team Together
If a parent has explained that their child struggles with team work or competition etc, I will always try and team these kids up with quieter children rather than louder more excitable children. If you’ve got regular kids on your event that you know would have the right temperament then that can be a help.
TIP 5 – Get a Hammock
At our Forest School we have a hammock hanging in the woods away from the main circle and hub of activity but in clear view. At the start of the session make it know to the children that the hammock is for ‘time out’ only, and when a child needs time out, they should ask and are given permission to use it. If a child is using the hammock then all other children must leave them alone, it is not a place of play but a place to chill out.
TIP 6 – Give Space When It’s Needed
Unfortunately it can often be other children that ‘wind up’ a situation and almost seem to enjoy watching a child have a melt-down. Some kids will wrongly see such behaviour as entertainment and that can’t be tolerated. Very often i’ve found it’s the the other kids watching the melt-down that need to be dealt with rather than the child who is having difficulties. Kids tend to know how to self sooth so give them space by distracting any other kids and getting them away from the situation, you or a colleague can keep half an eye on the child to make sure they are not at risk from harm but it is often best to leave them alone and maybe check in with them after a little while and let them know you are there if they need you, if they want to be left alone then respect their wishes and do so.
TIP 7 – Keep Language Simple
If you find that the child with ASD has upset another child or their behaviour is not acceptable then tell them not to do this in as few words as possible, keep it simple and to the point, do not give long explanations as to why. Just say no. For instance; “do not kick”, “do not take her stick” etc. Make sure they have understood, repeat if needed and then let the incident go.
TIP 8 – Be Yourself
Get rid of your preconceived ideas of ASD and start from scratch with each individual, get to know them for who they are, ask questions and watch their body language, know when to back off and leave a child in peace and keep doing what makes them happy. This sort of approach can be applied to any kids in your group, you don’t need to be different with the kids with ASD than you do with kids without autism.
TIP 9 – Do Your Research, starting with….
Lastly, watch this video from Ted X Talks by Paul Fijal. I found it explained for me how a child with ASD could hit the point of melt-down. So as an adult responsible for such kids on our events it really helped my awareness.
So in conclusion, you might be asking, “why are there only 9 Top Tips instead of the well established Top 10?” Well, like I’ve learned in my research into children with autism, it’s good not to expect a set pattern for everything. Norms are there to be challenged.
Good luck with your own outdoor adventures and thanks for reading,
Lea Wakeman is an outdoor activity leader and founder of Woodland Classroom, based in the UK. She is also a trainee counsellor and has worked as a Mental Health Mentor.
TV presenter, author and bushcraft expert Ray Mears has given forest schools his seal of approval. Having observed a forest school group during a recent canoe trip he described how one boy “… was building his own legend, the person he was going to become. He’d become something more and that’s what it’s about. There’s a chance (in forest schools) for self-discovery and self-empowerment.”
Forest School is a thriving, growing movement worldwide which is getting children of all ages outdoors to learn at their own pace and embrace the natural world around them. As a forest school leader myself and long term follower of Ray’s work I felt really lucky to be able to join in a televised discussion on the merits of learning in the great outdoors.
Above:Ray Mears in his element. Photograph by Goh Iromoto
Ray Mears is a world-renowned champion of bushcraft and wilderness skills, having starred in numerous television series and written books on the subject, which have inspired millions.
During a recent television debate in the UK, the panel, including Ray, was posed the question; would they send their kids to a summer crammer where they could brush up on their academic skills and get ahead of the class, or would they pack their kids off to a forest school where they could learn skills like fire-lighting, den building and woodcraft.
Ray replied, “the child has got to want to be there, they might want to go to a crammer, I think there’s a place for both.” This, to me, underlies a key point that parents and teachers each have a responsibility to fire children’s passions and interests in whatever subject or activity it is that gets them excited about learning.
Ray explained how the forest school camp system works in Canada where this approach to learning is well-established, “…a child goes very young and gets to do activities and then they go back the next year, they’re a little older and get given more responsibility and eventually they’re doing 21 day trips on their own by canoe, boys or girls, through the wilderness and they’re capable.” What an amazing adventure for any young person that would be.
During the debate a recent study was quoted which states, “three quarters of kids who go to a summer crammer will end up at a top university, compared to half of those from similar backgrounds who don’t.” But on the flip side of that argument, “child psychologists say that outdoor exploits aren’t only great for physical health but for mental health as well. The same psychologists also have concerns about ‘tiger parents’ who want to hothouse their kids in some sort of obsessive bid to produce pint-sized prodigies, who could end up stressed, frazzled and burned out by their late-teens and who could actually end up with mental health problems.”
I hadn’t heard of tiger parents, so I looked it up. Tiger parenting is a term which refers to strict or demanding parents who push their children to be successful in education by attaining high levels of scholastic and academic achievement, to the detriment of the child’s social, physical, psychological and emotional well-being. It sounds a world away from the child-led approach of a typical forest school where kids learn resourcefulness, team-work and determination. I feel that forced study risks leading kids toward depression, anxiety and stress.
Above:Ray Mears has seen first hand the positive benefits of forest school teachings. Photograph by Goh Iromoto
Ray spoke about his recent trip to Canada where he got the chance to observe children who attended a forest school camp. “I gave a presentation at a festival and in the audience there were some kids from one of these summer camps. I was watching one of these youngsters because he was carrying a book around with him. The book was written by a naturalist I’m really fond of, Grey Owl, who lived in that area. This was a heavy tome for a youngster to read by today’s standards but I saw that he treasured that book.”
“The next day I’m out on a canoe trip and I could see that same party of youngsters (canoeing) on the other side of the lake. These were boys of about fifteen and they had passed the hardship point, because it’s a hard way to travel.” Seeing that same boy who the day before had been clutching his precious book Ray described the look on the child’s face, “you could actually see that with every paddle stroke he took he was building his own legend, the person he was going to become. He’d become something more and that’s what it’s about. There’s a chance for self-discovery, self-empowerment and it’s no surprise that the youngsters who go to these summer schools very often end up as leaders in that part of the world and it’s a great thing to see.”
The main thrust of the debate was a parent’s choice between a summer crammer or forest school for their kids and during the phone-in I got the chance to add my own observations to bolster Ray’s championing of forest school. “There’s no doubt that academia is important but what forest school does is give an opportunity for child-led learning away from the formal classroom setting. The kids who attend forest school are gaining a nature intelligence and an emotional intelligence, which in the long run, I believe, makes better rounded, more confident people. You give a child a sharp tool and it’s empowering, they get a fantastic experience from that.” Many children today have a disconnection between the natural world and the modern world we live in and forest school projects are providing an antidote for that.
Some cynics might say that today’s kids would rather be in front of their iPad than building dens outdoors, but I don’t think forest school is a hard sell to children. I believe it appeals to their sense of adventure and children should be allowed to have that experience and so much of that is getting lost now with the increasing time that kids spend on screens.
Ray added that, “There are a lot of British parents now sending their children to these camps in Canada and North America.” But for those wanting to keep their kids a bit closer to home you’ll be glad to know that forest school camps are growing in the UK too with providers offering everything from one day activity sessions to week-long wilderness experiences. I believe we will see more of these holiday clubs and camps in the future as more parents take action to combat the dangers of too much indoor screen time for their kids.
Above:Children immersed in nature and learning empowering new skills at one of our own forest school sessions.
Regarding the ongoing fight in many family households to get kids away from their screen and back to the outdoors, Ray saved his best advice to parents for last, “The secret is that the parents need to do these things (outdoor activities) for themselves, that’s the best way, it’s just the normal way of growing up. If you want children to take an interest in nature, don’t just send them somewhere, have an interest yourself and it will be the most natural thing in the world for them to follow on.”
If you want to know more about what exactly a forest school is, check out our short video, appropriately titled “What Is Forest School?” RIGHT HERE
If you’re a parent who wants to find out more about local forest school providers in your area, I’d advise googling it, you’ll soon be heading down a rabbit hole of amazing projects to inspire your kids.
You can watch the full television debate with Ray Mears HERE. Skip ahead to 01:24:44 to see ‘Forest School vs Summer Crammer” You’ll be able to hear me trying not to sound nervous whilst talking to Ray, one of my childhood heroes.
We NEED To Get Outdoors, even though it’s wet & cold. It’s essential for our health and happiness, here’s why…
Winter is a time of year when many people hide away indoors, mirroring the hibernation of some animals and with all this wind and rain we’ve had for what feels like forever, who can blame them?
Christmas and New Year are behind us and there doesn’t seem much to look forward to. Many of us feel like cuddling up on the sofa and watching a movie when it’s cold, wet and going dark so early. Spring feels like a lifetime away, doesn’t it? When we do have to go out to work or get the kids to school, we dive out of the car and straight indoors, then it’s back out into the car, dive in and out of shops and back home, back to the world of central heating and electric lighting. Although this might make us feel more comfortable, it’s no compensation for the benefits of fresh air and sunlight. Without direct sunlight our bodies cannot produce vitamin D, which is important for maintaining normal blood levels of phosphorus and calcium, and helps keep our bones healthy and strong.
The amount of daylight we get each day has a dramatic effect on our mood too. Without this daylight our body produces substances that make us feel lethargic and lacking in energy. Idun Haugan of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology says that when sunlight hits our retinas at the back of our eyes, light sensitive nerve cells are activated which stimulates the production of serotonin and cortisol;
“These substances are important in determining our physical and mental health. Insufficient levels of serotonin can result in depression, lack of energy, sleep problems, mood swings and poor impulse control.” (Haugan 2013)
It is not always easy to get motivated to go outside in the middle of winter but remember this lack of motivation is caused by our lack of sunlight and the over production of melatonin (our body’s sleep hormone). So in the winter months with so little daylight available it’s even more important to get outside and feel the sun on your face, in fact, I guarantee you will feel more energised and invigorated for making the effort.
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.
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.