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mindfulness in nature workshop

How Nature Heals

autumn leaf mindfulnessNature heals us, builds new connections and improves our mental health. Many of us know this instinctually, that walking in woodland is somehow good for us, at the very least we know it helps us to relax. There are also now many scientific studies that provide evidence of why woodlands and forests are so beneficial to human health… aside from the obvious production of life-sustaining oxygen of course 😉 What I’d like to talk about though is my own personal experiences and how practising mindfulness outdoors and hedgerow medicine has enriched my life, and how it could benefit you too.

There have been a whole range of positive differences, on top of an improved state of mental health, that have manifested in my life since practicing Mindfulness in the Woods. My anxiety levels have been much reduced after a difficult period, which I’ll explain in more detail later. I also find I am eating a more plant-based diet and have discovered a renewed passion for natural remedies and herb lore. My knowledge of tree & wildflower identification is getting much better and I am also considering my daily impact on the planet more than ever; I’m buying products without palm oil, reducing my waste and buying more organic foods from small local businesses. My latest venture is lacto-fermentation, an ancient way of preserving whilst increasing the nutritional value of wild foods and vegetables. I no longer eat intensively farmed meat or dairy produce. In a nutshell, I just care more about myself and my natural environment, as if we have become one, or maybe the journey isn’t about becoming anything, maybe it’s about un-becoming everything that’s not really you, so you can become who you were meant to be in the first place. A natural part of the forest.

mindfulness in nature - north walesI have been running courses in Mindfulness in the Woods for a while now and during this time I have met all sorts of people who decided to attend for different reasons. As they introduced themselves around our campfire circle I would get an insight into their stories; some said they were looking for ways to reduce their anxiety, some were keen on outdoor pursuits and wanted to bring something new and meaningful to their time in the great outdoors, whilst others were just curious, knowing that they loved being in a woodland and that mindfulness could possibly help towards reducing stress in their lives.

“Lea is a lovely, warm person who quickly put the group at ease. We practised engaging with nature with all our senses and learnt some strategies to deal with stress and anxiety. I am a walker so this will really enhance my walks and make them more meaningful.” Course Participant

My sessions act as an introduction to the subject and last three hours. Activities can include mindful walking with the senses, reflecting on the Seven Principles of Mindfulness and what nature can teach us about them, making art in nature, Sit Spots and more. The feedback has been great, with many participants asking for a longer version of this course… more on that at the end of this blog.

“I have to say it was a fantastic introduction to mindfulness and meditation. We were immediately made to feel welcome and secure, she created a good nurturing space. We learned new skills and the practical work was really eye opening. Lots of things to take away, and I will certainly be actively practicing what we learned. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to step out of their hectic lives for a couple of hours.” Course Participant

Becoming a Mindfulness in the Woods Practitioner has led me to reflect deeply about my own relationship to nature and how it has developed my connection to self in the process. I now see that when I connect with nature I am also connecting with my body and spirit and don’t see these things as separate but one and the same. Practising mindfulness whilst out in nature has allowed me to connect with the very essence of who I am, the building blocks of my body and the spirit of generations past before me.

Mindfulness in Nature Healed My Own Anxiety

Last year I qualified as a counsellor and life coach. During my study for this I spent four years trying to ‘find myself’ and connect with my body, feelings and authentic self. I did not find this easy. Years of social conditioning and self-protection led me to construct a sense of self that was about other people and their opinions of me rather than my true nature.

Qualifying as a counsellor and leaving college was a difficult transition for me, it coincided with a home & business move from Mid to North Wales, leaving family behind in the process, all the while I was still feeling very much on my journey to self-discovery, peeling away the layers to often difficult and painful aspects of self, but without the weekly Personal Development group I was used to having at college, as a support and space to discuss, cry and reflect, I was beginning to find myself overly anxious with a real fear of slipping into depression.

I love to learn new skills and take positive action, so on completing my counselling training I then went on to complete training as a Mindfulness in the Woods Practitioner, which for me, brought my love of nature, my Forest School business and my love of personal development and therapy into one neat package. Being able to deliver this all together into a beautiful combination, so others can benefit too, continues to be very rewarding.

I knew it was important to practice what I was teaching to others, so I made regular time for yoga, meditated at home and developed my knowledge of woodlands by noticing and deepening my observation of my natural surroundings; watching the birds and just being still in nature, drinking in her essence and being at one with this place that was also inside of me. For me this was my cure.

Science Agrees: Nature Is Good For You

There are studies that show the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in a person’s saliva is reduced when spending time in nature and studies in Japan show cancer rates being higher in people living in towns compared to those living near a forest. In Japan, mindful time spent in nature is called Shinrin Yoku which translates to “Forest Bathing.”

In their article, Science Agrees: Nature Is Good For You, The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy says that stress is dramatically reduced by both gazing upon a scene in nature and by walking in nature.  Again, cortisol levels, sympathetic nerve activity (your body’s reaction to stressful situations), blood pressure and heart rate were all reduced in participants. The article also talks about the increase in immune functioning and creativity. One study showed a group of outward-bound participants scoring 50% better in problem-solving tasks after 3 days of wilderness backpacking.

Amazing Things Happen When You Just Sit Still

When you let yourself relax with nature, become present with it with both body and mind, amazing things start to happen. I’ve seen the evidence first hand, during my mindfulness sessions. The activity I asked the participants to take part in was a Sit Spot, which is time spent looking on a scene in the woodlands, being present in the moment and watching nature. During the Sit Spot, woodland life becomes at peace with us. Insects, birds, even mammals begin to accept us as we slow right down, no longer pose a threat to them but becoming part of the landscape.

On coming back to the fire circle after our Sit Spot one participant told me she had glanced at her Fit Bit whilst sitting and her heart rate was reading lower than it had ever been. Quite a positive result I’d say!

“it seemed the animals accepted me as a natural part of that place. Going there felt like going home. Even the song sparrow who hung out in a nearby patch of knotweed eventually stopped chipping its alarms at me; instead while I sat, it would come to the bush behind me and sing its beautiful song right over my head…. I had so many amazing, unforgettable experiences, just sitting quietly in this place until I became part of the other world of wild animals and nature. You can do the same thing.” Evan McGown, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature

sit spot in the woodlandI recently had two wonderful experiences myself using the Sit Spot technique. The first was with my husband as we sat in the woods, leaning against an old oak. A dead tree stood close and in the forefront of our view. We were privileged to watch a woodpecker fly to the dead tree and busy itself for the next forty minutes as it drilled, pecked and flitted in and out of holes in the search for insects, seemingly unaware of our presence just below. My most recent experience was a half hour Sit Spot spent in woodland in Derbyshire. Here, amoungst the bluebells, two little woodmice appeared right next to my foot. They were rustling under the leaves and going about their business, paying me no attention at all, leaving me free to watch them up close with absolute wonder and amazement, feeling such gratitude for this experience. My smile reached my ears after this very special encounter.

Want to try Mindfulness in Woodlands for yourself?

I run Mindfulness in the Woods events regularly in North Wales and occasionally in Swansea, Cardiff and Lampeter. If you are interested in attending one of these then you can find upcoming dates on our Events page HERE or you can email me if you’d like to know more.

I am also excited to be co-hosting the Woodland Mindfulness & Bushcraft Weekend in North Wales this coming June, along with three other tutors, each with their own specialism in either mindfulness or bushcraft skills. It’s going to be a fantastic event bringing these two disciplines together.

Lastly, following the beginning of my private counselling practice and running Mindfulness in the Woods events, I have now started offering one-to-one nature therapy sessions. This came about naturally due to a demand from course participants who wanted more and wanted to know what else I could offer them. One woman asked whether she could have a ‘monthly top up’ of Mindfulness in the Woods whilst also having the space to talk privately and focus on herself for a couple of hours with a trained counsellor. If you would like to know more about this service, please get in touch.

mindfulness in the woods wales

James Dunlop of Wild Thyme Outdoors

How I Escaped The 9 to 5 And Set Up My Own Business In The Woods

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.

James Dunlop of Wild Thyme OutdoorsMeet 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.”

james dunlop teaches at wild thyme forest school“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.”

james dunlop, founder of Wild Thyme OutdoorsLW 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.”

FIND OUT ABOUT OUR MENTORING SCHEME

wild thyme birthday parties in the woods

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.”

wild thyme outdoors logoLW 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!”

LW Thanks 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.

GET ONE TO ONE MENTORING NOW

It’s an exciting time to be involved in outdoor education and if you think we could help you like we’ve helped James and so many others, then don’t hesitate to get in touch.

You can find out more about Wild Thyme Outdoors and follow James’ continuing adventures by visiting his website RIGHT HERE.

Lea Wakeman

campfire in thailand cave

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #4 The Deeper Jungle

Another day of jungle trekking was upon us; water scorpions, bats, deep caves, slingshots and knife work were all ahead on the trail. We were making our way toward the Thamtaralod Forest Park in Northern Thailand, not far from the border with Myanmar (Burma). The park is famous for it’s cave, which would be the highlight of our adventure.

huge jungle tree

Our guide Ting, explained the route… sort of, and we set off from the hill tribe village, giving our thanks for the fresh breakfast of mango, rice and greens we’d enjoyed. This morning we were joined by Djoe, whose family had hosted us the night before. Also joining us was Dham who must be in his early twenties and far fitter than me. Each of them carried their own machete, rather than being kept in a leather sheath as we would back home, they wrapped their prized tools in cloth and stuffed this into their belt. Later on that day, we’d get the chance to see that these tools were not just for hacking and slashing but could be put to fine whittling work in skilled hands.

Soon into our trek I spotted some dead tree stumps which had been hacked into with a machete. Ting explained that this was where local people were searching for burrowing grubs, deep inside the deadwood. These grubs were a valued food source. Thankfully, we didn’t find any ourselves, so I was spared the embarrassment of having turn one down.

Much of our route today would take us along the river, with plenty of opportunities to cool off. The water was warm and refreshing, with shoals of little fish darting in and out of the rock cover. I noticed our hill tribe guides were naturally very aware of their surroundings, always looking about them, ever alert, where as I found myself looking down at my feet more often than not to ensure a steady footing. Djoe and Dham moved with much more confidence though and I watched them scanning the tree tops, with an eye for opportunity. These guys were naturally suited and adapted to their environment, just a quick look at the muscles on their legs was testament to that, shaped by years of walking up and down the steep jungle paths.

walking along the river
Our youngest guide stopped and pulled out a simple slingshot from his pocket. Grabbing a few river pebbles he started launching the stones at a target high up in the trees above him. Ting told me this was an ants nest and these ants were another potential food source. Whether it was the young grubs or the ants themselves that Dham wanted I wasn’t sure. Either way, after a few attempts, he gave up and the ants were left to continue their daily lives. The opportunity to try the slingshot for myself was to good to pass up though, so we had some fun doing target practise at a tree across the river.

We stopped for our mid morning break and our guides unwrapped their machetes and started work whittling away some fresh (green) bamboo. They were making chopsticks, ready for our lunch later and as I’d brought my own knife along I wanted to give it a go. I found bamboo easy to carve and we made short work of the chopsticks, including a few fine details here and there. However, whilst I was using my small Swedish whittling knife, our guides were using their much larger machetes and getting the same (if not better) results which shows how in the right hands this large tool can be used for fine work. I guess it shows that when you’re in the jungle you don’t want to be carrying multiple tools around. As the old saying goes, “The more you know, the less you need.”

making chopsticks

Whittling fresh bamboo to make chopsticks. My Swedish knife versus their machetes.

It was a real treat to watch this simple craft being done by local people in such a natural setting and I was looking forward to seeing their bushcraft in action again later as we were going to need to fashion some torches ready for exploring the cave toward the end of our journey.

beautiful streamWhilst cooling off my toes in the river, I spotted what looked like a water scorpion, with pincers just large enough to give my little toe a nip. Ting grinned, saying “they could give you a nasty bite” but with the look on his face I think he was having me on. Best to play it safe though, time to move on. We came across a tree that Ting cut a small slice from, telling us that the bark is used locally as a medicine, boiled in a tea. Or you could chew the bark to release the medicine. It tasted bitter and reminded me of how willow was used in our past for similar purposes. Willow bark contains a chemical similar to aspirin. Whilst walking I’d noticed Djoe heading off trail here and there to inspect dead bamboo trees, he was clearly searching for the right one. After a few non-starters he hacked into one and selected a length to take with him. The reason for this would become clear later.

Here and there along the river’s length I saw the remains of what looked like simple bamboo frames spanning the width of the river. I asked Ting what these were and he explained that the local people had made fish traps. Having built a bamboo fence across the river, earth would then be piled up to block the river flow. Downstream the river would temporarily dry out so that fish could be picked easily from the mud. Once the catch was done, the river would be unblocked. I wondered if the the bamboo frames get used more than once? That would explain why they’d been left in-situ.

fish traps on the river

cooling off in a jungle waterfallAfter some hopping from boulder to boulder and crossing precarious fallen logs over the rushing river water we reached a little patch of paradise… a small waterfall, complete with natural swimming pool. This is the stuff that old Bounty chocolate commercials were made of. We stripped off and enjoyed the cool water, trying our best to ignore the large spiders suspended in webs not far above us – I never saw them on a Bounty advert. Seriously though, it doesn’t get much better than this, being able to enjoy this special place, with river water just the right temperature. Exactly what you need after half a day’s hike in the tropical heat.

There was another surprise waiting for us when we finished our dip, lunch was served, wrapped in banana leaves. Rice with tofu and greens, cooked fresh that morning. Time to use our chopsticks and see if mine were up to scratch. I’m pleased to say they performed well, though whether I was doing it entirely right, who knows? Dessert was fresh pineapple – which of course over here tastes so much better than what you can buy at home. This was true of all the fruit on our Thailand travels.

jungle food

Our guides had kept these treats well stashed, seemingly producing them from nowhere. Bamboo once again showed off it’s versatility, this time as a drinking cup.

Rested, fed and watered we set off to find the highlight of the trip, the Thamtaralod Cave, complete with bats and rushing water. On our way we stopped at another beautiful location, a bamboo camp. This place was used by trekking groups taking longer trips. We were just passing through but it was great to see how the structure was put together, highlighting again the amazing properties of bamboo as a building material. Being naturally cylindrical it’s very strong and being hollow it’s light to carry. Even the young bamboo shoots can be used for food. I might start calling bamboo the tree of a thousand uses. It seems to be intrinsically linked with the history and way of life of the local people. We stopped at the camp for a short while to make preparations for entering the cave. This is where I got to see some real bushcraft in action.

It was time to put the dead bamboo rod, that Djoe had carried with him, to good use. Ting explained that they would be making bamboo torches which would be lit to explore the cave safely. This explained why the bamboo needed to be dead, so it was dry and took a flame easily. Our guides set to work with their machetes splitting the lengths of bamboo into thin sticks. I had a go myself and once again the bamboo responded very well, being easy to split and running straight. I’ve split hazel rods before for hurdle-making  back home but this task was much easier. The broad nature of the machetes also aided easy splitting as a quick twist of the blade would encourage the dry wood to split down it’s length, without the need to cut much further into the wood.

bushcraft bamboo torch collageSplit sticks were then bundled together and these bundles were tied together using natural cordage. This was more bamboo, but fresh and green this time, which had been soaked in the river. I imagine the soaking served one or both of these jobs; to make the cordage flexible for us and/or to help prevent the flames from burning through the cordage once it was holding the torch together.

Setting off again, torches over our shoulders, it wasn’t long before we came to the cave entrance, and it was an impressive site. The river flowed out of the base and sound of the rushing water could be heard coming from the dark depths within. We could not see any light inside, so who knows how long the cave was. Ting told us that bats roost above among the stalactites and we could see the evidence of their droppings on the cave floor below. Time to use the torches!

lighting bamboo torches

Lighting up the bamboo torches at the entrance to the Thamtaralod Cave.

They lit easily and gave off a steady flame, burning for the good 20 minutes it took to reach the other cave side. Plunging into the cave with a flaming torch, whilst deep in the jungle has got to be an Indiana Jones moment if ever there was one – I was in my element and grinning from ear to ear. The cave roof was high above us, so the smoke wasn’t a problem. The main hazard was watching where you put your feet as the rushing water covered treacherous rocks and ledges – so we took it slow. Any points I gained for looking cool whilst brandishing a flaming bamboo torch in a jungle cave would have been swiftly lost if I stumbled and snuffed it out in the dark water. I loved it all though , and felt like an explorer discovering a brave new world.

torches in the caveWe made our way around another rocky bend, then we could see the light at the other end of the tunnel, which revealed a huge cave opening bigger than my house. The bamboo torches were brought together and placed in an old fire pit which gave us some more light to see by. We sat down for a rest on a large ledge within the cave mouth. As we took in the scenery around us it struck me how people from ages past must have used this place as shelter and refuge. The ledge was large enough to accommodate many people and the fireplace our torches flickered away in sat on a raised bowl of earth, and I wondered whether this was a recent addition or something that had been formed by our guides ancestors generations before. Between the fresh water supply, the fish that were abundant in the river, the bamboo growing all round us and the shelter the cave provided I thought this must have been a place where native peoples had lived in the past. I should have asked our guides, but I was too caught up in the moment.

beautiful jungle cave chamberIt was time to say farewell to Djoe and Dham, whilst Ting would lead us up the final hill toward our waiting vehicle. Our guides for the day waved farewell and took their bamboo torches back into the depths of the cave. The image of the flicker of red flame against the natural rock will stay with me for a long time.

our jungle trek guides

Our three guides, taking a well earned break at the fireside. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and skills with us.

Our final trek up the hill was a bit of a scorcher in the afternoon heat, with little shelter as more trees had been cut back in this area to make way for rice fields and grazing. The signs of human habitation were definitely showing again. The final give away was the pick up truck waiting for us at the top of the hill… a welcome sight by that time I must say. After a very bumpy and dusty ride in the truck, we pulled up for a cool Chang beer in a roadside cafe. As you can imagine, it tasted great.

campfire in thailand caveThanks to our guides Ting, Djoe and Dham for answering all my endless questions and letting me get stuck into the activities. Thanks also to Pooh Eco Trekking for a great experience that I won’t forget. I’ve loved exploring the jungle, if only for a brief time, but it’s also made me feel eager to get back to my native broadleaf woods and get stuck into bushcraft over the coming spring and summer. I know where I belong and my heart lies in the woods of Britain… plus the spiders are much smaller there.

Thanks for reading.

end of jungle trek

Tired, sweaty and ready for a cool beer, at the end of our jungle odyssey. We won’t forget this beautiful place.

James is currently studying a 2 year programme to become a recognised Bushcraft Instructor. He is aiming to gain a Bushcraft Competency Certificate through the Institute for Outdoor Learning. As part of his training he must keep a portfolio of his own learning and experience, successes and failures. This online Bushcraft Journal is a part of that record. His goal is to not only to have a great time learning a host of new outdoor skills but also to then apply these skills to his work so that he can offer better bushcraft experiences with Woodland Classroom to both adults and children, which he hopes will inspire them too.

bushcraft jungle trek adventure

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #3 Into The Jungle

Cobras, rattlesnakes, giant spiders, termites, exploring caves, tasting strange foods – all part of my two day jungle adventure in Northern Thailand. Whilst on holiday with Lea (actually, our honeymoon) I wanted to get out into the wild and see the jungle up close…. so we discovered Pooh Eco Trekking who have a great range of trips that worked alongside the local Karen hill tribe, including them as guides and hosts, so providing an income for them from eco-tourism. Our trek would take us close to the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) through rivers, caves, villages, steep slopes and winding pathways. I wanted to go on the trek, not only to prove to myself that I could do it but also to experience a taste of the jungle and also see how the local hill tribe peoples lived in this environment and hopefully some of their traditional (though still very relevant) bushcraft skills for myself.

thailand jungleIt was 2 hour drive from Chang Mai to get to our dropping off point and if the craziness of the driver was anything to go by, the next couple of days would be filled with unpredictability. I’m not sure whether he thought his minivan was in fact a race car but he certainly drove like it was, weaving in and out of traffic and over-taking on blind corners. Our guide (Ting) seemed to take it all in his stride, so I assumed this driving was business as usual. As we climbed through the mountains to ever higher ground I noticed the broadleaf jungle gave way to scatterings of pine trees as our altitude increased. Then as we came down into valleys again, the number of pines would decrease again. I hadn’t expected to see such trees here at all. Despite our unpredictable driver, we got there in one piece, if a little shaken.

karen hill tribe weavingWe hopped into a pick up truck to take us down a bumpy track to a village which would mark the start of our jungle trek proper. Here we saw timeless Karen hill tribe crafts in action as a lady demonstrated the weaving of traditional Karen dress for women. The skirt she was weaving would take 2 weeks of constant work to complete. The colours in the cloth were almost garishly bright, reds, blues and yellows, which in Britain would look well out of place, but here they were beautiful.

Pulling my backpack on, we began what would be 3½ hours of trekking to our hill tribe homestay. We started down well worn paths which passed fields which had been cleared for the jungle using controlled fires. These areas were being made ready for the coming wet season when crops such as rice and corn could be planted up, growing in just 3 months, ready for harvest. It was the dry season now so there was less plant life on the jungle floor. We passed the occasional group of cows, bells clanking to give their location away to the farmers. I bet it would be easy to lose something as big as a cow in the jungle. Overhead we passed a few giant spiders (as big as your hand) sitting, suspended in their large webs between trees. I gave them a wide berth… I’m not the biggest fan of our eight legged friends.

bushcraft jungle trek

Beautiful, clear waters running through the jungle, friendly local wildlife and our intrepid explorer.

I also noticed something that was very familiar to me from back home. I spotted trees that had been cut down at their base and allowed to regrow again as multi stems, with rods reaching straight up to the sky. I hadn’t expected to see coppicing here. Coppicing is the traditional woodland management practise in which a sustainable crop of underwood can be produced for a variety of uses (from greenwood crafts to charcoal production). Our guide told us that the locals were harvesting the wood here for firewood on a regular rotation. In addition bamboo was being coppiced to produce straight rods of a useful diameter for building projects. The bamboo was allowed to grow on to a manageable size. All this cutting work was done by hand tools, much with the machete, which here is called simply “mid” the Thai word for knife. It was great to see this sustainable harvesting process in action in a place where it was truly relevant and thriving.

bushcraft jungle trek in thailand

Amazing, huge trees which keep growing all year round. Sustainable woodland management, jungle style, with coppicing for firewood and building material.

It was about this time that our guide spotted something we’d all missed, a cobra, hunting in and out of holes in the ground which had been burrowed by some small mammal. This was no small snake and I admit I felt a little sorry for the furry victim that would no doubt soon be on the receiving end of the hunt. But, that’s nature for you.

Another traditional woodland practise I saw was ring-barking, where a standing tree is stripped of it’s bark right around the trunk at chest level. With the life giving sap travelling through the outer layers of a tree this kills the tree and leaves a standing dead skeleton. This can be a useful practise (if done correctly) in Britain for creating standing dead wood to increase wildlife biodiversity. here though it had a more practical purpose… to create seasoned firewood that would stand and dry in the woodland, ready to be felled when needed. I imagine that this is something that was done in our country also back in medieval times and earlier.

The whole jungle seems browner and drier than I expected, even considering the season, but as we approached the valley floor everything became more lush and as I’d expect a jungle to look, you can blame Hollywood for that fixed vision in my head. As we turned a corner we came across a huge termite mound! Standing higher than me and feeling very solid, it’s amazing to think that such vast structures can be built by something so small. I’m very glad we don’t have termites in the UK as the damage they do to wood is impressive, if a little worrying. You’ve got to wonder at the awesome power of nature though.

jungle machete bushcraft

In the words of Crocodile Dundee… “now that’s a knife.”

Our guide had stopped ahead of us again, but this time I knew this meant there was something interesting to see. He’d heard a rattlesnake and seen it slither off away from the path as we approached. I imagine it would be so easy to be inches away from any animal (dangerous or not) and not know it was there, as the jungle is so dense away from the well trodden paths and many creatures are well camouflaged. I tried to remember the advice of Ray Mears in a programme of his I’d watched years ago… did he say “don’t step on a log incase you disturb the snake underneath it” or was it “step on the log so that you disturb any snake before you step on it” I honestly couldn’t remember… typical!

We came to the river at the base of the valley and I was able to cool my feet off in the water, which was very welcome. As I took a rest, I spotted a plant that looked very familiar growing near the riverbank. It looked like an oversized four leaf clover and I though it might be Wood Sorrel, which is edible and tastes like sour-apple – I love it. Asking our guide it turned out not to be Wood Sorrel but was also edible. It tasted like a salad leaf, and he said that’s how they used it.

jungle hill tribe river workshop

The remains of a riverside workshop where a machete has been hard at work. The beautiful river wound through the bottom of the steep sided valley.

Walking along the cool riverbed, with steep sided jungle walls climbing either side of us gave me the feeling of being nestled in the womb of the Earth, life was everywhere. This seemed more like the wild jungle and wilderness I had in my mind when I booked this trek. But looking around there was also plenty of signs of how the local people were living with the land. Remnants of a make-shift riverside workshop for crafting on-the-spot tools. Bamboo rods grew either side of the riverbank and there were plenty of splintered canes which were leftovers from previous activity. We also came across the remains of old campfires, with only the charred embers as sign. There was no modern litter though, as you might find in a similar situation back home, and that was heartening to see.

Eventually we arrived at our hill tribe homestay, a small village sitting on the hillside – to be honest I couldn’t tell you where it was. We met a few of the older villagers and one man proudly showed off his traditional tattoos across his upper legs. Our Guide also told us that they have these intricate designs all around their groin also, but the old man didn’t show us that… thankfully. These tattoos are done using a bamboo needle. I was starting to see how important the bamboo was to the local people here, it had so many uses.

I watched a local girl with her mother picking seed pods from high up in a tree using a very long hook. They were harvesting tamarind which has a few uses including the flesh as a flavouring in food, added to curry pastes. The shell is used to add to tobacco in hand-made cigarettes and the flesh can also be made into a glue. Having tried the raw tamarind I can tell you it tastes like sour-apple sweets, and is very strong. I actually quite liked it. Once harvested from the tree the flesh would be separated from the shells where they would all be laid out to dry on racks in the sun before being processed.

bushcraft jungle trek hill tribe village

A typical house in our host’s village. Drying tamarind out in the sun. Familiar shaped plants aren’t always what they appear to be.

Our host for the evening was Djoe and his family. The company that organise the treks have a close relationship with the local Karen hill tribe and have an arrangement that families will take it in turns to host trekkers and so payment for the service gets spread evenly through the village. Also, it turned out that Djoe would be joining us as an additional guide for day two of the trek.

hill tribe homestayTheir simple house had a central fireplace, the hub of the home. I noticed hanging on the wall a fine collection of machetes, which any bushcrafter would be envious of. Smoke drifted out of smoke-holes in the roof and as we rested before being served dinner I enjoyed how quiet everything was. No traffic noise here.

Our well-earned dinner included a delicious spicy minced fish, a very spicy soup, steamed rice, cabbage in soy and pumpkin. The food was simple and excellent. After being well-fed and watered all that was left was to watch the sun go do
wn behind the neighbouring mountain as the sounds of the millions of jungle insects rose around us. I think we’d definitely use the mosquito net tonight.

In the second part of my account of the jungle trek we would have a whole host of new adventures and experiences including exploring a river cave with flaming torches crafted from bamboo – which was pretty special. You can read all about those adventures very soon.

Thanks for reading.

James

jungle sunset

Sunset looking from the house of my hill tribe homestay. The end of a great day.

James is currently studying a 2 year programme to become a recognised Bushcraft Instructor. He is aiming to gain a Bushcraft Competency Certificate through the Institute for Outdoor Learning. As part of his training he must keep a portfolio of his own learning and experience, successes and failures. This online Bushcraft Journal is a part of that record. His goal is to not only to have a great time learning a host of new outdoor skills but also to then apply these skills to his work so that he can offer better bushcraft experiences with Woodland Classroom to both adults and children, which he hopes will inspire them too.

unplug & play

Autism & Wildcraft Adventure – How Gamer Kids Chose to Unplug & Play Outdoors Without Argument

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 are at risk from too much screen time

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 official logo

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.

Wildcraft Adventure - characters

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.

lea wakeman - outdoor educator

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

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.

CHECK OUT THE WILDCRAFT MINI GAME

how the robin got its red breast

How the Robin Got its Red Breast

We love telling stories around the campfire with children at our outdoor activity sessions, especially those tales that are set in the woods and star the creatures that the kids could see for themselves. I think it helps bring the forest alive for their imaginations.

This short story, How The Robin Got Its Red Breast, is a great one to tell on a cold winters day with the campfire crackling away. For me, the story’s message is that no matter how small you are or seem to be, you can achieve great things.

“Long, long ago, when the world was new, as the winter Sun was setting, and the land was locked in ice and snow, all the creatures believed that the warmth they had enjoyed throughout the long summer was lost forever and might never return. They were cold and afraid.”

“As the winter winds blew through the forest, a small brown bird was sheltering in a holly tree and he thought to himself, ‘What could I do?’ Somehow he knew the warmth that had gone belonged to the Sun, so he decided to fly to the Sun and ask for it back. As he took flight the holly twig on which he was standing snapped off, so he took it with him, he thought it would make him feel braver to take a piece of home on his adventure.”

“He flew up, higher and higher he climbed, and as he flew, he felt the heat of the Sun increasing. He flew on, getting hotter and hotter, until he could hardly bear the heat any more and his feathers were scorching, he was so close to the Sun! But still, he was determined to get an audience with the Sun. Then suddenly the holly twig he was carrying burst into flames. He was so shocked that he fainted and fell, down, down, spiralling back to the Earth.”

“When he awoke he realised he still had the burning twig, clutched between his feet. He had done it. He had brought the Sun’s fire back to Earth, and everyone could warm themselves in the heat from the flames. He was a hero! And because he was so brave, and because his feathers had been scorched on his adventure, to this very day, he is still called Robin Redbreast.”

how the robin got its red breastArtwork by Karen Carter at Hedingham Fair

The Robin is probably the UK’s favourite bird. It’s known as the gardner’s friend because it’s often seen perched near to where earth and soil is being dug over, revealing lots of juicy worms. I’ve often had a Robin as my companion when I’m practising my bushcraft skills in the woods. he’s always hoping I’ll turn over some leaves or dead wood in the hope of a easy meal.

To find out more about the Robin, where it lives, what it eats and what it sounds like. You can visit the RSPBs website which should answer all your questions here.

Robin in the Snow

12 days of forest school

The 12 Days of Forest School

We’ve taken the classic Christmas song and given it our very own twist. So join us for a good old fashioned sing-along. We love singing this around our campfire with our kids groups throughout the festive season.

Forest School sessions are all about letting children be in charge of their own learning and giving them the chance to explore wild spaces on their own terms so they can grow emotionally and intellectually. We run plenty of outdoor sessions throughout the winter because we believe that children should have access to great outdoor activities all year round.

Enough of all that though, on with the song…..

We’ve made a series of pictures to celebrate each of our 12 Days, which also showcase many of the awesome activities that children get up to at forest school sessions. You can see these images by scrolling through…

first day of forest school christmas

 

second day of forest school christmas

 

third day of forest school christmas

 

fourth day of forest school christmas

 

fifth day of forest school christmas

 

sixth day of forest school christmas

 

seventh day of forest school christmas

 

eighth day of forest school christmas

 

nineth day of forest school christmas

 

tenth day of forest school christmas

 

eleventh day of forest school christmas

 

twelth day of forest school christmas

We love singing this round the campfire with the kids through December and you’re very welcome to use this song too. Here’s a run down of the lyrics:

“On the first day of forest school I had the chance to see…

A child climbing in an oak tree.

Two muddy boots

Three storytimes

Four crawling bugs

Five golden leaves!

Six kids a whittling

Seven mushrooms sprouting

Eight campfires blazing

Nine shelter builders

Ten monkeys swinging

Eleven axes chopping

Twelve hunters tracking”

 

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

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