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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

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

forest school and autism

Autism & Forest School. How to Integrate Kids with Differences & Feel Confident as a Leader.

“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.

ASD children and forest school

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.

children with ASD and outdoor learningWhile 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.

forest school and autism

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.

lea wakeman - outdoor educator

 

Good luck with your own outdoor adventures and thanks for reading,

Lea.

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.

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.

ray mears champions forest school

RAY MEARS CHAMPIONS FOREST SCHOOL

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.

ray mears champions forest schoolAbove: 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.

ray mears championing outdoor learningAbove: 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.

children at forest schoolAbove: 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.

kids get off screens and outdoors

Why Kids Chose to Ditch Their Video Screens To Go Wild Outdoors

Children are choosing to leave their screens behind and are opting for a new outdoor game which combines bushcraft & survival skills inspired by their favourite video games which aims to get them reconnected with nature and excited about the great outdoors once more. It’s been so successful that activity leaders across the globe are now signing up to run this game, Wildcraft Adventure, for themselves at their venues and joining the mission to get kids off-screen and outdoors.

kids get off screens and outdoors

Kids make their favourite video games come alive in the outdoors.

Wildcraft, borrows themes from popular video games like Minecraft and is giving kids an outdoor experience they won’t forget. Though barely a year old, it’s been a huge hit with parents and children.

Contact us to find out more.

Taking Video Games to Our Wild Spaces

It was over a year ago, we were sat in our garden and asked the question; “For those kids who are spending too much time glued to their screens and have little interest in getting out into nature, how do we engage them in a way so that they choose to go outside? Simple, we take their video games outdoors!”

But this is not Pokemon GO, we’re not getting kids to take their mobile devices out into the woods and calling it ‘quality time outdoors’, they’re leaving those at home to play a video game style adventure for real in the woods which includes all the challenges they’ll be familiar with whilst at the same time engaging them in the natural world. Yes, there’s lots of hidden nature-learning woven into the game and they have to use their new knowledge and skills to gain points and experience throughout the day.

When creating Wildcraft Adventure, we did some serious research. We watched and spoke with children playing games like Minecraft and Terraria, and talked to parents about their experience of their children’s love of video games. It soon became very clear that although the children do get a lot of pleasure from the games, it’s become a real problem for parents, as they want to put a reasonable restriction on their child’s screen time. Parents told us that they faced an uphill struggle as there’s such an addictive quality to these games that restricting screen time can cause arguments in the family home. Many children do not seem to be able to easily drag themselves away from their screens. The more parents we spoke with, the more we heard about this recurring problem in the home.

We remembered back when Super Mario & Sonic the Hedgehog first came out. There are many common themes in video games such as collecting resources, protecting yourself from monsters, beating the boss, making potions and building your world, which all fit really well with the outdoor adventure we were creating. Our game requires players to use team building, problem-solving and lots of imagination.

minecraft kids get outdoors

Kids sometimes come dressed as their favourite video game characters. They use new skills and their imaginations to build their camp.

Opening Up A Natural World of Adventures

Wildcraft is also proving to be a great gateway activity for kids who are coming along to our days and then wanting to know more about bushcraft, forest school and associated outdoor activities that are out there.

“Before coming I had tried to get (my son) to join in a forest school day but he said ‘it wasn’t his thing’. However ‘would you like to go on a Minecraft style bushcraft day?’ And he couldn’t sign up fast enough, he was so excited he couldn’t sleep the night before and you certainly didn’t disappoint on the day. Thank you.” Parent

We’ve heard so much about the growing concerns that so many parents have about the increasing amount of time that children spend in front of screens. And our Wildcraft Adventures are providing an antidote for that. We believe it’s really making a difference in inspiring children to get outdoors more.

“They were so inspired that they will be joining a local bushcraft group, so thank you.” Another Happy Parent

We’ve hosted over 35 of these events across Wales now, reaching hundreds of children. We’ve massed up over 4,200 hours of outdoor playtime for kids, when they might otherwise have been indoors playing computer games. So to us, that’s a really positive thing. Don’t get us wrong, we agree video games can be great fun, but what kids today need is a healthy balance in how they spend their time. Nature Deficit Disorder is a growing problem in our young people today.

Going Global

Woodland Classroom have teamed up with the National Trust and other venues across Wales to bring these events to as many children as possible. But they’re ambition to get more kids off-screen doesn’t stop there and now they have made Wildcraft Adventure available internationally to anyone who runs their own outdoor activity programmes so that they can run the event at their own venue. Activity Leaders in both in the UK and the US have already signed up to join the mission.

You Could Run Your Own Wildcraft Events

If you’re an activity leader who would be interested in hosting Wildcraft Adventure at your venue, then you can find out more HERE.

Wildcraft sets the players a number of challenges based in a whole day of activities. There are elements of forest school and bushcraft involved which combine with the video game theme to make a stand-alone lesson plan for experienced outdoor activity leaders to deliver.

“We’re really excited about the Wildcraft Adventure… I was really inspired by what you guys are doing.   We’re looking for ways to get our kids out of the classroom, playing together.  Your game gives us the perfect vehicle for mixed-age, cooperative, outdoor fun.” Brenda Sutter – Laurel Tree Charter School, California US.

In popular video games like Minecraft and Terraria, players have to survive in a hostile environment, build their own house, hunt for their food, search for materials and fend off wandering monsters. You can tell parents that their child may be able to survive in the wilderness on the computer screen, but can they do it out in the woods? Wildcraft slams down the gauntlet and kids are taking up the challenge.

What Parents Are Saying About Wildcraft

“Such a fantastic antidote to the ever increasing creep of the screen! Highly recommended and ever grateful.”

“My son had a fabulous time in a caring and safe environment. As an avid computer gamer, to spend all day outside living as a survivor was an amazing experience for him.”

“What an amazing experience for my son. Like many parents I worry about the time he spends on electronic games and the fact that I have to beg and bribe to get him outdoors. Not so with this genius idea to use popular computer games to tempt him into activities that I knew he would love if he would only give them a chance. When asked if he wanted to go again, my son’s reply was “no, Mum. I HAVE to go again.”

Parents who want to find out when and where the next Wildcraft Adventure is being run by Woodland Classroom can check out their upcoming events page HERE. We have also developed a version of the Wildcraft game that you can play in your own back garden with the kids. It’s called the Wildcraft: Home Edition. You can find out more about that RIGHT HERE.

If you want to find out about Wildcraft Adventures running outside of Wales then drop us a line to find out where you can sign up for a game near you.

children learning firelighting skills

children learning firelighting skills

LETTING YOUR CHILD PLAY WITH FIRE

Would you let your child play with fire? It seems to be wired into us from a young age that fire is not something to mess around with, but where’s the fun in that? Of course, fire can be dangerous but if we introduce our children to it using safe methods we can nurture a healthy respect for the hazards of fire alongside their natural wonder for it.

Here’s the thing, children LOVE playing with fire – so we might as well teach them how to play with it safely and how to be responsible when lighting their own fires out in the woods. We’ve never had a burn injury at our Forest School sessions. We have established boundaries for the main campfire and clear rules on what kids can and cannot do with their own fires.

In this episode of our vlog Rewild My Child you can see our regular Young Rangers lighting their own fires and passing on some of what they’ve learned.

YOU CAN WATCH THIS EPISODE OF OUR VLOG RIGHT HERE…

I find it so encouraging to see how far these children have come with their firelighting skills and knowledge of camp craft. It’s very satisfying (as a teacher) to see them gathering enough kindling to start their fire, picking out dry sticks rather than wet, soggy ones and to see how they can rekindle a struggling fire using the right techniques. These children love lighting fires and are happy simply to let them blaze away  – I’ve never seen a child trying to burn the woods down. They might make smoke signals, make charcoals for drawing or simply poke away at the embers with burning sticks. The fire acts as a warming and comforting focal point for the group to be together, enjoying nature. This has been the role of campfires for generations and long may it continue.

If you liked this and want to see more – check out our YouTube Channel, where we have a whole host of videos from How To Make Wild Teas to How To Use An Axe With Kids.

rewild my child - forest school vlog

REWILD MY CHILD – OUR NEW VLOG

We have started our very own video blog (or vlog) which aims to give inspiration to parents, teachers and activity leaders who want to get their kids out into the great outdoors. We will be showcasing activity ideas which are easy, fun and that your kids will love.

Each week you’ll be able to follow us on our journey as Forest School leaders during our regular woodland activity sessions.  Camp cooking, den building, simple woodcraft, outdoor games and nature learning are just a few examples of the kinds of things we’ll be diving into.

We will also be hearing from the kids themselves too and seeing their successes and failures as they learn new skills and have new experiences out in the woods. We hope you’ll be inspired to get your own children hooked on adventures in nature.

YOU CAN WATCH EPISODE 1 RIGHT HERE.

If you liked this and want to see more – check out our YouTube Channel, where we have a whole host of videos from How To Make Wild Teas to How To Use An Axe With Kids.

james and lea from woodland classroom

WE DID A PODCAST

We were recently invited to be interviewed for The DIY Learner podcast hosted by Laura Armer all the way from Texas, USA. She had been inspired by our story of empowering children to get outdoors and learn for themselves through child-led play.

In the podcast, Laura asks us about how we got to where we are today, our approach to outdoor learning and where we’re heading next.

The DIY Learner podcast, features interviews with leaders in nextGen education and stories from successful DIY Learners. Each week the podcast will inspire you to take learning into your own hands, with how-to’s for getting skills and credentials without a formal degree, advice on self-directed learning, mentorships, internships, apprenticeships, and creating portfolios and other ways to show your work.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST HERE

So what is DIY Learning?  The show’s host Laura Armer explains, “Well, it doesn’t mean learning alone, but rather taking charge of your own personal lifelong learning path using next generation learning options and strategies.”

“There’s never been a better time in history to learn whatever you want or need to take your life or career to the next level!  Join Laura and her guests on this wave of change in learning, and you can help push over the tipping point at which unconventional learning one day becomes conventional.  Let the learning begin!”

diy learner podcast

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