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parent and child at forest school

Got the Winter Blues? Nature Has the Answer

We NEED To Get Outdoors, even though it’s wet & cold. It’s essential for our health and happiness, here’s why…

Winter is a time of year when many people hide away indoors, mirroring the hibernation of some animals and with all this wind and rain we’ve had for what feels like forever, who can blame them?

Christmas and New Year are behind us and there doesn’t seem much to look forward to. Many of us feel like cuddling up on the sofa and watching a movie when it’s cold, wet and going dark so early. Spring feels like a lifetime away, doesn’t it? When we do have to go out to work or get the kids to school, we dive out of the car and straight indoors, then it’s back out into the car, dive in and out of shops and back home, back to the world of central heating and electric lighting. Although this might make us feel more comfortable, it’s no compensation for the benefits of fresh air and sunlight. Without direct sunlight our bodies cannot produce vitamin D, which is important for maintaining normal blood levels of phosphorus and calcium, and helps keep our bones healthy and strong.

The amount of daylight we get each day has a dramatic effect on our mood too. Without this daylight our body produces substances that make us feel lethargic and lacking in energy. Idun Haugan of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology says that when sunlight hits our retinas at the back of our eyes, light sensitive nerve cells are activated which stimulates the production of serotonin and cortisol;

These substances are important in determining our physical and mental health. Insufficient levels of serotonin can result in depression, lack of energy, sleep problems, mood swings and poor impulse control.” (Haugan 2013)

It is not always easy to get motivated to go outside in the middle of winter but remember this lack of motivation is caused by our lack of sunlight and the over production of melatonin (our body’s sleep hormone). So in the winter months with so little daylight available it’s even more important to get outside and feel the sun on your face, in fact, I guarantee you will feel more energised and invigorated for making the effort.

Check out our Winter Scavenger Hunt as a great excuse for a walk in nature with your kids. There’s plenty of other ideas on our Pinterest page too.

boys in forest school at winter

boy at forest school in winter with candles

Making the Most of Winter in the Woods

boy at forest school in winter with candles

Wintertime in the woods changes things quite dramatically. The cold, wet and early darkness means thinking differently about the activities we do with our children. Something that the kids look forward to as we approach midwinter is our Winter Wishes activity, something that’s simple enough to recreate yourself.

As the nights draw in I’ve found the children are naturally drawn to the campfire, they head for its light and warmth. Here stories can be told, chestnuts roasted and fire-sticks made. There is also a magical feel to this time of year that can be embraced as well as encouraging the kids to think about what’s going on in nature around them.

Children are full of excitement and anticipation for Christmas and the school holidays. They are mesmerised by the darkness and the dancing flames, it is a time for wishes and wonder and staying close to each other for warmth and protection.

Winter solstice (which falls between December 20th & 21st) is a turning point where (in the northern hemisphere) we are at the peak of the darkness, it being the shortest day and longest night. There is the knowledge of more light to come, as from this day forth the days get slowly longer and with that comes a deep sense of hope, new beginnings and the promise of spring.

At our Forest School we winter solstice at forest school with kidslike to mark the winter solstice as this is all about welcoming the returning light to the earth and it gives the children a chance to reflect on their year just gone and their wishes for the coming year.

We mark this occasion with out Winter Wishes activity. Whilst sat in a circle, away from the campfire, each child has a turn to light a candle and make three wishes;

One wish for themselves

One wish for their community

and one wish for the Earth.

We don’t insist that the children speak their wishes out loud if they don’t want to. This gives them the option to make a very personal wish that they may otherwise be too embarrassed to speak out loud to the group.

As each child lights a candle and adds it to the growing cluster of others the light increases, mirroring the increase of sunlight and turn of the wheel of the year as we move through winter and toward spring.

Winter solstice is a moment of pause between two cycles, a moment of transition that can be held and savored….take a moment to experience this edge between these two great cycles. It is also a moment to look forward, to name the new seeds and intentions we wish to take into the next cycle.” Glennie Kindred, Letting in the Wild Edges

I feel that it is important that we give the children a chance to wish for the wider community, especially as at this time of year it can be very easy for kids to get wrapped up in themselves as they receive so much over the Christmas period. Setting good intentions for the world can be their way of giving.

children around campfire in winter forest school

There’s plenty of other fun and games to be had in the winter woods. Our kids cook damper breads on a stick, use flashlights and Morse code to send messages through the dark, they light their own fires and cook baked beans in their tin (cowboy style) to share. All this helps dispel the fear of the darkness and develops their night vision by using all their senses. The kids go back to their homes with rosy cheeks, smelling of wood smoke and full of tales of shadows and mystery. Outdoor learning and play certainly doesn’t need to stop just because it is winter.

Happy holidays!

why kids should use axes

Why I would buy my kids an AXE

At a time when many children are being wrapped up in too much cotton wool (not literally) to keep them safe from the perceived hazards of modern life, I’ve become more and more a champion of allowing the children I look after (at Forest School sessions) to take risks and show they can be responsible for managing their own safety. So, with that in mind, we’ve been chopping firewood together, using a very sharp axe, and here’s a little video which shows you how I teach those basic axe skills to kids. I’d encourage you to try it for yourself.

Autumn has definitely arrived here in the UK and with the long, dark and cold nights closing in my mind’s turned to getting some firewood in. Yes, like many others I’ve left it late again. It’s always good to have some help with tasks like this and I’ve found that chopping firewood is an effective and simple activity for kids to get stuck into as well as a great introduction to the axe. Kids can understand the task and (most folks agree) splitting logs is very satisfying to do. So what about giving a razor sharp axe to a child? Well, here’s what the children’s author Roald Dahl had to say about risk;

“…the more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to take care of themselves. If you never let them take any risks, then I believe they become very prone to injury. Boys should be allowed to climb tall trees and walk along the tops of high walls and dive into the sea from high rocks… The same with girls. I like the type of child who takes risks. Better by far than the one who never does so.”

Mabli (one of our regular Young Rangers) is just six years old and it was really encouraging to see her progress recently from using the potato peeler (which we give to kids first to practice their knife technique) to using a proper whittling knife. She was confident, calm and sensible with the tool, which I like to think she learnt through clear mentoring, encouragement and close supervision. There’s a voice in my head which jostles for centre stage telling me that there’s going to be a terrible accident and that it would be better to just let kids like Mabli play at something safer. But of course, children are just like us, they don’t want to hurt themselves, so along with a good mentor (like any parent), they’re their own regulator.

teaching children to use an axe

Anyway, back to the axe and chopping wood. I think this is a great introductory activity for kids to sharp tools as with an axe you have a fair distance between the sharp edge and little fingers. Also, whoever heard of such a thing as an ugly piece of firewood? So, no fine craft skills are required. You could even follow wood chopping with learning fire-lighting so that they get to burn what they’ve chopped themselves. I’ll give the last word on ‘risk’ to Richard Louv, author of the fantastic book Last Child in the Woods;

“An indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger.”

So, would you use sharp tools with your own kids at home? Have you had success with whittling, wood chopping or using a saw with little ones? We’d love to hear from you.

If you enjoyed this video, we’ve got MORE videos on our YouTube channel giving you ideas for engaging kids in the great outdoors. You can find it by clicking HERE.

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