Friday, 16 March 2018

Growing on...

As practitioners, we can spend a lot of time trying to create the perfect conditions for our participants. We consider each individual, what they like and dislike, what are their triggers for anxiety or anger, what might help them focus more? Which team members are most effective at working with each person, who is the best person (or dog!) to help when someone is upset? We reflect on the group dynamic, how to split it into smaller groups and how to steer each sub group in a positive direction. This extends to our sites too. We think about areas we may need to cordon off for a particular group, or whether to venture further afield in order to create interest and challenge for an older or more energetic group. For every day we spend in the woods, we spend almost as much time reflecting, planning, evaulating and of course dealing with all the admin.

In our organization, we work with all ages including adults. Vulnerable young people grow up and may struggle to fit into college or work. Some have built strong bonds of trust with us and ask us to continue to support them after school.

In late 2016 we set up a satellite project in order to provide for a young man who I couldn't provide for in the woods for legal reasons. I then teamed up with another small organization who obtained funding to lead the project and deliver horticultural therapy aimed at Young Adult NEETs. Everything seemed perfect for a productive collaboration. However, although there have been lots of positives, the journey has not been easy. The person who was funded to run it, lacked strong leadership or project management skills. People in these roles need energy and enthusiasm, they need to be manifestors and be able to think laterally when things go wrong. When the horticultural beneficiaries failed to materialize (again a huge amount of work is required behind the scenes to promote a project effectively) she was demoralized and anxious around the two young adults who did turn up.

Both these young men are autistic, largely uninterested in growing and quite rigid about what they will do. But looking back at the year, I can see that they have grown enormously precisely because of the difficulties with the project. The lack of strong holding meant that they have stepped up and examined for themselves what was needed for it to function better. They felt true ownership of the project. And significantly for them, they were motivated to do things they would normally have refused to do because they could see that their input was really needed. They had to cope with sudden change when the organizer suddenly announced that sessions would stop for a few months. Together they rallied around and discussed ways to keep the project going during that lull and into the future. Hearing them converse about how to interact with the project lead to manage her anxieties, I was bowled over by how far they had progressed in their social skills and ability to read people. I also reflected that this was true role reversal - they were the 'beneficiaries' but ironically they seemed better able to evaluate the situation than their 'leader'. They showed real insight and true maturity.

In fact these lads are going to carry on the project now that the other organization is pulling out as their funding is ending. I have been training them to complete risk assessments and they are setting up their own community group.

In this case the universe intervened to provide what these lads really needed and it was not at all what we would have thought would best serve them, a year ago.
It was a great strain for me - I had relished the prospect of turning up as a volunteer at a smoothly run project and that was far from the reality. But I do know that if the project had worked out in the way we wanted it to, the lads probably would not have developed and grown to the same degree.
Sometimes less is more!

If you are interested in hearing more about this project, do look up The Field Project on facebook.



Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Power of Relationships

Putting up hammocks for the camp..

Many of the children and young people who come to us on our long term programmes are dealing with multiple life challenges; difficult home circumstances, disaffection with school, mental health issues, learning and developmental delays and processing disorders. A significant proportion may have Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Their days in the wood can make the difference between being able to stay in education and finding the pressure of school just too much to cope with.
For those on the spectrum, forest school gives time to decompress, time to play away from electronic games, time to be absorbed in physical tasks and projects, time for self directed learning and a chance to build peer relationships in a space where it is easy to back away if interactions go wrong. Significantly, they also get quality time with adults, often on a 1:1 basis. These adults will make time to build relationships with them, rather than just demand compliance in an authoritarian way which is sadly often the only option open in a large school situation.  
I have been reflecting on our approach in more detail after experiencing what felt like a significant failure. We had to ban one young man who attends a long term group (they come for up to three years each) from coming on our overnight camp last week on the grounds that his behaviour was disruptive, unsafe and divisive and would spoil the camp for the others. He is not on the spectrum but does struggle with ADHD.
We almost prevented another young person with suspected Pathological Demand Avoidance from attending too but decided to give him the chance. We were so delighted we did, he had the most amazing time and the experience meant so much to him as he has rarely been allowed to go on trips.
Around the camp fire in the evening..

 I realized that what made the difference between these young men was that we had successfully built up a really good relationship with the boy with PDA. In the end he came on the camp and worked co-operatively because he wanted to, even though his condition makes it really hard for him to respond to direct requests.  Somehow the other boy had slipped away from us and I was keen to understand why.  
All our guidelines for behaviour are worked out co-operatively with the group, there is always choice and demands are few. We worked hard to gain his trust but this one lad had blocked chances to interact with mutual respect and seemed determined to ‘rebel’ against us. More concerning, he would instigate discord amongst the other participants seemingly for the fun of watching more vulnerable participants suffer meltdowns. In many ways he is a wonderful young man, full of sporting talent and energy. There were many moments when he did engage but it was hard to sustain. He was generally quick to lose interest and didn’t seem able to just relax and ‘be’ in the space.
Perhaps it was simply the wrong intervention for him.
Unfortunately his generally disruptive presence in the group meant we had to introduce a weekly monitoring system before the camp – something I prefer to avoid as the young people have so much of it at school. We introduced camp “passports” – in order to qualify to come to the camp, the participants had to fulfil three requirements each week: basically showing respect and kindness to everyone, contributing and achieving.  He knew that the consequences of not qualifying would be that he wouldn’t be able to come on the camp but I guess he hoped we wouldn’t follow through.
Coracle fun!
In principle most children and young people (anyone really!) will respond more positively to someone they have a good relationship with, who really connects with them, rather than someone who demands compliance and threatens consequences or offers treats. It does seem easier to forge these respectful relationships in the relaxed environment we provide in the woods.
I have also seen another example of this recently with a primary aged child attending with a special needs group. Last Autumn he came and ran off within the woodland and refused to do as the teaching staff asked. This so unsettled the class teacher that she stopped him attending on health and safety grounds. 
This term he has attended with another teacher who has clearly built an extremely positive relationship with him. He has pond dipped, used the fire, sawed wood safely, accessing everything independently.
It is hard to believe it is the same child.
The power of a positive relationship has transformed his behavior and responses.
For more about our project, check out our facebook page

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Woods and Wellness

I was privileged to participate in an eco-psychology workshop recently, with mostly mental health professionals. It has inspired me to want to explore two premises more fully.
The first is often discussed; the healing power of nature.

Many of the young people who come to us do suffer mental health issues.  The combination of adolescence and hormones, difficult home situations, social isolation, heightened anxiety and sometimes poor processing, makes it almost inevitable that depression, anxiety and other mood disorders will manifest somehow.

There is increasing research and acceptance that spending time in nature improves physical and mental well being. I have observed it in myself. If I don’t spend time regularly and purposefully engaged outside, my outlook deteriorates, I feel more irritable and anxious.

For many of the young people, their day in the woods is a chance to decompress, reduce demands, process thoughts and feelings, talk through worries with trusted adults, be playful and child like without fear of embarrassment and develop a connection with a natural place. 

On the eco-psychology workshop, we paired up to talk about a natural place that had been important to us. My partner described a meadow she had played in. She had noticed many details and imagined many more. It was a place full of rich memories which had stimulated her creativity and instilled a love of nature. She suspected it hadn't really been as magnificent as she remembered but to her it was a kingdom. I talked about a mountainside I stayed in for several months in the Andes that had filled me with awe and wonder. I had been lucky enough to experience many dramatic landscapes as a child but I still continue to feel heart palpitating astonishment and a rush of pure joy whenever I get the chance to be in a beautiful natural place. And I do remember as a child it made me question my place in the universe. It was terrifying and exhilarating and a crucial part of my spiritual development. 

So what is happening with these children and young people when they attend regular sessions in woodlands? Firstly they become so familiar with the environment, they feel ‘at home’ and they feel free to be themselves. The routines and structures are perfectly pitched to make them feel safe and supported but not constrained. They are surrounded by trees and birds and they have their own special places which can mean many things to them. They often talk about never wanting to stop coming. They are feeling safe and connected, they feel ownership and they feel a sense of belonging and of being accepted. They feel part of a supportive community with nature as the lynch pin.

Which brings me to the second point. How can we combat the terrifying disconnect which seems to be the current default setting for our governments and society? How can we protect nature from the devastation our species is wreaking?  How do we motivate these young people to want to continue to care for our earth as they move into adulthood and become the guardians of the future?

On the workshop we explored our collective grief at what is happening to our planet. We voiced our feelings of helplessness, anger, despair and fear for the future.

Although I share all those fears that irreparable damage has been done, I have to believe that the only option is to keep going, to have some hope in nature’s ability to restore itself whilst making those small differences ourselves and reaching out to others on the same path.  And yes, we can have a gentle impact on these young people. 

We can start with supporting them to feel the connection and encourage them to be ambassadors. We can inspire them to care for the environment and believe in the importance of social justice.  It will happen without even a special effort, just through the process of being in the woods. When I hear a child reminding another about the danger of littering, or showing a visitor a tree they planted with visible pride, I know that some of the seeds sown have taken.. I think we just have to keep on sowing..

And for those who are interested in exploring these issues more for themselves or for the young people they work with, I thoroughly recommend

Friday, 6 March 2015

Legends in the Land; Woodland Stories

When we built a car parking area at Hallr Wood as part of our planning permission, I asked Roger (the digger driver) to create a bank with the spoil to separate the wood from the vehicles. After he had gone I realized he had created a dragon shape. And so the idea of a Dragon for the wood was born. Ideas were further developed by the groups who attend. There was also some cosmetic help from a local talented chain saw artist, Andy Tree Pirate. And so our Dragon became a reality. He stretches the full length of the car park and is now covered in vegetation and wild flowers, forming a bee and butterfly friendly, south facing bank. He provides endless fun and inspiration to the children.
Our beautiful Dragon
Although simple found items in nature can often be enough to stimulate imaginative play, I believe there can be value in providing some extra visual stimulus, especially for children who may struggle without any props at all.

Many of the young people who attend can have huge resistance to formal 'literacy' and yet something about the space seems to encourage role play and imaginative exploration. The therapeutic value is especially important to those who may well have missed out on such play in earlier childhood.
St George...
Over the years, many stories have been developed. We ran a literacy project whereby participants could chose a woodland animal and work with Andy over the design and size. Afterwards they could chose where to site the animal, as long as they agreed to come up with a story about it. There was no requirement to physically write the story but something had to be produced.

More recently we have been developing an earth sculpture. She was created because we needed a barrier. It was Imbolc and we had been telling the story of St Brigid, searching for her cow and following the drops of milk to help find her. As the shape of a sleeping girl started to form on the ground from our logs and earth, conversations about our creations proliferated. We soon found that we had a milk maid  from Kingsdon who also had lost her cow. She came to Hallr Wood and having failed to find her cow (had the Dragon eaten it?) she filled the nearby pond with her tears and exhausted, lay down to rest. As if that wasn't enough for the poor maid, a witch cursed her to sleep there for ever. There maybe some cause for optimism if enough people can come and sing with the lady who does revive every full moon and enjoys a good sing...  Last week it also became apparent that the maid is pregnant (or has she just had a very large Hallr Wood lunch?). This is very much a work in progress. Her stories will no doubt continue.
Our Lady of Hallr Wood

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Creative Landscapes; An Opportunistic Approach

Clearing for a shelter belt of new planting

After a long period of blog inactivity, I have recently been reflecting on how well a ‘forest school’ approach can work within the context of land/ woodland management. Our management aim at Hallr Wood is to improve the woodland for wildlife through increasing habitat diversity wherever possible and also to enhance the amenity value to users and the community.

The advantage of managing a non precious and undermanaged plantation is that whilst the long term aspiration is still to convert to primarily native broadleaves, there is also some scope to think experimentally within the parameters of our Woodland Management Plan.

At Hallr Wood we have always responded to suggestions from the young people who attend long term forest school programmes with us. At first this was usually a request to install some steps or a new swing. As we saw the benefits that practical ownership could have on individuals, we almost unintentionally adopted it as a specific approach. Any long term participant, whether adult or child, could invest their ideas and get help to see them take shape in the woodland. Sometimes, sadly, they aren’t still attending when the project comes to fruition. The kiln build in 2013 was originally an idea from a troubled teenager who was fascinated by clay and wanted to fire it. She followed our progress even though she wasn't there for the actual build.

Margie’s Orchard and our growing area are especially significant because we started to use the land in a different way and for food growing. It began because one of our volunteers wanted to donate some fruit trees in memory of her mother who had (at a very advanced age) loved coming. I had not considered food production when I wrote the Woodland Management Plan but it emerged as a perfect complement to our other activities. Growing food and harvesting it for healthy cooked lunches on the camp fire is now a key part of our programme and the benefits to everyone are very evident. To support the garden, we have since built compost sections and reviewed our water collection processes. The garden was never anticipated or planned for. It has become a transitional area where full sun and cultivation have created something new. It is invariably less wild but it does seem to flow seamlessly to the rest of the woodland and connect as part of an undisputed whole. 

A beautiful bug hotel to encourage pollinators in the orchard and garden
I believe our 'opportunistic' approach to land management often replicates the forest school ethos in a fascinating way. 

We recently built a new wildlife pond. This was the culmination of several interlocking factors; a young man interested in landscaping, the donation of a pond liner and a suggestion from a visiting expert that another pond would enhance the habitat diversity we are aiming for. Of course the pond liner then proved too small for the pond but we were by then determined and had to think laterally around the issue to solve the problem.

Isn't this exactly what happens in a forest school situation? The ability to problem solve is crucial and without flexibility and resilience, we cannot tackle the invariable obstacles which beset many of our endeavours, indeed life itself. Most children need help and practice to cultivate the ability to use initiative and cope with the unexpected, especially those on the autistic spectrum for whom change is deeply de-stabilizing.

Planning is important, especially in the boadest sense. Sometimes it is tempting not to plan because the child led approach means too often the plans are abandoned and side tracked. But each participant, including the adults and staff do need a direction and firm idea of where they are going on their own forest school journey. So how do we make our plans flexible enough too support an unanticipated interest or opportunity without losing sight of our more overarching and anchoring objectives? By being open always to options we can end up with a surfeit of 'projects' which we then struggle to complete. We begin one thing and find that some threads are so interwoven, we are forced into another direction before we can return to our original purpose. 

This can prove frustrating but I do think that provided you keep sight of the main priorities,and check that any tangents do still meet the broad objectives, the results are hopefully well worth the effort.
We will soon find out!

Our new pond at dusk...


Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Wheel Turns, Mid Winter Approaches

So far Daily Mirror predictions of extreme winter have not been fulfilled. We are limping towards the year end with relatively mild, almost anodyne conditions. We have given away Norway spruce tops to our schools and volunteers. We are felling them anyway to make way for the proposed wildflower meadow. We have started making decorations. We have even come up with a new use for burdock burrs. Cover them in felt and glitter and they become ‘burrbles’. Do I feel festive? Not really.. I suspect that my enforced period of inactivity has effectively disconnected me from the seasonal wheel.  My tentative and often seated presence at Hallr Wood just hasn't been strong enough to enable me to feel engaged. This really interests me. I sense that for me, my strong sense of nature induced well being depended on a highly active involvement. Perhaps for some, a connection with nature needs to be practical to be truly powerful and beneficial? Personally, I need to move and harvest and dig- feel the earth, gather the wood, saw it, light the fire, feel part of it on an elemental and visceral  level. It is the first year I haven't planted bulbs and trees and the lack has left me in limbo. I am not ready for the darkest night. I don’t feel entitled to the small anticipatory joy of waiting for the first snowdrop. I feel unanchored, like a sleepwalker, stumbling and full of drowsy thoughts in a seasonless tropical country. Is this what it is like for those who live in towns, maybe working through the day light in an office, largely unaffected by seasonal shifts? Is this my own version of nature deficit disorder?

On the upside, sitting or watching, I have had more opportunity to observe the children and also talk to them. In the past I have had to allocate specific times to observations and assessments, now it is happening constantly.
The children have mostly responded very positively to my inability to do practical tasks.They are keen to help and even keener to try out my crutches. A boy with ASD has done things he would have refused to do before, simply because I can’t. He has filled up the kettles, collected the wood and fetched things from the kitchen. We have talked a lot. He has tried to teach me Japanese. He knows an impressive amount about Japanese culture from computer games. Our relationship has become much stronger through this period.

We have also managed to finish off the kiln by installing a roof with posts decorated by our wonderful chain saw artist Andy. The young people love watching them at work. It is always a positive addition to the day.

Winter is naturally a time for reflection and planning and this was especially true for me this year. 
Next week after ten weeks of being in plaster, my third cast will come off and I will be given a supportive boot to wear instead. I am going to learn to walk again. A friend has said that the best way to repair the neurological damage is to walk barefoot in sand. This makes perfect sense to me. In some cultures the ill are placed on the ground to be healed by the earth, clay is often applied as a poultice and even taken internally..If it stays mild I will be giving my feet opportunities to wriggle in the carpet of enormous leaves we've had this year. I will also demand a trip to the beach.

I hope I have learnt a lot from this enforced rest. I have had to perfect the art of surrendering to circumstances without being passive and defeatist. Easily the hardest thing has been asking for help, to accept graciously that I am totally dependent on others for almost everything I need.

Most importantly I have come to a better understanding of my own relationship with nature and how vital that is to my sense of balance and perspective. I am so thankful that I am lucky enough to work outside in the woods and to be a Forest School Practitioner. I am really looking forward to being a more mobile one.