I knew that teaching outdoors was the way I had to go when I was repeatedly told off for looking out of the window during my primary school teacher training. I found classroom routines (and classrooms!) stifling and I hated seeing the exuberance and sparkle of the children disappear once they came indoors. I’d worked with excluded children for years beforehand and knew that there had to be a better way than the test-driven system that let so many children down.
I grew up in suburbia but we had a decent sized garden and I have fond memories of climbing the compost heap, making mud pies and spying on the neighbours from half way up the laurel tree as well as finding a blackbird nest in one of our bushes and discovering that ants could bite! We spent almost every school holiday caravanning in various near-empty fields up and down the country and walking for what felt like miles and miles across more damp fields, heaths, woodlands and up lots of hills. Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to live in the countryside so you can imagine my excitement and relief at discovering that forest school existed.
I loved my forest school training. I felt very much at home out in the woods and my assessor commented that I was in my element. He was right! However, in the less wild world, the banks had just crashed and no one was hiring and funding had totally disappeared. I realised that no one was going to create my dream job for me, so I was going to have to do it myself.
I spent 6 months doing three things: supply teaching, writing policies and procedures for my new company Go Wild, and volunteering for the Avon Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project in Bristol. The first kept a roof over my head, the second took me closer to my goal and the third taught me about putting my skills into practice and taught me a near-endless supply of games, ideas and useful information. Volunteering with someone who knows more than you, has more experience and who is willing to help you develop your skills is invaluable and I wouldn’t be half the forest school leader and trainer I am today were it not for Mandy Leivers from AGDWP.
I treated my volunteering time there like an apprentice-style interview knowing that every Spring, a job for summer assistant would come up. By the time it did, I had so much relevant experience and understanding of the role that, after a gruelling interview, I got the job and spent a happy, sunny summer teaching groups of children about lifecycles, food webs, rare plants, SSSI’s and conservation amongst other things like creating resources and leaflets for the public to use. During free weekends, I did woodland birthday parties for friends and friends of friends through Go Wild.
Timing is everything and the end of my contract there coincided with Bristol Zoo dipping its toes into the forest school waters. Another gruelling interview later, I had a new job and 20 acres of woodland to run about in at what is now Wild Place. I was in heaven! During my time there I ran several long-term forest school programmes, most notably with a group of teenagers at risk of exclusion that ran for two years while I was there and I kept it going for another year once I had left! The first sessions felt a bit like fight club, with lots of major disagreements and fights but after only a few weeks we’d established a routine and ways of relating to each other (it probably helped that the first time I met the group I fell head-over-heels into the mud, the only time I’ve done that in almost a decade!) and most weeks we cooked up a feast and saw some really quite lovely teenagers become more confident, resilient and much more personable and able to cook, and share, a mean egg sandwich over a fire that they’d lit themselves.
Eventually I decided to go it alone in order to spend more time outdoors and I’ve not regretted it. I began assisting with forest school training for the Forest of Avon Trust in 2013 and began to run my own training in 2014. Since then I’ve become an accredited centre, trained over 100 people whilst also running weekly sessions for children with speech and language delay, holiday weeks and wild camp-outs for primary-aged children, pioneering a woodland programme for women in recovery from alcohol addiction as well as running my Rewild Retreat as a way to get women to enjoy the outdoors and learn skills they didn’t think they could… with campfire-cooked cakes and a wood-fired hot tub!
Now that I’ve got my own little wildling I’m planning to start a weekly toddler group (once he can toddle!) and have begun a series of day workshops, such as spoon making and outdoor cooking, from my home in the beautiful Wye Valley.
I love my job and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Being self-employed can be tough, especially during the natural lulls and quiet times (especially if you have people working for you) but I tell myself it has to work out, I don’t want to do anything else! I love that there’s always things to discover and interesting books to read. If I see an interesting course somewhere I can go on it and call it CPD! I will never know it all which means I can always learn and that means I’ll be happy.
If you’re thinking that you might enjoy forest school then I promise you that you will! Whoever you train with, you’ll learn so much and discover a really joyful way of working with people outdoors.
Over the next few months we’re going to do a series on this blog called My Forest School Journey. You’ll hear from people who have trained with me and discover what they’re up to now and how they’re incorporating forest school into their wild lives.