As a grandparent I, now have the joy of watching my children parent. I have that wonderful gift of hindsight and wish I’d known even a fraction of what I have learned through Forest School when I started out on the wild adventure of teaching, and then parenting. My daughters are quick to tell anyone who will listen, “Mum wasn’t as patient with me when I did that..”.

So before you read any further, know that these are the thoughts of a mother who at her wits’ end smacked a little girl’s leg, a teacher who, worn out and despairing, ranted at her class and argued with her headteacher to be allowed to use stickers as rewards. Repentance is a wonderful thing.

I write this knowing that so many friends, gifted and wonderful teachers, senior leaders and headteachers, are literally at their own wits’ end. They are tired, emotionally spent and hugely discouraged. Feeling unsupported, unfunded and often blamed, for the mental health difficulties faced by their staff, and the children and young people they have in their care. Earlier this month the TES, reporting on the Duchess of Yorks’ speech at the Mental Health in Education conference, quoted her as saying, “it is therefore vital that we support teachers with their own wellbeing so that they can provide the best level of care for all children in their schools and communities in which they work.”

I believe, more than ever that quality Forest School (as defined by the FS principles) offers a hugely valuable learning approach, in this highly pressured modern world, to care for the wellbeing of adults and children. At its heart, Forest School is about fostering the healthy connections we are neurologically wired for. Connections to ourselves, to other people and to the planet. Forest School helps educators and parents to be mindful and brave, finding teachable moments when conflict and struggle arise, enabling children and young people to manage the complexities of relationships, foster democracy, and independence.

We all know that children in emotional pain are unable to learn effectively, are likely to behave in anti-social ways, either by withdrawing or acting out their discomfort and trauma. How often do we as adults resort to punitive measures rather than dealing with the ‘negative’ behaviour as a symptom of a child’s unhappiness? The child’s inability to understand their own negative emotions or express themselves appropriately is met with an adult’s responses that compound the hurt rather than helping them learn how to navigate tricky social situations and resolve conflict. A Forest School leader who is able to sit on the ground and enter into a tough social moment with compassion is way more effective than one who lays down the law about sharing.

This week I was privileged to spend time with a group of year twos at Forest School. Observing their play for some time it became apparent that social hierarchy was alive and well, this was their 6th session and they have been territorial about dens and sticks. Both the Forest School leader and class teacher expressed concern about the struggles many of the group have to collaborate or even tolerate each other. Discussions over ways to manage the behaviour of the group have raised a range of different, sometimes conflicting approaches.

As the session progressed several children, independently, came to find me, asking me to make the dominant trio allow them to join the rock bashing game. This wasn’t about the game being so brilliant that they had to join it; there seemed to be a painful sense of not belonging, with the excluded individuals, and a strong sense of control and power with the ‘in crowd’. I recognised that awful feeling of being unwanted from years of being less athletic than my peers, and being picked last for the hockey team. I was also traumatised by being made to read, and even worse made to watch, Lord of the Flies at the age of eleven. I have moments of feeling left out now when I see photos of family and friends having fun without me. As a social species, we need other people. Neuroscience has been providing increasingly strong evidence, convincing us of the need to stand up for the lonely and disbelieve the notions that our characters, once formed, are set in stone. Labeling parents, and even more ridiculously children, with their behaviours, has been shown to be hugely damaging and counter productive. Defining a child as ‘shy’ or ‘angry’ completely misses the point, so does ‘socially awkward’, ‘bossy’, ‘dependent’.

To my shame I remember brushing aside the hurt feelings of my own daughters when they told me about playground tiffs and perhaps even worse, dismissing the irate, hot little bodies coming in from yet another tricky lunchtime to sit in a corner and calm down because we had important learning to be getting on with (in my defence this was school policy…I did leave that school!). I would tell tell them to go and find someone else to play with next time. Failing to validate the painful experience of being left out. Even now I make witty comments about family members experiencing serious FOMO (fear of missing out). It’s not that funny.

Throughout my teaching career I, have worked with many educators who speak in ways that encourage kindness and closeness, who have set proper boundaries, creating inclusive learning environments designed to equip children with habits and dispositions for surviving through life’s challenges. So many of these wonderful people have been early years specialists and teachers working in alternative provisions. Perhaps there is a correlation between the less structured curriculum in many of these settings and the willingness of staff to go ‘off curriculum’, supporting children whose undeveloped emotional toolkit makes the navigation of social relationships a challenge?

We are lucky enough to be working with children and young people at a time where the increasing mental health issues of the really young are under scrutiny. The value of Forest School for providing an alternative model of ‘being with children’, in a predominant education culture of target setting, which stresses children and the staff working with them, cannot be underestimated. Providing access to safe, natural  space for adults and children where they playfully challenge themselves, learn together and connect with nature is now recognised by many, including government in the 25 year Environment Plan (chapter 3), as a valuable way of addressing the crisis of mental health, whilst engendering care and responsibility for the environment.

Long term Forest School programmes give us a valuable opportunity to demonstrate the power of explicit emotion coaching, where we both challenge unkindness and support children to restore relationships through consistent reminders about caring for ourselves, each other and nature. Noticing when these positive behaviours are not being expressed we are able to judge if intervention is necessary or the children will sort the problem themselves.

Practitioners who understand the vital importance of attachment and attunement in a child’s life for developing effective emotional tools and healthy relationships will be able to see situations from a child’s perspective. They will be able to listen, observe, plan for explicit responses and notice opportunities to build connections. Avoiding using coercive and controlling methods of behaviour management, like rewards or shaming and punishment, we are able to build trusting relationships that lead to deeper learning. Children and young people at Forest School are given increasing levels of responsibility and freedom. They are trusted to solve their own problems and know they can call on caring, emotionally healthy adults for support if needed. As adults, we need to show up and earn trust.

Back to the rock bashers, exhibiting their primal instincts, refusing to let classmates join in their game. I sat and listened for a while; one of the ‘insider’ children pointedly asked an ‘outsider’, “ Who said you could come close. It’s our space!”. They were all looking at me sideways,  out of the corner of their eye, wondering what I might do.  I smiled, nodded and wondered aloud about the values I had seen written on their classroom wall, “When I came into your room I saw a great display about being kind and inclusive, having democracy…” I trailed off and waited. “Hmm,” said the leader, “we’re not being kind. Ok, You can join in. Actually, you could do a good job of smashing rocks with us.” I smiled. Thanked the whole group for letting me come to their Forest School, said I knew how difficult it can be to share sometimes and how much I was enjoying seeing so many great games happening, then left.

Commentating and wondering, demonstrated trust that they were able to sort the problem. With very little intervention I was able to ‘expect’ them to make a positive choice. We often aren’t even sure where our reactions come from, children may be even less so. Over a whole year’s programme, these tiny redirections have the power to change relational patterns. Developing new habits takes time and nurturing. Choosing to tell a different story in the way we relate to each other.

When we as adults engage in relentless care and non-judgment, with clear expectations, we are able to encourage others, including the more anxious or troubled members of our Forest School groups, into ‘belonging’ and community. This is needed now, more than ever.

Sarah Lawfull is an FSA Director, Endorsed Trainer and Director of Where The Fruit Is
She is an experienced Primary and Early Years teacher, Forest School trainer and lifelong lover of trees. For further reading, Sarah recommends:





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