Today I led the first of my six pilot sessions as part of my Level 3 Forest School Leader training. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. Before the session, I kept trying to remind myself that I have led hundreds of groups of kids in the outdoors before and that I must be capable of doing this too... right? But Forest School is an entirely different thing from other methods of outdoor learning that I'm used to. I feel quite confident in my abilities to design and deliver an enjoyable educational session around a set of objectives that I feel the children should learn. But Forest School requires such flexibility and creativity from the leader in order to respond to the individual needs of the learners that sometimes, actually most of the time, you throw your session plan out the window. I wondered, “Am I malleable enough? Can I adapt to work with whatever comes my way? Did I bring enough activities with me???”
The pilot sessions were arranged with a local school who sent four Year 4 children and four Year 6 children. I knew in advance that one of the children was visually impaired, but did not know to what extent. I think the hardest part when working with groups of people is when you first meet. You, as the leader, have to quickly gauge the dynamics and needs of the group so that you can help them feel comfortable, engaged and enthusiastic about what they are about to take part it. This can be quite challenging and I often feel a bit anxious at the start. However, once you break the ice and get to know the individuals, it becomes much easier to try to meet everyone's needs. When my pilot group arrived, I realised almost immediately that there was quite a dichotomy in needs. The Year 4 children were excited, confident, talkative and eager to engage in discussion. The Year 6 children looked absolutely terrified and I could barely even get a whisper out of them when I asked for their names.
As we began walking into the wood, the Year 4 children were by my side at the front, keen to run to our base camp they could see up ahead, whilst the Year 6s were at the back slowly and very cautiously making their way through the wood. I'd planned an icebreaker game once we reached our camp to help everyone relax and learn each other's names. The game works by everyone choosing an animal that starts with the same letter of their first name. With everyone standing in a circle, I then call out to someone across the circle by saying their name and animal to get their attention, “Alice the alligator!” and throw them a bean bag. They do the same to someone else until everyone has caught the bean bag and it returns back to me. Everyone must remember who they caught the bean bag from and who they threw it to and and we do it again, but this time I keep adding bean bags until it turns into chaos, usually resulting in lots of laughter and, sometimes, missing bean bags. As soon as we arrived at base camp and I began to explain the game, I realised my rookie mistake – one girl, Emily, was visually impaired and unable to see more than a foot or so in front of her. How was she meant to throw and catch a bean bag?!?! I did some quick thinking and asked Emily to help me by standing next to me and handing me the bean bag to throw to the others. Luckily, this was sufficient to involve her in the activity and she seemed to enjoy it very much. I breathed a sigh of relief, but internally scolded myself that I should have thought that one through much better in advance!
As the morning went on, through discussion and exploring the wood together, I discovered more about the extent of the special needs of the Year 6s. Emily needs one to one support to move around because of her visual impairment, Chloe has a speech impediment and struggles speaking in front of a group, Lily is quite uncoordinated (possibly dyspraxia?) and reluctant to participate in new things, and Sophie wears a hearing aid and is extremely timid. When we went out exploring the wood and boundaries together, Lily took herself back to base camp claiming she was unwell and needed coaxing and encouragement from her teacher, Mrs Johnson, to join in again. We moved very slowly around the wood, focusing on textures by feeling the different bark and leaves of trees to learn how to identify them. Mrs Johnson supported Emily by holding one arm as we walked and Sophie supported Lily, who was feeling a bit nervous as she had slipped and fallen earlier. We arrived at a log pile and the Year 4s immediately began balancing and playing on the logs. At first the Year 6s stood back and just watched, but it seemed to spark Lily's interest and I watched as Sophie helped her make her way onto a log and assist her as she walked along it. Lily's confidence grew and she began to step from one log to another and a smile spread across her face. This was great to watch, as just a minute ago she was nervous about walking across the woodland floor and now she wanted to balance on unsteady logs!
After a little while on the logs I mentioned to the group that I had an activity back at camp if they were interested in making blobsters (creatures out of clay). This captured everyone's interest and we made our way back to camp. I told a little story about how blobsters are created and handed out the clay. Immediately, almost everyone began to work their clay into creatures. However, Lily and Sophie both asked for assistance as they weren't confident that they could do it on their own. They needed guidance to get them going and chose to make creatures they were familiar with, like bunnies and foxes. On the other hand, the two Year 4 girls, Hannah and Ella, were eagerly making plans about how they could work together to make all sorts of imaginary creatures. I also watched Hannah drop her ball of clay on the floor about 6 times, getting it covered in dirt and woodchip. But each time she laughed, picked it back up and began to clean it off again. I thought this demonstrated great resilience. Chloe sat on her own, quietly making her creature. I sat down next to her and tried to have a chat. She answered my questions respectfully, but seemed reluctant to have a conversation so I left her to it. Emily was happily working with Mrs Johnson making a turtle. The Year 4 boys, Daniel and Noah, went off into the wood to make their creatures and soon discovered a den made my another group. This inspired them and they became more interested in den building than blobsters so I helped them set up a new den area. They began to use their clay in a different way by taking small pieces and using it like blu-tack to stick leaves onto their den.
As the blobster creations were finished off, there was opportunity for free play. I noticed how the Year 4s went off exploring all over the wood, excitedly engaged in activities they had created for themselves. The Year 6s were much more cautious. Lily and Sophie began exploring a bit further away from camp but never strayed too far. Mrs Johnson helped Emily walk around and they went to check out the den the boys were making. Chloe just wanted to sit at camp and, though I suggested some ideas for her to do, she was not interested. It wasn't that she wasn't enjoying herself, she just didn't feel inspired to do anything. I chatted with her and she became a bit more talkative on a one to one basis. I learned she loves to sing and dance and doesn't spend very much time outside, actually preferring to be indoors rather than outdoors.
When we all gathered back at base camp at the end of the session for reflection, it was really nice to see how the Year 6s, who were so timid at the start, were very keen to share their blobsters with the group and talk about them. Everyone said they enjoyed the session very much and were interested in working with tools and fire lighting the next time. This was great because Lily had actually collected some birch bark when we had done our tree ID and we decided to save this to use for firelighting. As we made our way out of the wood, Sophie was eager to chat to me about what she would be up to the rest of the day when she got home. I thought this was incredible because at the start, she would barely speak at all!
So, now that I have met my pilot group and understand a bit more about them, I feel much more confident about delivering the rest of the sessions. I think my biggest challenge will be to provide stimulating activities that challenge the confident and capable Year 4s whilst setting achievable tasks that don't overwhelm the Year 6s. I'm actually really pleased to have a group with such an incredibly varied mix of personalities, needs and interests! It certainly makes it challenging for me and I think I am going to learn a lot.