We have completed our year long programme with the PRU (Pupil Referral Unit - children who have been excluded/expelled from primary school) and what an adventure it has been for all of us! I've been reflecting on the year and reminiscing about all the fun, challenging and, sometimes, downright unnerving experiences we all had and it occurred to me just how far we came in a year's time. I remember our very first session when the children were first brought to the woods. Of course, no one really knew what to expect at the time, including ourselves and the accompanying teachers. That first session was chaotic. As we made it into the wood, the children surged through our camp like a swarm of bees pulling everything out of bags, tossing things here, there and everywhere. They found a bag of ropes and suddenly they were attempting to scale trees by throwing the ropes high into the branches whilst wrapping the other end around their waists and pulling the rope to try to hoist themselves up. It was basically impossible to have a discussion with any of them as they scrambled around everywhere, resistant to listening to anything any adult had to say. When a teacher or adult would try to reign them in, they would rebel against it and at one point they all ran away into the wood! (Don't worry, they all returned safely eventually!) Needless to say, it left us all reeling a little bit afterwards and we scratched our heads, thinking, “Ok.. how are we going to handle this?”
Through trial and error, we started to learn we needed to do things a little bit differently with this group. They required a different sort of communication that needed more thought and a lot more patience and understanding. As we changed our own behaviour and as the children became more comfortable in the wood, we noticed how their behaviour began to calm down. It wasn't always perfect, but it was working. So to commemorate an awesome year spent with some amazing people I thought I would summarise some of the key things learned from spending a year with the PRU:
1. If you think you've hidden something because it is in a closed bag underneath another bag, out of sight, you're wrong. The children will still find it.
2. Getting them to help with camp chores, like clearing up at the end of the day, is not easy. It requires a sensitive approach. If they don't want to do something and you try to exert power over them, they will most likely act out. Instead, invest time in building a relationship with them first, offer to help them with things, and then when there's a chore that needs doing, ask them for help. They will be more empathic and willing to pitch in. This doesn't always work and they may still refuse, but stay calm and let it go. Forcing them to help wouldn't work any better. Sometimes you just have to pick your battles!
3. If a kid needs to flail around in a hammock shouting out nonsense words alongside One Direction lyrics for 20 minutes straight... Just let them.
4. Food is good. Nothing brings a group together more than cooking round a campfire.
5. When a child gets annoyed with another child and decides to show his frustration by cursing nonstop, sometimes the art of distraction can help. Get over any shock, gather the strength to ignore the f-bombs and find something interesting or engaging for them and the other child to get involved with. The distraction can help them calm down and prevent the argument from escalating further.
6. If a child says there's a dragon flying down through the trees straight at you and instructs you to follow him, just do it. When children invite you to play with them, don't be afraid to just go with it. It usually ends up being a lot of fun and is especially cool when you earn a dragon fighting sword with powers for your efforts.
7. And lastly, but most importantly, PRU children are capable of much more than they are given credit for. When they are taken out of a school environment where they don't fit in and put in an environment where they are given time, space and autonomy, they can thrive. They no longer resist 'learning'. They seek it out.
So, our final session with the PRU last week was absolutely brilliant. We played games, we cooked food, we laughed. There were no arguments, everyone helped to clear up, and we pretty much had to drag the kids out of the wood at the end because they were so reluctant to go. This demonstrated an interesting contrast - A year that had started with them all running away ended with them all not wanting to leave. I think it's safe to say this year was one epic journey where we did more than just survive. It was filled with great lessons and wonderful memories. I look forward to taking my dragon fighting sword and newly acquired ninja skills on to the next Forest School adventure!