Yesterday I went to Swansea to attend the AGM of Forest School Swansea Neath Port Talbot. They are one of the groups I have had in my portfolio since starting the role and one I hold particularly dear. When FS was first establishing in Wales EW was one of the first funders so I have worked with a number of FS’s over the years and seen it in various incarnations, not all of them entirely good. This one though has my utmost admiration. They combine care for the natural environment with care for those participating in FS activities and I have no doubt the nurturing of the people who participate in their FS activities promulgates the nurturing of the natural environment in its turn.
This FS works with a wide range of people, not just children, and has had quite a bit of research done over the years to prove the efficacy of their approach. In the past they have even worked with refugee children and helped them come to terms with their traumas.
The first presentation we heard was from one of their supporters who, like me, sits as an observer on their steering group, Helen Wright. Helen is employed to work with pre-school children to help them develop language and play. She had run two projects taking mother and toddler FS groups into the woods. One was a Steiner group and the other from a community 1st area and yet Helen said the reaction from the children and the mothers was the same in both cases. As she says children have not changed, they still learn by seeing and doing. These small people were enraptured by the outdoors, engrossed in what they were doing, using their minds and their bodies. And the parents were enraptured too, just as absorbed by the experience as their children. Both were gaining from the woodland setting and their sense of shared time would feed into all their interactions, even away from the woods and for years to come. I wish I could share the photos with you of those little ones knee deep in ransoms, they must have smelt of garlic for weeks. In other photos it was so wet they were doing mud angels but everyone was still enjoying it.
The second speaker was Pixie, one of the FS leaders. She showed us pictures of her work with two groups of young people with profound disabilities. This was a long term project over around 30 weeks. Many oraganisations would think working with this group in the woods was not a possibility but the school and FS SNPT do not let little things daunt them and found a site where even wheelchair users could join in. At first they stayed on the edges but as the young people’s confidence increased they were able to go further into the woods. She told us how they had particularly found the FS experience to be of benefit to youngsters on the autistic spectrum, who often have difficulty with play, and how the older group of boys benefited so much from an environment where they could be boisterous. They particularly enjoyed being able to access the river. She said how the school had to rethink the way they supported the youngsters while they were in the woods and move away from the routines they usually employ to manage often challenging behaviours and towards FS’s child led ethos. They had asked for post project feedback from one of the teachers some of which Pixie read out to us. This had included some case studies and Pixie shared one with us. She told of a young girl who was profoundly disabled, aged about 9 and not yet toilet trained because of her fear of being off the ground. The woodland experience encouraged her to stand on branches and start to climb and even attempt a cargo net suspended above the floor. She started to play more generally and some of her compulsive behaviours started to abate. Following the weekly sessions she started to use climbing equipment in play grounds too. She is now happy to sit with her legs dangling, more adventurous and less risk averse and is fully toilet trained. I will freely admit I was close to tears when Pixie finished her talk.
You would think funders who are looking for these positive health and development outcomes and to support children of all abilities to get a positive start in life would be clamouring to supporting their work, it is truly inspirational. They struggle all the time to find core funding and yet all this can not be achieved without people to organise, plan and manage the delivery including managing the volunteers that are essential for their delivery.
I have seen it said no one who enter a woods emerges the same. I think this would be a fitting motto for FS SNPT as those who enter into their world seem to me to emerge much transformed for the better. http://www.forestschoolsnpt.org.uk/about.html