Have you ever wondered how a centipede manages to complete any journey without tripping up over its own feet? Apparently it manages this by each set of legs being longer than the pair in front. This microscopic characteristic allows a centipede to scuttle away from predators and miss out on being it's enemy's next meal. When I discovered this particular piece of trivia I began to wonder how useful it would be, when you have endless pairs of feet, to be always prepared and to not be taken down by the local toad (no disrespect to toads and their need to eat) However, I kind of wish that I had had that ability in my career - to be able to swiftly scuttle away from the bigger predators without fear of stumbling along the way.
So what do centipedes have to do with this blog? Well this blog is going to be about my own woodland journey. One that began with me being a primary school teacher and then evolving into me being a Forest school practitioner.
It all began when a pupil I taught met a centipede. That was the day that I began to evaluate whether the education system I was working in, was actually completely improving the life chances, on a holistic level of the pupils I taught to develop the tenacity and motivation to become creative and independent learners.
For most of my career I was a teacher working in inner city London, but for these past two years I have been training and working as a Forest school and outdoor nursery practitioner. I exchanged my classroom with mis matched stackable chairs and colour coordinated display boards for a meadow that is covered with buttercups in the spring and has a collection of silver birch and goat willow trees. In short, a piece of woodland became my new learning environment and a space where I have seen preschoolers play and learn in a way I had never experienced before.
In the last teaching post I had I worked with pupils who required a lot of support to achieve their potential and for a few of them there was an acute sense of personal frustration that would bubble over and affect their ability to focus in lessons, their ability to be resilient when challenges arose and in turn their ability to make progress as learners was hindered. I began to see the cracks in their educational experiences and some of those cracks went deep - cracks which had deepened over some time and caused some of my pupils to question their ability to learn within a mainstream setting. There were many successes each and every day, but for some of them underachievement became a pattern of being that stayed with them. I then began to see how some children internalise the pressure to perform in order to make progress, which in turn affected their motivation to feel positive about being at school. These pupils needed to develop skills that the mainstream classroom wasn't always giving them, but I wasn't always sure how to help them move forwards. Over time, a few of of those pupils have stuck in my memories, especially when I witnessed something seemingly ordinary happen to them that opened up their world and their learning experiences. A. was one of those pupils, a pupil who felt challenged at school and struggled with aspects of his learning. He loved being at school because he loved seeing his friends, but he didn't love being in a classroom. He struggled with reading and writing, but he had a quick mathematical mind. The biggest obstacle for A. was his awareness of how his writing was not like his peers. Writing tasks, in particular, were something he hated to do. I remember many writing sessions where A. would avoid picking up a pencil and then become quite sullen when he needed to record something in his exercise book. That was a challenge that faced him every day but he wasn't willing to tackle it face on.
Then one day, during the summer term, something spectacular happened. We went on a school trip to a local woodland. That day was filled with playing games, looking at minibeasts and walking through the forest. The sun shone and there were adventures, moments of tranquility, and some pure fun. Whilst we were there I became aware that A. had caught a centipede in a magnifying pot, which he was instantly mesmerised by. He then spent possibly an hour or more studying his new friend - the colour of its body, the way it moved its legs, the food it ate. In total, he sat and studies this strange little creature longer than he had ever sat and written anything in an exercise book. What was it that engaged A's imagination? What did his mind connect with that motivated him to observe something so intently for such a long period of time?
There have been a few children since A. that have I taught, who have had similar experiences. S. who would sit in his classroom and stare at birds sitting in the tree outside the window, whilst he struggled with trying to improve his reading age. There was also H. who loved building shelters and could boldly instruct her classmates about the best construction methods, but felt so self conscious about her writing to the extent that she would stammer when reading aloud what she had written. Eventually these children and these questions, helped me step away from a mainstream educational setting to one where open ended play and exploration through Forest school experiences guide and facilitate learning. I now work in two outdoor nursery settings, where children as young as two years old use the forest as a learning tool and environment to meet their insatiable need to absorb knowledge and develop new skills.
For every day that I spend in the forest with the children that I now have the joy to learn with, each day is filled with opportunities for children to grow and flourish. I see them develop their physical strength and stamina by climbing up and over trees, their resilience by exploring the woodland in all seasons and weathers, strengthen their ability to consolidate their social skills as they communicate and negotiate with their peers and enrich their creativity to solve problems as they take on challenges that they would not find in an average classroom. I have watched children like S., who was initially anxious about stepping on a wobbly branch become a strong and nimble tree climber within a year. I have also witnessed children like C. take delight when he could find a way of rolling a tree log uphill for about 200 metres and I've also seen children like N. and A. be fascinated with a puddle and turn it into an opportunity to mix "tea" with sticks and leaves that they found on a walk into the woods. There are so many endless learning opportunities that I have had the privilege of being part of and it is those stories that I want to share with anyone who will listen. These experiences convince me that these children will experience fewer cracks in their learning and that they will be ready, like a centipede with their elongated legs, to not trip up on their pathway through the forest, through their educational experiences and for what lies beyond.