I have run and managed Exmouth Forest School since it opened in 2014 and have honestly loved the last three years.
The anticipation of its first run of Holiday Clubs, is something I remember clearly. The night before the first session I opened my email to retrieve the booking form, to find that two kids were booked in, and they were brothers. This equates to one booking. ‘Not great,’ was my thought.
The next day, I rocked up onto site to get set up with one of the company founders, having to explain that after all our efforts to get things moving, bookings were slim and we were in for a quiet day.
As it happens, that first Holiday Club was awesome. The two lads had free-run of wild and relatively untrodden woodland. They built dens, lit fires, and took themselves off on mini-beast hunts. They sat and whittled, helped us put up shelters, told jokes and explored our new Forest School, giving each new area we found a name. To this day, we still refer to the dense area of plantation as ‘The Dark Woods’.
Two lads, one day, loads of fun. That same vibe has continued to fill the forest every time we have put on a Holiday Club since, only now we typically have 15-20 kids in the woods, and therefore 15-20 times the fun and laughs.
Standing back and letting the kids lead
In the early days, our attendees were often unsure of what to expect from a session, and as practitioners we were forced to anticipate where a session might lead. As time has moved on, the direction for the majority of sessions has come from the kids; even those who haven’t been before have an idea of what Forest School is about and the kind of things they might get up to when they arrive.
Then they actually arrive. They may be shy and unsure, but they start to talk to others in their shoes before even heading from the car park into the woods and relax a little. Others arrive who might be a bit more informed and confident about the day and you can feel tensions release as they mingle. The very beginnings of friendships are seen as they chat and get a little silly (with some gentle encouragement and banter from our staff).
By the time they cross over that metaphorical and literal bridge into the woods, ideas have already been exchanged and listened to, altered, new ones forged. A storm of potential is what greets us as practitioners. We sit around an unlit fire attempting to establish some rules and boundaries before the day goes who knows where.
The Practitioner as a Director is no more, and we have become the Practitioner as a Facilitator. Our job is to help the children to realise their own plans and ideas, and their ideas are so much greater than ours. Sure, there’s often a loud and unorganised storm as these ideas are shared, but then they begin to actually form. We sit back and watch, waiting to see if and when we need to respond or help out. It’s brilliant and hilarious, it’s the ‘not-so-secret life’ of a six to ten year old all unravelling in front of you in a beautiful, alive, neutral yet inspiring woodland; and it’s priceless to witness. This can sometimes go on all day, as kids regulate and negotiate their own play, everyone engaged and having fun in various groups.
Of course, there are moments when the forest school leader needs to step in to help things move more smoothly. This may be simply helping to merge new ideas, or it may be helping them with conflict resolution (they’re kids after all!). This may be the moment within a day when we feel we need to become directors again and suggest new activities. Or it may just be that everyone is hungry and it’s time to regroup our little single serving one-day community for lunch.
From a child’s perspective, forest school holiday clubs are about playing, running wild in the woods, meeting new friends, using tools and building dens, and fires. They’re about risk and exploring and being in a child-ruled environment for a day.
From a practitioners perspective, I can say that the kids are right….it is all about that! But it becomes about so much more when you read between the lines and look into the games and activities they have fun with. It’s about building relationships, confidence, skills and resilience. It’s about creating positive experiences and establishing themselves as part of a wider group of kids brought together from different backgrounds and across spectrums of character, age, interests and ideas.
It’s a great job that I feel privileged to be a part of it, and with each session I take part in, my belief in the benefit of Forest School increases.
Nick Murphy, Manager/Practitioner Exmouth Forest School