From Desk to Dirt

8 weeks ago my role within The Outdoors Group was purely an administrative one. I still can’t believe I feel this way but I love doing admin; I’m organised, have a good memory, I like problem solving, thinking outside of the box and I like to help people. I’m good at what I do and for the last two years I was more or less OK with my job stopping there. However, I can’t deny that there was always a little part of me that was envious of my colleagues on the other side. Those out there in the woods working with young people across our five different sites, lighting fires, cooking up campfire feasts, discovering all sorts of beasties in the woods and streams and generally learning alongside their attendees in the great outdoors.

I spent some time last year thinking about doing the Forest School Leader Training course but concluded that it wasn’t really a practical option at this stage in my life. The children are still young, our schedule is pretty hectic and I just couldn’t see how it would work for a plethora of reasons. I chalked it up as something I would revisit once all the children were in double figures and therefore, a little bit more independent.

However, when an opportunity came up to join the course running in February this year, I was intrigued. The theory was that even if I couldn’t do any delivery work at the moment, by attending the 5 day practical course, it would inform my role as the training administrator even more and leave me better equipped when liaising with customers and potential trainees. I didn’t think it was possible though, finding childcare for my three home-educated children for a week in itself is quite a task! I raised it with my other half, assuming he’d agree with me, but instead he took it as a challenge to facilitate getting me there. Before I knew it, through a  mixture of amazing friends and family, childcare was arranged and I was booked on for the course!

And then, in an unexpected turn of events, our Home Education group on Fridays at Exeter Forest School received an influx of new attendees and we needed another staff member to help run the two groups that are scheduled for Fridays. I tentatively volunteered and was both excited and terrified when it was approved by management. So now, I was poised to do the course and to actually start delivering sessions straight away.

The course, was, simply amazing. Tom, one of our directors and head of training, is an incredible instructor. He explains things in a way that is easy to understand, is patient, a wealth of information, open to discussion and encourages a very hands on approach to learning. He is passionate about what he does and by the second day had instilled me with the confidence I was lacking that I actually could do this! However, day four was the one I was most worried about, fire – lighting day! I’ve been attending Forest School sessions with my kids for over 6 years now and every time parents have been encouraged to light fires with their offspring, I have miserably failed. I’ve lived in houses with log burning stoves and open fires and never managed to keep a fire going for long or producing enough heat to actually be worthwhile. For me, lighting fires was going to be my main obstacle keeping me from being a competent Forest School leader. Luckily, with some careful and patient tuition, we discovered my issue. I was rushing. I wasn’t taking the time to gather enough small starter sticks and then when I had a flame I was rushing to build it up and smother it. I soon had it cracked and was elated, even the start of a heavy cold couldn’t bring me down!

The course ended with all the trainees wishing it could have been longer and before I knew it, I was preparing for my first session in the woods. Talk about a baptism of fire! It was at the end of a week plagued by storms in which we’d actually had to cancel several sessions due to high winds. I arrived on site to find the main tarpaulin ripped to shreds and hanging in the fire pit and things strewn everywhere. I almost panicked but colleagues were on hand to advise and they were so matter-of-fact that I realised this wasn’t the disaster I initially thought. We took the tarp down, thanked the skies for not raining and I gathered enough small sticks to start the fire once everyone arrived. Slowly, my parents and their young children (this was the Home Ed Family Group) arrived and even with the help of two over-zealous toddlers and some strong gusts of wind, I eventually got the fire lit! Once the kettle was on over the flickering flames, I felt a sense of relief and ready to get on with the session. I had brought half a dozen bug pots and some bug hunt sheets with me and without much prompting, soon all the children were busy turning over logs and hunting for beasties. The successful capture of an ant caused just as much delight as that of a dragonfly larvae, I do love the enthusiasm of toddlers! We warmed up with some hot chocolate and then played some group hide-and-seek games to engage some of the shyer children who hadn’t been as quick to get involved with the rest of the group. Before I knew it, midday was approaching and it was time to sing goodbye to the forest friends and see what the kids fancied doing for the next week. Sawing was requested and a plan made. One of the Mum’s told me that this was one of the first times her son had engaged with an unfamiliar adult in a group setting and I was delighted, definitely a win!

Since then, there were two more sessions which continued to help me grow in my confidence as leader and now we’re on the Easter break before the summer term starts. I’m excited about this warmest of terms, of getting to spend some time in the stream and in the meadow. The main thing I’ve learnt from these first sessions is not to over-prepare. I was worried about not having enough to ‘do’ before realising that the whole point of Forest School at this age is to facilitate child-led learning and exploration and that the main ingredient for that is freedom! If I over-plan, I’ll be at danger of squashing their natural curiosity. To be sure, I still have a long, long way to go but I’m really happy with how these first inaugural sessions have gone.

I still love the admin side of my role, but I’m really appreciating being able to dip my toes into the other side and hopefully growing this as the years go by and situations allow. I feel so privileged to have found a working balance where I get the best of both worlds and so grateful to be working for such an amazing company that has helped this happen.

Author: Hannah Durdin, Admin Monkey and newly qualified Forest School Leader

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