I’m the first to admit that I am a fair weather Forest School attendee. After nearly 6 years of attending sessions at Exeter Forest School with my kids, my heart still sinks if I wake up on a Forest School day to driving rain, a frozen windscreen or strong gusts blowing my flimsy garden chairs across the lawn. I hasten to add that despite this, I am an outdoorsy person and as a family, we’ve had our fair share of trips to Dartmoor which have resulted in us persevering in a ‘bracing’ family walk whilst getting pelted with hail, freezing rain or a combination of both. But I’m afraid to say that I make no attempt to hide how much more I prefer being outside in the summer. I love going to Forest School when waterproofs are unnecessary, when we only need to put on one pair of socks and when an accidental dip in the stream is simply a welcome way to cool off. For a long time, I felt that the only benefits of going to Forest School in the winter was the smug feeling I got from having endured the great outdoors for 3 hours every Friday morning.
However, this year I have been shocked to realise that actually the ‘Autumn2’ or Christmas term is becoming my favourite term of the year. I’m not sure when this happened but I have enjoyed the last 8 weeks in the woods more than I have in a long time. The exceptionally hot, dry summer meant that the changing colours of the leaves were particularly stunning this year. Week after week I was spellbound by the beautiful hues of oranges, reds and browns as we made our way through the winding paths of the woods. The activities that we do at this time of year take a natural cue from nature as well; lots of leaf art and consideration of animals as we make bird feeders and hang them around the woods to give them a helping hand through the long, cold, winter. It helps that until the last few weeks, it’s been a reasonably dry autumn as well meaning the ground hasn’t quite reached maximum “bog-of-doom” status yet.
Mostly though, I think what I absolutely love about Forest School particularly in the run up to Christmas is the natural reclamation of the advent period. As we enter the woods we take a conscious step back from the consumerist, advertisement-heavy hype of the mainstream narrative of December and we are able to take a more laid back approach to celebrating the festive period.
Three things particularly stand out for me as examples of this. The first was evident when I opened our box of tree decorations today to find that approximately half of our decorations were made in the woods…glittery tree cookies to hang on the tree, painted pine cones to dot around the house and woven willow creations (predominantly Rudolph) were nestled in amongst the more traditional tinsel and baubles. Each year I gently mock these rustic contributions to our Christmas decorations but the creation of each is etched in my memory as each child has painstakingly worked to produce a natural decoration, made with love.
Secondly, is our annual tradition of campfire-cooked latkes to celebrate Hanukkah. One of my fellow veteran attendees each year amazingly brings everything we need including homemade apple sauce, sour cream and gallons of the delicious potato-ey batter and cooks us a feast every year whenever this festival falls. They are without a doubt, my favourite campfire-cooked food and I hope that this tradition lives on for a long time as it no longer feels like autumn in the woods without them!
Finally, each year on the last week of term we have a communal meal (because let’s face it, no festival is really complete without a feast) and there is something so lovely about all the children, parents and leaders joining together to eat, complete with a requisite visit from the big man in red. After a successful few years of a ‘Christmas fry up’, the attendees of our older home ed group have declared it a tradition and I eagerly await saying Merry Christmas to all and goodbye to the year this week with a plate of bacon and eggs!
These Friday mornings spent in the woods are a breath of metaphorical (as well as literal) fresh air all year round, often referred to as ‘therapy’ by the parents who attend. But in a season when we are bombarded with things we must do to make Christmas special, presents we must buy to show we love those around us and excessive food we must consume in order to fully enjoy ourselves, these sessions are an absolute haven. They remind us of what is important, namely time spent with those we love. They provide us with a refuge from the commercialisation of the festive period, in the most tranquil and beautiful surroundings you can imagine (even when the hoard of small boys in attendance are re-enacting Lord of the Flies with sticks and pans from the mud kitchens!) And that is why, the Christmas term has become my favourite term at Forest School.
Hannah Durdin, Forest School Administrator