If We Listen

So it’s been another beautiful day out there in the woods today, and a fabulous session to boot. Once again we’ve played host to the lads from a local school, all of whom are taken out of mainstream schooling due to their challenging behaviour. They come out to the woods as a break from classroom learning, and even on a wet and windy day it seems to do them a world of good. On a lovely mild and sunny day like today it’s just brilliant for them!

We tend to get a different mixture of lads each week, with some of them coming fairly regularly and others just coming to a single session. This can make it hard to track any longer term progress they make, so all I can ever really comment on is how they seem at the beginning of the session compared to the end. On top of that, there’s usually some indication from the teachers who accompany them how they’ve been behaving in school that morning. Today we were told that one of the lads had been particularly challenging earlier in the day, and we were expecting the worst. More on that later.

When the group arrived they were certainly full of beans and some of the guys came bounding over, excited to get started. This in itself is unusual behaviour, as they’re normally quite reluctant to be doing anything at all until they relax a bit. However, today the sun was shining and the forest school gods were smiling down on us. The whole group seemed happy and keen to be cracking on. That being the case they ran straight over to the packed hammocks and went about the business of putting them up. This again is quite unusual, as they normally want us to do that for them. Today they did it all by themselves and were soon swinging away merrily.

Obviously, mere moments later the chaps were looking for their next challenge, and they decided that they wanted to try lighting their own fires. Great! Enthusiasm, and proactive behavior. I’ve not really seen much of that from this group before, so on we go. Some of the chaps wanted to work together, and others wanted to work alone. All were given the opportunity to light a fire with cotton wool, flint and steel, and whatever else they could find. You want to know something? They all succeeded with little or no help! All of them demonstrated some understanding of how to get a fire going and how to keep it going. They’d obviously seen either we practitioners or Bear Grylls doing it before, as there was a lot of ember blowing and poking with various degrees of success.

What was really nice to see in all this was the amount of determination displayed by every single one of the lads. They were NOT going to be beaten! But there was no frustration, no anger, no giving in. Each of them in their own way just knuckled down and got on with it. One lad in particular earned my respect as he’d decided to work alone and it took him a long long time to get his fire going. Much longer than the others. He tried and tried, thought about it, and tried again. That lad kept trying until he succeeded, and he deserves a pat on the back for his efforts.

Remember how we were expecting trouble with one of the guys earlier? Well… You’d never have known he’d been causing trouble earlier that day from his behaviour in the woods today. He was brilliant. Not content with just lighting a fire, he wanted to replicate something he’d seen on a Bear Grylls show. Ok, well… crack on then! So crack on he did. He spent most of the afternoon scouring the woods for the right materials to build a kind of cairn-like structure that turned out to be some kind of smoke signal. He constructed the structure, dug earth to funnel air in to the entrance, filled it with combustible materials, and had some success in lighting it. All the while keeping himself perfectly busy and entertained, with not a hint of challenging behaviour or anger. Absolutely spot on lad! Another pat on the back.

While all this was going on, we had another lad who’d decided he wanted to build a den in the woods. Again… this is unusual behaviour. I’d asked the teachers weeks ago if the kids would like to build dens and was told that they’d tried once with them and it had been a catastrophic failure. Apparently these lads don’t have the necessary attention span to build dens. Well, here’s a photo that says otherwise.

The keen-eyed amongst you will recognise part of that structure from my last session review. Indeed, the children on Saturday had already laid out the basic structure, but today our little engineer has extended, elevated, roofed, insulated, and consolidated! I think that’s pretty good going for a chap who doesn’t have the attention span to build a den.

I was told that this particular little lad always falls asleep in the van on the way home. Apparently he doesn’t get out much. Each day after getting home from school, he shuts himself away in his room until he’s picked up for school the next morning. I’m told that these few hours in the woods are the entirety of the time he spends outdoors. You know what… I can tell! This kid is clearly starved of contact with the outside world and he certainly did his best to make up for lost time today. He very clearly had a great time and he never stopped searching for bigger sticks and better materials. It was great to see him pottering around in his borrowed school wellies.

Meanwhile, back at base camp…..

So there we are… It just goes to show. You can’t write anyone off just because they failed once. You can’t even write anyone off if they ‘fail’ quite a lot of the time. It takes persistence to achieve anything, but when it comes to kids with challenging behaviour I think it takes even more persistence than usual. Failure is subjective anyway. Ray Mears might judge these fires and these dens to be a failure, but for these lads they were major successes. That’s not to belittle the lads either. They’re young and they’re only just beginning to grasp the fickle ways of fire and of nature. What they should be proud of is their persistence, and their ability to keep going in the face of immediate failure in a calm and constructive way. If you can do that in ANY situation, then you’ve turned a failure in to a success. An important lesson for any forest school practitioner to learn, and one these kids have taught me today in spectacular fashion.

Time for an aside? Yeah why not?! Read more below.

Does anyone else find themselves not wanting to leave the woods when they’ve finished their sessions? Everyone else always seems happy to pack up and ship out, but often I find myself hanging back. I think it’s important as practitioners that we allow ourselves time alone in the woods. To some degree, this is the reason we’re on this journey at all. As role models for the children who come to spend time here, it’s important that we never forget what magic the forest has to offer. It’s important that the forest doesn’t become just a work place.

So today, as everyone else drives away, I decide to make one last cup of tea for myself. As I sit alone looking out across green fields and bare trees, a stillness falls over the place and I slowly but surely tune back in to nature. Closing my eyes, a gentle breeze ebbs and flows all around me. The swirling of the trees stills my mind. Behind me is the low snap and crackle of the kelly kettle, and somewhere in the far distance I can hear the whoop and squeal of happy children playing. It’s amazing, but right here in this moment I have everything I need. Here in this moment, life is simple. Everything is as it should be, and in the silence of the forest I’m amazed how many birds are singing. I wonder if they’ve been singing the whole time, and I think surely they must have been. Nature is always there, if we listen.


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