By Wendy Binnie
When I first started my Forest School journey, I wasn’t diagnosed as autistic or ADHD. I simply knew that the outdoors was my happy place and I wanted to share that with others. I was working within a school in a support position at the time, it was very easy to see the difference Forest School had on many of the young people by just taking them out of the classroom. Sensory influences, like noise, space, colours or lighting can be a struggle to many and some will not even know they exist. For me, the biggest sensory issue was from fluorescent lighting. By going outdoors these factors are often removed which helps learners concentrate on learning.
After qualifying as a Forest School leader, I changed jobs and I now work for an outdoor charity, currently running nurture sessions for schools. I feel that I have the advantage of understanding the positive impact of being outdoors, compared to the classroom from a deeply personal level. It is difficult to describe exactly how it feels to others but understanding its impact can help encourage the young people who attend to get the full benefit from sessions.
As a neurodivergent person, who wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult, there are times when I can recognise a struggle in students, which may not always appear to be obvious to others. It is common for neurodivergent people to mask areas of difficulty. I masked and coped for such a long time, that I can now often spot similar behaviour from others. Even when the young person cannot perhaps verbalise or recognise why they are struggling. I am then able to implement subtle changes to allow them to relax and make the environment more comfortable.
Within some sessions I have run, it has given the parents reassurance to know not only that I am familiar with autism and ADHD and that I am actually diagnosed with both. This works well for many reasons, I am never judgemental, I am more familiar with struggles that may be an issue and can help support when required. My feedback is always in a positive manner, I notice the small improvements and celebrate them as they are always important.
To get the most from the sessions, some young people simply need to know they will be accepted for exactly who they are! This comes with understanding and experience. The outdoors gives the space to retreat should they need to, and, depending on the site, has lots of natural elements that can be used to relax. My own sensory experiences, especially from working in schools helps me to recognise when a young person simply needs to climb, pace, or run. I know that depending on the day this may be for the full session, but if it is what helps I have no issue. I simply continue to invite them to join us periodically so they know they can. Forest school is a long-term process and is delivered frequently so I see the young people regularly enough to get to know them and understand their body language.
I am a very visual person and can watch a situation from the outside and have an idea of how to improve it. Each session can be different, depending on the young people’s experiences before they come along. Due to my personal experiences, I can swap and change things to try as I go along if I instinctively realise something may not work. This can make it tricky to explain to others exactly how I can tell and know what to do. I don’t always get it exactly right but the young people know I care, I’m trying and they feel included, this always goes a long way.
Forest School is ideal for me, there’s enough structure to keep it familiar, but it is also adaptable. I start my first sessions the same way to get the feel of the group. After the start, each group, depending on the makeup, often go off in different directions. I can plan a session based on the previous week and wake up the morning of the session with a completely different idea of what I want to do that day to fit with the participants’ needs. Like other leaders, some of my best ideas come to me at 3 am and I need to sit and write them down before going back to sleep, or they will chase around my head all night.
If I feel the children enjoyed the session, then that’s been a successful session for me. When I see positive changes in the group I know I’m making an impact. I celebrate both the young people’s growth and my own and we learn from each other as we go. I still have so much to learn, I am by no means an expert on trees, fungi and plants, yet I feel comfortable taking things steadily. In every other job I have had, I have pushed lots of learning, studying and courses, feeling the need to prove myself to myself and my colleagues. Forest School allows me to grow as I go, along with the young people I work with.