Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Oak Apple Ink

There is something about playing in the woods, exploring, experimenting that really stimulates discoveries.
I remember when I was a teenager reading about oak gall ink in a book on art techniques but I hadn't tried it until today.

Oak galls are fascinating little discoveries in themselves. Found on the underside of oak leaves the are created when a teeny parasitic gall wasp lays an egg on the leaf bud. The interaction between the leaf and the egg as they grow creates a gall, a little ball in which the wasp larvae can grow and eventually it burrows out and flies free.

The wasps emerge in the autumn leaving the galls behind. Last week, I picked one off the forest floor and as I was chatting with someone about what it was I gave it a squeeze and brown water came out.

There are lots of recipes available on-line which involve grinding oak apples and adding iron but this water, just freshly squeezed, made me wonder if this would work as an ink. The oak is really high in tannins and it stains really well.

I got a feather and snipped it into a quill and it worked perfectly. Instant ink to be harvested from the woods.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Maslow’s hierarchy of need or why, in winter, we always have hot chocolate..

I was just repacking and checking through the safety bag that I take into the woods with me and I felt like something was missing. There had been a lot more space in the bag over the summer but as the weather changes so does the contents of my safety bag.  So I added another bag, full of small gloves, hats and scarves. There is a well known saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes, but it is hard to really feel the full impact of that saying until you see a child, he isn’t engaging with the woods around him, but is stood, hunched, with his hands tucked under his armpits, watching the others.  “Would you like some gloves?” He nods, chooses a pair and runs off to join in. True, it is another thing for me to carry, but the difference it can make to a child’s ability to join in is worth it. I hope most children come prepared to play and learn outdoors but the reality is often they don’t. I think that part of my role as a Forest School practitioner is to try and remove any barriers that stop someone from being able to enter fully into learning, exploring and being in the woods. 

Forest Schools are a place where children can develop self confidence and self esteem and we aim for children to be accessing deep level learning experiences, where they are immersed and in the flow. But like that little boy, people can’t access that powerful, playful learning state if their hands are cold.  The Hierarchy of Needs, as in the theory put forward by Maslow, and extended in this diagram by the Australian child psychologist Louise Porter makes it clear as to why.

Porter describes how after survival and emotional safety, children look for belonging (connectedness, empathy, acceptance) and autonomy (choice, mastery, self-efficacy). Belonging is connected to fun, and autonomy to self-fulfilment. But critically the survival needs; warmth, shelter, food and drink; are at the root of all progress towards self actualisation. If we are concerned or distracted by those needs, we cannot focus on our self-fulfilment or on having fun.  
Children, even quite small children want to look after their own basic needs, they need to know what resources are available, how to use them and have the confidence in you to want to ask for them.  The process of meeting those basic needs can be a vehicle for having fun and feeling proud of your achievements. If you have ever put a temporary shelter with a group of children you soon learn there is lots of fun to be had, shaking the tarpaulin, rolling and wrapping yourself up in it, winding the strings around trees, running through a tunnel like half built shelter. Then, the fleeting moment of pride and satisfaction when the shelter is up and we are ready to get stuck in to our adventures.
For children to be given the language and opportunity to name their needs, and be given the resources to meet those needs is also very important. This little doodle that went into the recent Forest School Association newsletter explores this idea in reality; 

I have noticed that the amount of effort and the designs that children organically come up with for their shelters reflects the weather and their needs. A group of three and four year olds on a snowy morning made a shelter that wrapped them all up, cocoon like inside, protected on all sides. No room for any adults in there though, apart from just enough space to pass in mugs of hot chocolate. On the same afternoon, when the sun had come out and the snow was melting a group of their classmates made a shelter that was entirely different, much more open and spacious, no need to huddle together for warmth any more.

That is why as the weather turns I am checking the supplies of hot chocolate, rinsing out the flask and packing the little gloves into my Forest School safety bag.

*This post, written by Lily, was originally published on in Jan 2011 and is republished here with their kind permission. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Child led learning or how it feels to not be in charge

Giving control over content and intent of play and learning to children

Child-led learning sounds like it should be easy, just see what the children are interested in and excited by and then follow it. Actually, when you put it like that it is easy and in the context of outdoor learning  allowing the children to lead can be wonderfully simple to implement. There is so much to discover and interact with. It is hard NOT to be learning.  Where child led learning becomes more challenging is in the personal internal battles you face as a practitioner.

I am thinking for example about a time when a group of children decided they would have a ‘bug market’ where they could trade things with each other. They decided they could bring things from home, or trade conkers, interesting leaves and other found natural things.  They asked us to provide materials for signs, sheets to set things out on and they left the session really excited about the upcoming Bug Market.

It was only after they left that we started to realise the gaps we had left open, what sort of things would they bring from home? What were the ethics of trading live insects? Who would decide what trade was fair? How would we agree the rules?
One of the key lessons I have learnt over the years is to never imagine that I am in charge. It can be a real challenge to master my ego, not listen to the voice that says “Well, I know best because I am an adult.”  Or allow the part of me that already sees how this could go horribly wrong to be too dominant. 

When the children arrived for the Bug Market it seemed that the children had all understood what the rules were to be without me having to get them into a discussion. No-one brought their favourite toys to swap, you don’t have insects in a bug market, (and apparently I should have know this!) and the adult role seemed to be to keep currency moving around as more people wanted to be stall holders than to barter. 

But child led learning doesn't start the moment you decide to step back. When I walked into a woodland with a group of nursery children, most of whom had never been in a woodland before, it’s almost like they couldn't see the potential, and didn't know yet how to interact with it. It took a few sessions of going back to those same woods, with practitioners and staff providing encouragement and permission to the children to collect things they saw, asking them to describe their finds and to interact with them, to follow trails of feathers and touch mossy stumps and smooth leaves. Then the children started to notice and to lead. A long worm stopped us in our tracks as we walked up the path. The children are acutely observant, “it is coming towards me,” “now it is going to you,” “it is a letter C for Callum” “it feels sticky, like a fish” They put things in its path to see if that changes the direction it goes in.

When, during the following session we brought magnifying glasses and pictures of the minibeasts they could find they responded really positively and were quickly immersed and interested. Child-led learning can take time to emerge, as group dynamics settle and the children gain the confidence to lead and to believe their ideas will be listened to.  This is one of the reasons why effective outdoor learning takes place over time.

They start to see your role as a provider of resources, ideas, ways and means rather than the instructor, which can often run counter to the normal relationships they have with teachers and other adults.
The natural environment is an unpredictable place, you never know what you will find. You can plan and prepare for certain learning experiences to take place, and they may happen, but what you cannot plan for and only be receptive to, is the unexpected.

"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
–General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Sometimes like with the Bug Market, the children are explicit about the direction they want to take, sometimes child-led learning comes about by following a particular line of questioning and sometimes an observation is the key. In the first week in the woods with another group, William picks up a sharp stone and uses it like a tool; another child watches him and copies, using a stick with the same motion. It occurs to me they are whittling. Even though I don’t usually bring tools in this soon, their behaviour intrigues me and I bring potato peelers for them to whittle with for the next session. 

Outdoor play and outdoor learning provide enough scope for each child to be following his or her own line of enquiry and for them to collaborate with other children and adults. But those internal battles I mentioned... how do you feel about how you are perceived in your role? Not by the children, but by other practitioners, visitors, parents and parent helpers, a passing head teacher or an Ofsted inspector. What happens when the lines of enquiry that the children choose to follow includes squishing living things, making weapons, having battles....? 

*This post, written by Lily, was originally published on in Oct 2010 and is republished here with their kind permission. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Only made from wood; a daily advent of festive winter crafts part 2

Last year I set myself a creative challenge over on my facebook page. Every day in December so far I added a new winter festive craft made from things from the woods to a folder full of photographs. Well, now the nights are drawing in again I thought I'd collect some more ideas up for you.

 As the leaves fall off the tree the berries are exposed and the red of the rosehips sing out of the hedgerows even more. I collected a few handfuls to see if there is enough to make rosehip syrup. The frost had got to most of them but there were enough to make these sweet wreaths for the doors. I used a bodkin (a blunt needle) threaded with some paper coated florists wire which helped it hold it's shape.

A really simple one this; cutting slices from logs then sanding them smooth is something I have done lots of times with groups of children. We have used them for medals or name tags or tokens. Here I used a pyrography tool to make a little robin decoration.

This is such a great idea and uses another small wood slice.  I picked up this idea from Magaret. It's really quick and simple to make, but there are lots of ways you could decorate the base or the tree. The fir twig has just been trimmed a little to make it more 'tree' shaped.

As this time of year is the time for freezing weather it inspires lots of ice sculpture posts across the pages I folllow. I really love the combination of ice and fire. Putting one pot inside another as they freeze makes these beautiful candle holders that would be perfect for an outdoor winter party.

These reindeer are lovely to make, with drilled logs and bits of twig to connect them together they can be in lots of different sizes. This little fella even has a red rosehip nose. 

This idea was shared with me by Kelly from Alcester nursery, what a fantastic idea! I'm always surprised by how many green leaves are still on the trees in winter, they have been threaded onto a skewer with an elder bead trunk. 

I was in the woods when I noticed the honeysuckle plants winding around themselves. I have really come to love this plant for its pliable stems. I added a few stars snipped out from leaves, which is an idea I developed when I got home using different shades of birch bark.

Part 1 of this round up of crafts is here. I'd love to see what you are making. 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Sweet little alder bee craft

I was asked to bring something to share at my recent visit to Wood School. I haven't made these alder bees with a group for years despite having all the bits in a nice little cigar box ready to go.

Normally when I'm working with groups of children who don't spend much time in the woods I like any craft I introduce to be much more open ended and exploratory. The children at wood school are seasoned creative woodland explorers and this is such a pleasing little craft and fitted the season so well. I couldn't resist and neither could the kids (and adults) at Wood School.

It only relies on 3 elements; the little cones from the alder tree, white plastic carrier bags and yellow embroidery thread. I tried using full sized cones once, but the result wasn't the same. I think the teeny scale is what makes them work.

A piece of thread about a foot long, and a circle cut from the carrier bag. We folded the bag in half and cut out semi circles. This really pleased one of the smaller girls who enjoyed noticing how the half circle became a full circle.

The thread is tied round the bit of carrier bag with a single simple overhand knot and pulled really tight. This makes the bit of carrier bag turn into two wings. The children really enjoyed practicing the knot and helping each other keep the wings in place for someone else tying the knot. 

The end of the thread can be put on the cone and wound round and round until the wings are close up against the cone. 

You can keep winding it up until the thread is all wound round. Just make sure the thread it is poked between the scales of the cone by pulling it every so often. 

This one had a little loop in it by accident, but that meant it could be worn as a ring. 

Or leave the thread long and hang them from a tree.

More than once while we were making these a bee flew by. Spring is well and truly here (for now) The bluebells are opening, the blossom is on the trees. Let's hear it for bees and the vital work they do! Yippeeee!

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