Can’t see the sticks for the trees.

Spring 2016

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 11.43.05“Oh no children I forgot the paintbrushes!

How will we paint the woods today?”

The children coming to forest school think I’m very forgetful (and let’s be honest they’re often right), but forgetting the paintbrushes, or another important piece of kit, has become a regular “problem” for us. We’ve been painting the trees to wake them up for spring, and the children love this activity so much they have lots of suggestions to resolve my forgetfulness.

“I’ll go back.” There is always a thoughtful, helpful child or adult in the group.

“We’ll use our fingers.” That particular child would have used their fingers, paintbrush or no paintbrush, but maybe we don’t want to get quite that messy so early today.

“Let’s do something different.” “NO! the trees need us to wake them up.”

“We can make some paintbrushes.” Great idea. Now how will we do that?

trolleyMy trusty forest school trolley has become a resource box of useful bits and bobs. The scaled up version of the ever-ready Boy Scout’s pocket. The tools box, different strings and fabrics, scissors, freshly dug clay, paper pots combined with found natural gems in and around the wood (including sheep’s wool from a neighbour’s farm today). It makes for a treasure trove, inspiring paintbrush design in all corners of the wood.

Being resourceful is one of the greatest skills we allow children to develop at forest school. They spend so much of their time having activities beautifully prepared, ready on a plate. Having to choose what you need, how you will get it and how to connect all the bits together gets the cogs turning that bit faster.

So now we are searching for the natural materials we need to make a brush. Some are going for stick and leaves, others sheep wool with muslin stretched over the top, some very pretty fern brushes and all tied on using string from the trolley and newly acquired knotting skills, and various levels of perseverance when the first knot slips away from little fingers. Some children are already waking up the trees with some muddy mix paint, and a splash of (non-toxic) colour.

 And just when I thought no-one was going to ask….

“Louise, I can’t find a stick. Can you help me?”

You’d be surprised just how often I hear this. In the woods. Surrounded by trees. Acres of them. There are a number of responses that spring to mind, and it can be challenging not to sound patronising when pointing out where we are, and asking if we know where sticks come from. Or picking up one nearby and suggesting “How about this one?” But today I was asked by one of my cub scouts. And she stopped me in my tracks because she knows where we are, where sticks come from and she doesn’t tend to rely on adult help to get stuck in.

So I thought a bit harder about the question. What is she asking? And I found there are lots of interpretations beyond simply not being able to see the sticks for the trees, or wanting the nearest grown up to do the job for you.

  1. Checking the rules – “I can find a stick but I can’t reach it, within the area I know we can collect from and because I always keep to the rules, I need you to bring the loppers or let me go past the yellow rope. Please. I’m just building up to asking you because I really want that stick.”
  2. Polite – “There is the perfect stick in your trolley but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to use your one. Would it be ok, because now that I’ve seen it, no other stick is good enough.”
  3. Special stick – “I can’t find a very particular stick which is this shape / colour / size in my mind and as yet hasn’t popped out at me in my search. You know the woods, so can you point me in the right direction? Please.”
  4. I have a different plan – “The stick isn’t as important as everyone else thinks and I have a new paintbrush design in my mind, but I just need to confirm that going outside the box will be ok. My heart isn’t in finding a stick because I am about to break new ground.”

So often the most important skill is listening. We tell children this all the time and then make assumptions about the questions they ask without listening and interpreting and exploring exactly what they mean. All too often we can’t hear the children for the words. But on reflection I now have lots of new responses to “Can you help me find a stick?” and we have all learnt a little bit more about being resourceful today. Allowing these children to explore the boundaries of their resourcefulness has shown their passion and creativity, developed their problem-solving and negotiation. And helped me to listen. Really listen.

Thank goodness I forgot the paintbrushes today.


Louise Graham

Look Look

Autumn 2016

Taking tiny ant steps to make big strides.

I love the autumn, there’s a whole school year ahead to get stuck into. Everything is possible in September and everyone is fresh and bright-eyed for a new academic year. We have great plans for where we will have reached by next summer (a lifetime away) and the strides we’ll take to get there. It’s all about looking ahead and reaching high.

For me, this autumn is a chance to plan for some of the great ideas shared between teachers and outdoor learning providers during collaborations in the summer term. Putting some of those “stolen chestnuts” into practice.

We were delighted to be visited by Lindy and Paul from Australia in the summer.     Lindy is an early years trainer in Sydney, interested in forest school in the UK and in developing “Bush Kindy” in Australia.

“If you can take children out in your weather, then we’ve got no excuse.”

Paul, a science educator, is working on planned failure with his students. Setting impossible tasks that develop skills including persistence and a healthy attitude to real life problem solving. It’s absolutely about the process, and not the product.

look look 2


look look Autumn1Lindy and Paul joined in with the 4 and 5 year olds visiting us for a day of story-telling activities; exploring the fairy tale props around the wood, adventuring on the sailing boat we had made last time from some cut branches, mixing up a feast in the mud kitchen, creating a natural banner for our planned party and making up our own versions of traditional tales.

In return, Lindy showed me great pictures of trips into the bush with a preschool group, talked at length about the joys of outdoor learning and the similar barriers evident on both sides of the world. As promised, Lindy also shared an Aboriginal game for us to enjoy outside.

“It’s called ngaka ngaka and it starts off like noughts and crosses.”

My experiences of noughts and crosses are largely disappointing to be honest…My children have each gone through obsessive noughts and crosses playing for a period of time. It starts with enthusiasm but it doesn’t take too much playing to know that the person who goes first will most probably win. Or that no-one wins. Game over. Or actually, with an excited 4 year old, game starts again, and again, and again…

Also last winter we had a Stick Day at forest school and, amongst other things, we made some games using woodland materials. I was trying to (subtly) give the group an understanding that they only needed a few simple materials to play, as opposed to the electronic games machines they had all received for Christmas. One group of children carefully made a great noughts and crosses stick game, neatly cut and lashed, demonstrating great co-operation. But the game itself didn’t live up to expectations, and they soon got bored of playing. Noughts and crosses had let me down, and no doubt they were back to their screens before bedtime.

So, third time lucky for noughts and crosses?

Lindy showed me that with some simple additions the game can be transformed, as shown by the Aboriginal version that requires strategic thinking, yet remains uncomplicated enough for everyone to have a go.

Like noughts and crosses the object of the Aboriginal version is to be the first to get your three counters in a diagonal, vertical or horizontal row before your opponent. Lindy and I played the game on the woodland floor, using a stick grid and some woodland treasures we had found for our three counters. We discovered that leaves blow away, but three stones and three cones worked well.


Unlike noughts and crosses a 4 x 4 grid is used, and phase two of the game begins when both players have laid three counters and no one has positioned three in a row. At this point in noughts and crosses the game is declared a draw and a persistent four year old wants to play again, again or a disappointed eight year old wanders off. In the Aboriginal version players then take turns moving one of their stones (or cones) to an empty square on the grid. Counters can be moved in any direction, provided it does not need to jump over another. You can move diagonally. You have to move when it’s your turn. Simple. Give it a try.

These are small additions to the game and yet it’s transformed. An inspired difference in play. Strategic thinking is required, consequences of moves need to be considered and to “look look” ahead is essential. Yet it remains simple enough for everyone to be able to have a go. Thank you Lindy, for sharing this, and for drawing my attention to the enormous impact of a small change, a little step opening up a huge doorway of opportunity and learning.

So while I set my sights on the destination that the great strides might takes us this autumn, I’m reminded to also notice the many ant steps each stride covers, and the great delight from achieving so much, so simply. So, here are my top three tiny ant steps to take learning outside this autumn for teachers looking to add a bit of bush kindy to their own practice.

  1. Bring outside inside.

Start a nature table, or a nature basket in your classroom. Pop it under your chair if you’ve run out of class space already. Invite children to bring something in that they have found, or a picture to talk about. Some children with show sparks of enthusiasm to build upon through the year.

  1. Talk about it.

Have a conversation with a colleague about an idea you’ve got to take a story, a maths starter or a science lesson outside. Give it a go while autumn is still providing us with some warmth, and take some time to talk about how it went afterwards.

  1. Stay outside after playtime or PE.

When you have lined up in the playground after playtime, turn the line around and instead of walking into the classroom, stay out to do a little something for five minutes. After all everyone already has their coat on. Find something interesting, look at the sky, read a poem, have a chat. If you are lucky enough to have a green space to explore, use it. Link it in with your classroom plan; make it a starter for learning – today’s letter, set a number challenge, a bit of PSHE, or use your senses to experience what it’s like out there today and brainstorm some adjectives for writing or spelling.

And wherever you are on your outdoor learning journey, have a game of ngaka ngaka. You might just look look at things a little differently differently.


Louise Graahm