Louise Graham is a primary school teacher and forest school leader working near the source of the River Tamar on the North Devon – Cornwall border. She supports school groups, teachers and childcare professionals to take their learning outside. Visit www.naturallearning.org.uk for details about training, forest school training, research projects and consultancy with the Natural Learning team.
“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?
My 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 tool 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 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. 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.
- 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.”
- Polite – “There is the perfect stick in your trolley but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to use your stick. Would it be ok, because now that I’ve seen it, no other stick is good enough.”
- 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.”
- 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 ”
The art of listening
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 “I can’t 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.
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