Autumn down the woods

This is easily my favourite time of year to be in the woods. The light is beautiful, the leaves and crunchy and playing in the dark is so much fun! The fire becomes a central feature and focal point of sessions. we also get more frequent visits from our local fox. There is an increase in time spent together as a group and more of a focus on cooking tasty treats. This term we have cooked popcorn, campfire donuts, pancakes and tried several versions of toffee apples.

Our friendly visitor to Forest School.

During half term the team ran sessions at Lyde Green and Lincombe Barn Woods and attended autism awareness training with autistic public speaker & trainer, Loren Snow. This has gave us to things to discuss in our team meeting and also affirmed that the way we work is autism friendly. Thank you to Loren and Jade for the informative and thought provoking training.

Experimenting with colour in the woods has been lots of fun. The children get really creative with access to open ended resources like these. We never know what they will come up with!

The funding for the sessions at Christ Church Infants School came to an end. The project was funded for 7 weeks by “One You South Gloucestershire”. They offer a range of support with physical and mental wellbeing. You can learn about them here Due to generous donations to our Community Fund we are able to continue to provide sessions to children with additional needs at Christ Church Infants school into terms 3 and 4. School are part funding the project.

We are chuffed to have been awarded funding from South Gloucestershire Council to provide half term adventures for children that are eligible for free school meals. This is a part of the central government initiative “Holiday Activities and Food” which is designed to support children to access fun activities and have a hot meal in the middle of the day. If you, or someone you know, is eligible please boo here:

We also have been awarded funding from local councillors to provide Forest School activities in Thornbury, Parkwell and Warmley. This has been allocated to us from Member Awarded Funding. We will be providing sessions for children with additional needs in schools in these local areas.

In the Wednesday additional needs girls group some of us enjoyed using nature get creative!

We have been busy recruiting more team members and are pleased to welcome 7 more people to the team, taking us up to a team of 26. Addam has lots of voluntary sector experience and has volunteered with children with a range of needs. Holly has a degree is wildlife conservation and volunteer experience with the RSPB. Anne is a retired Forest School Leader with other a decade of experience of working with children with additional needs in local schools. Stuart enjoys fires and climbing trees, he has provided volunteer support a child to gain confidence with the English language. Cath is returning to Mud Pies after a break- she is a very creative person who is full of fun and giggles! Lucy is a psychology student with an interest in the positive impact of time in nature on children. Gigi is studying for a degree in Early Years, has volunteered at Gympanzees and has an interest in how the outdoors helps children to learn.

As it’s November now I’m allowed to talk about Christmas, right? We love Christmas here at Mud Pie Explorers! Working with children at this time of year is really very special indeed. This year we have our usual Christmassy sessions taking place where we will be making reindeer, creating beautiful natural decorations, having fires, hot choccie and creating happy memories. To book a space for your Explorer please visit

Our well-loved free community event is due to return this year- hurrah! We are just awaiting confirmation from Community Spaces… please pencil in Sunday 19th December 10 -1130am in your diary for a magical family event with hot chocolate, crafts, seasonal play and a visit from Santa.

Mud Pies News for September 2021

What a wonderful start to the academic year! We are loving running 20 sessions for over 150 children a week. There are preschool groups, 1:1’s, after schools activities in school and our awesome Forest School sessions. You can tell our team genuinely love what we do, and so can the children. This is one of the many things that makes Mud Pies so very special and time spent with us so memorable.

In true English end of summer fashion we have had all kinds of weather to enjoy. I particularly enjoyed the rain this week- I’d not been mud sliding for so long I had forgotten how exhilarating it is! We have been mud painting, doing art with nature, teaching more children how to make fire and, as always, following the lead and interests of the children.

Community Fund

To mark our 10th birthday we launched our Community Fund. This fund will remove financial barriers for local children to access our Forest School. It will be used for children with additional needs. We can’t think of a better way to mark our 10th birthday than to give a gift to our community from the community. To find out more or to donate click on this link:

New projects this month

September marks the start of our first venture into social prescribing. We are collaborating with local artists and Southmead Development Trust to run an Arts Council funded 12 week project for children with social, emotional and mental health needs.

Jess and Nickie will be running Forest School sessions for Warmley Park Preschool from next term. It’ll be really exciting to share the woods with the children and get to meet other adults who work closely with children with additional needs.

Funding news
We were chuffed to bits that our application to Sandie Davies for an allocation of her Member Awarded Funding was accepted. The funding will to enable us support children with additional needs at Tynings School as well other children from that area. Thank you Sandie.

Last week we had an unprompted email from NEC Software Solutions UK. They had chosen us to receive support from them as they were impressed with our values and the work that we do. They donated £1559 to our Community Fund as a part of their commitment to creating a social impact.

The team

We welcomed 5 new volunteers into our wonderful team. Helen is a librarian who is providing vital admin support. Kaya is a SEND teaching assistant who is helping Mel and Jess. Kathryn is a primary school teacher who is getting muddy with Nickie and Zak. Nicky is an advice worker who is working closely with Jess and also Mel. Zak is an awesome climber, known as Monkey Boy who helps out in 2 sessions at the weekend, he attended the very first Mud Pie Explorers Forest School sessions way back in 2011!

Our next round of volunteer recruitment is now open. Pop along here if you wish to request an application pack

In half term the team are being trained about autism by an autistic public speaker and trainer along with the parent of an autistic child. The trainer was recommended to us by the Autism Training Company. We are also meeting as a team to look at how we work with conflicts between children in a positive child centred way. There is a blog about our approach which you can access here:

October half term

We have family and drop off sessions this upcoming half term. Some with campfire lunch, some with pumpkin carving. October half term is one of my personal favourites. It’s not too hot and not too cold. The woods is beautiful and the leaves are crunchy! It makes me smile 🙂

If you fancy booking your child on an adventure at Lincombe Barn Woods or Lyde Green Common you can find all the details here:

Wishing you a wonderful start the autumn and we look forward to seeing you soon!

Avoiding the “no play fighting!” scenario

Rough and tumble play can be seen fairly consistently through the young in the mammals of the world. We all smile and feel a sense of joy when we see lion cubs play fighting in the jungle, or the kittens or puppies closer to home. We can see that they are enjoying the high energy, intense and sometimes risky, full body social interaction. We know that they need it. For them it’s a part of growing up.

For me the same is true of children. Yet, it is the least socially acceptable form of play. When I see children play fighting I get a sense of joy, just like when I saw my friends kittens doing the same. There is a sense of freedom and unguarded interaction. Children engaged in rough play are in their flow, they are utterly connected to the moment. I also see it as a part of growing up- rough play is incredibly rich in learning opportunities and meets many varied developmental needs.

I guess the best place to start in understanding the benefits of rough play is the why. Why do children choose to engage it in?

  1. It’s fun!

    Play is by definition is enjoyable if it is not fun it is not play. Play is often exciting and risky. Learning to recognise and manage risk is one of the functions of play, that is what it is for. Children choose rough play because it meets their needs, which is why it feels good. If it isn’t feeling good anymore that’s when us grown ups can offer our support perhaps by starting off by asking “are you happy with this game?” and then “is there anything that might make it fun again?” that way they retain responsibility for problem solving and the opportunity to stop playing.

2. It feels good

Rough play provides the deep sensory input which lots of high energy children crave. That’s why they bump and crash into things too. They need it. Rough play meets this physiological need. There is lots of evidence that deep sensory input activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which (simply put) calms the fight or flight system. So rough play can be helpful in calming the nervous system.

Rough play also stimulates their vestibular system (which is one of our 7 senses) to provide information about motion, the position of our heads and or bodies. This helps with the development of good posture, balance and movements. So, it can support children to develop and learn how to use their bodies- just like the young of other mammals.

The proprioceptive system is also one of our 7 senses. Proprioception is how we feel what our skin, muscles, tendons and joints are doing. It is linked to our vestibular sense too. Rough play has a role to play in the development and tuning of these senses.

Rough play is an intense physical exercise that requires concentration and gross motor skills. If you have engaged in play fighting at all you will know how tiring and exhilarating it is! In a time when we are concerned that children are not active enough we need to encourage any play choices that include such heart pumping fun. Physical exercise also releases serotonin- a hormone that helps us feel more sociable and agreeable.

3. It feels good emotionally

Many stress relief methods advocate for the engagement of the senses to bring about a sense of calm in the body and mind. For children the choice to engage in rough play can be a subconscious effort to decrease stress. They know it feels good in the moment and they know that they feel happier afterwards. Not the kind of knowing in the conscious logical mind but the kind that influences choices in a more subtle way. This is why some children seem to choose rough and tumble play at transition times.

4. It feels good socially

Playing in a full on physical way with a sprinkling of risk is a great way to build bonds and strengthen relationships. Shared physical play experiences build trust through the production of the hormone oxytocin. Rough play requires negotiation and boundary setting. It requires the skills of reading body language and social cues. To play rough with someone you have to know that it is safe to do so. It is a delicate dance of social responsibility and social expectations. Rough play is packed with developmentally appropriate social skills lessons- think of those lion cubs, they were happy too.

Of course, there are times when it is not going so well. Disagreements occur and lines are crossed. This is where us grown ups come in. We are there to offer support with conflict resolution, empathy, managing aggression and self awareness. We are there to support their emergent and developing social skills. Our role is to help them feel supported through the vulnerability of learning new social skills without the fear of being told off. Mistakes are part of learning after all.

See our blog post on conflict resolution here: There’s no such thing as goodies and baddies; empowering children to resolve conflicts and develop healthy relationships without rescuing them – Forest School Ramblings (

Balancing the benefits and the barriers

Rough play teaches children they are strong and capable: physically, emotionally and socially. If we manage the barriers below mindfully we can use rough play as a developmentally appropriate tool to support learning. Our role is to not get in the way of this very natural, biologically driven teaching tool but to help set and maintain appropriate boundaries and ensure that mistakes are seen as learning opportunities to avoid causing the child to feel shamed.

As adults we can shy away from rough play for lots of reasons. Each home/ setting would benefit from very open and honest discussions with the other adults in order to set (and then consistently maintain) clear boundaries for rough play. These are some of the questions/ concerns that may be addressed during this process:

  • Worrying that someone with get hurt is a legitimate concern, sometimes they will. When exploring the strength of their bodies, learning about risk and developing physical skills children get often hurt. Learning to walk, learning to ride a bike, learning to climb and learning to negotiate different types of terrain all have the risk of physical injury. Rough play is learning. It is learning about our bodies, our strength and about risk. Our role as adults is to minimise the possibility of physical harm, it will not to be possible to entirely eliminate that risk. That risk is necessary for this type of play to feel exciting and inciting- the risk has a biological role.
  • We are concerned things may get out of hand/ the children may become overstimulated. This is an ongoing learning for me and I guess I am not alone in this. Groups and needs change over time, we have to adapt and change our approach accordingly. It can be tricky to get the balance right but taking time to think about the individual children and their capacity to regulate needs to be taken into consideration along with the number of adults available to support the learning associated with disagreements between the children.
  • Setting behavioural boundaries. There are some clear and obvious boundaries though like – no biting, no heads and no necks. It is important to involve children in setting these rules, it helps the play become self policing and empowers them. Another clear boundary, in work settings, is obviously that adults do not engage in the rough play due to safeguarding practices. There are ways to divert children wanting to engage in rough play my go-to is to ask “can you push me?” or “did you want to show me how strong you are?” while offering up my hands for them to push. If no other children want to rough play they can be offered activities that give as similar sensory input as possible. For example, I offer hammering, carrying/ moving heavy items, throwing heavy natural objects into the river or I hang upside down in a tree and ask if they can do it.
Providing deep sensory input
  • We aren’t sure where the boundary is between play fighting and real aggression. There are clear social cues and facial expressions that show us when children’s personal boundaries have been crossed. For the adults observing the play this line may be different to the children’s and their peers. This is why asking “are you happy with this game?” question is so important. When discussing with other adults about rough play we need to be mindful that some of us grew up playing rough, for others it can be way out of their comfort zone. While it is important to bear this in mind when deciding where to draw the line in your home or work setting, ultimately the children’s needs for rough play should always come first.
  • Concerns that letting children engage in rough play may look to other adults that we have poor boundaries. Not all adults are aware of the developmental appropriateness of rough play or the learning it entails. It may be worthwhile discussing your approach with others or in a work setting creating a play policy which details why and how you facilitate rough play, and other less socially acceptable risky play.

It’s a tricky balance

While facilitating rough play experiences adults need to simultaneously juggle several tricky balancing acts:

  • Making sure it is safe enough while not eliminating all the risks
  • Making sure it is stimulating without being over overstimulating
  • Making sure it meets children’s needs while making sure the grown ups are comfortable enough to allow it
  • Having enough disagreements to allow for social skills lessons to occur naturally while maintaining the fun

It would be so much easier to say “no play fighting”. In fact, most places do just that. However, the benefits to children, and particularly those with additional needs, mean that is vital to negotiate that delicate and tricky balance. For me the best way to do this is through open, honest conversations with an awareness of the holistic benefits and an acceptance that rough play will result in a few bumps, bangs and scrapes.

With children now growing up in an increasingly digital and risk-averse society, it is so important to advocate for all types of play. This is especially true for least socially acceptable type: play fighting. The tangible benefits and learning  children gain from rough play, surely outweigh the short-term risks they take and the discomfort us grown-ups may feel.

Our new normal and the vital role of outdoor child led play

Covid 19 is a health crisis- a physical and mental health one. While children appear to be less impacted by the physical illness they do not appear to be spared the mental health impacts of the control measures, changes to routines and anxieties of living in a global pandemic. This blog post looks at the role child led outdoor play has to play in promoting the mental health of children.

The context

During lockdown 1 calls to Childline and the NSPCC support phone line skyrocketed. The government and children’s charities have produced information about the impact upon safeguarding for both parents and professionals, citing both an increase in concerns and a decrease in the ability to access support. The NHS has online advice on how to support children deal with the pandemic. Children and young peoples mental health services have also adapted and are now providing advice and support online around the virus.

All children will be feeling the affects of the pandemic, of particular note are those children with additional needs. SEND children have had their support needs put to one side, as EHCP targets could not be met. Children living with domestic violence were disproportionally affected, reports of domestic violence increased dramatically. One in four women experience domestic abuse, that is at least 7 children in each classroom. Children living in low income families were further disadvantaged as the surge in food bank donations illustrates. Those children whose parents are prone to self medicating or have pre-existing mental health issues would also have be significantly affected.

Covid 19 is a health crisis- a physical and a mental health one. MIND, a leading mental health charity, conducted research on the impact on the pandemic. Matthew Hotopf, a professor of general hospital psychiatry at King’s College London, was reported as noting the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on mental health had been significant, in particular on women, young people and people with school-age children.

While there have been obvious variations the level of discomfort and experienced less of an impact than others, The pandemic will has affected all of us. Some children will live in families that have managed the simultaneous transition to home school and home working. Some will have enjoyed their birthdays at home and were able to get all the basic supplies they needed. Some will have had an ok time of it but their world may still feel a little different. Even in the most ideal scenario the context of childhood today is a transition to a ‘new normal’. Our world has changed.

Why is outdoor child led play so important?

Throughout human history play has quite naturally taught children all the skills they need to survive. It is a fundamental human need which has many vital roles. It teaches us how to move, talk, socialise, problem solve, regulate, create and assess risks. Any single one of these roles of play gives a significant place in childhood at any moment in history. However, as our new normal emerges it is the emotional benefits of child led play that are of most worthy of note.

Child led play provides a space like no other to explore emotions, to develop emotional intelligence, to act out real life events and to express feelings in a way that feels safe. In our current climate the role of child led play is essential, particularly if it takes place outdoors. Covid 19 has impacted on family life- on routines, on the use of space in the home, on routines during the school day, on parents/ carers stress levels, on finances and many other areas. Each of these have an impact on children.

Due to the many positive benefits of play on the mental wellbeing of children many organisations are calling for an increased focus on outdoor play in meeting the needs of children in a Covid- world. Play England wrote a briefing specifically about post lockdown play and stated that:

“Play and being outdoors with friends is vital for child and family wellbeing. Play has great therapeutic value for children enabling them to work through trauma, form friendships, explore identity, develop physical and cognitive skills, creativity and resilience, in their own way and at their own pace. Play is important to help children adapt to the changes caused by Coronavirus and lockdown and dealing with transition and returning to school as lockdown eases.”

Since the briefing was written we have entered a second lockdown and children are living with increased safety measures at school along with a rapid rise in positive cases among their peers, increasing the validity of this position.

Tim Gill at Rethinking Childhood summarises the available scientific information around Covid and how that relates to children. He states that there are good grounds for thinking that outdoor environments present a low risk of infection and is concerned that “pandemic control measures are likely to lead to significant collateral damage to children, with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children worst affected”. One of the key actions he advocates to support these children is access to the outdoors.

Dr Kathryn Lester, senior lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex, was a part of a recent panel of psychologists, psychiatrists and others urged the government to prioritise children’s play when lifting the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. She noted the vital role play has stating that: “Play has substantial benefits for children’s emotional wellbeing especially during periods of anxiety and stress. It provides a sense of control, it helps children make sense of things they might be struggling to understand, and importantly it makes children happy.” (The Psychologist, May 2020)

Play is a chosen activity, chosen by the child. For children to reap the benefits of play it needs to child led. Play England (undated) describe play as:

“what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons. Play has also frequently been described as ‘what children and young people do when they are not being told what to do by adults’.”

For play to have the greatest impact us grown ups need to allow children the freedom, time and space to access it without imposing our own agendas.

When child led play takes place outdoors it not only reduces the possibility of cross contamination of covid 19 it adds further mental health benefits:

“1) a sense of calm, restoration, and a measurable reduction in stress

2) enhanced mood, reduced anxiety and depression, and
3) improved resilience and ability to cope with adversity” (Christopher, Bailey and Norris 2020)

We all know that after we have spent time in nature we feel calmer, more connected and a part of something bigger than us. The move towards green social prescribing illustrate that these benefits to mental health are being taken on board by the government. On the NHS website page about green social prescribing they explain that:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of being outdoors to people’s mental and physical health”

Being outdoors in a world in which we live alongside covid 19 is good for us all, especially children. Our new normal needs to place real value on the vital role play has in promoting the wellbeing of children. Indeed, the very best thing we can do for children right now is to enable them access to regular child led outdoor play.


Action for Children (July 2020) One in three parents out of their depth as children struggle with pandemic fallout

Childline Ireland (2020) Childline Covid 19 resilience hub

Christopher, Bailey and Norris (2020) The urgent need for nature during and after covid 19

Gill, T (2020) Covid-19 and children: what does the science tell us, and what does this mean as the lockdown is eased?

NHS (2020) Green social prescribing  

Play England (2020) Play after lockdown. A Play England briefing.

Play England (undated)

The Conversation (may 13th 2020) Why children need to play with their friends as soon as they can

 The Guardian (7th May 2020) Prioritise play when schools reopen, say mental health experts

The Psychologist (May 2020) Child play a priority after lockdown

Young Minds (2020) Coronavirus and mental health

Playing in the rain- silliness, sensory input and resilience.

As I write this we are lockdown due to coronavirus. It’s week 10, but who’s counting- right!? The weather so far has been incredibly sunshiney but we need some rain and it’s on the way! The grass, trees and flowers will be happier and hopefully the heavy muggy air will be cleared, so I will be happier too!

Most of us have been brought up to see rain as something to hide from. “Quick, quick! Get in it’s raining!” But, you know what… rain is FUN! Some of the best times we’ve had at Forest School have been during those sessions where it has poured and poured and poured! Where it is so wet your hair sticks to your face – haha!

Grown ups benefit from playing in the rain too… giggles and silliness are for everyone!

There are several reasons why I am encouraging embrace the rain and go out to play with your children. All of these are even more important during lockdown. Right now there is a greater need for outdoor play with lots of sensory input, for a sense of freedom, for increased resilience and for fun family giggly times. I’ll explain these with some examples from our times in the woods.

Rain immerses us in Nature and provides child led learning opportunities!
We love sessions when the rain totally transforms the woods. The water outlets gush making lots of noise. The waterfalls are at their most magnificent. We shake the rain off the trees onto each other, have to shout to be heard and laugh and laugh and laugh! We notice the changes in the environment and are engaged with them, then they explore them.

It’s such a joy to see children see the hill (a.k.a. Snake Mountain) become a stream! The look of wonder on their faces is a privilege to see. They sometimes use it as a water slide for a while and then travel up through the woods to find it’s source. An adventure full of child led learning!

Snake Mountain becomes a stream in heavy rain. Children learn about water cycles, learn to travel through the woods in adverse conditions and learn how to keep warm and dry.

Playing in the rain builds resilience and builds self care skills
Taking children out in the rain is fun! They are happy, that’s the most important thing! It is also a great tool to build resilience and skills for self care. You need to keep moving, zip up our coats and put on our hoods to keep warm. You need to keep climbing up the hill even when it was slippery. Children will help and encouraged each other.

The children in the photo below spent 2 hours in the woods in constant pouring rain. There was not one grumble the whole time, they were much too focussed on mud sliding and looking for Rain Fairies! Playing in the rain leads to lots of giggles, builds resilience and totally immerses us in nature. This was one of the most memorable sessions for me because there was so much laughter, I know the same is true for some of them too.

April 2016- at the end of 2 hour session in the woods. Wet and smiley- resilience.

Playing in the rain is fun!
Honestly, time playing in the rain is fun! For me, this is what childhood is all about. Silliness, freedom and multi sensory play. Here are some ideas for your to try.

How many wet leaves can you stick on your face?
Make nature boats or rafts. Simple fun anytime but they travel much faster on rainy days!
Follow your child(ren) they will have the best ideas- here at Mud Pie Explorers we are learning from them all the time.

There’s no such thing as goodies and baddies; empowering children to resolve conflicts and develop healthy relationships without rescuing them

This morning I was chatting to a member of my team about the challenge of supporting children with conflict resolution and we were looking at the underlying needs of those children and how to meet them.  Then I remembered about the drama/ unhealthy relationship triangle, first developed by Stephen Karpman in the 1970’s is so relevant to how we work with children. I thought about how the children flit between the victim and persecutor role while looking at us grown ups to take on the role of rescuer.

The drama triangle is based on the interaction of 3 roles. The victim, the rescuer and the perpetrator. Children can move from one role to another. The victim (in very simple terms) is the goodie. The one that the bad things happen to. The victim looks to the rescuer to help them, to save them from the baddie- the persecutor. Generally, in what I’ve seen in our sessions children are rarely seen as the rescuer so I will write about that another time if I see the issue pop up.



We’ve all seen it haven’t we but maybe not thought of it in this way.  For example, when Sophia says, “she took the trowel off me!”- the other child is seen as the persecutor and they are feeling like the victim. She is telling an adult because she wants to rescued. She sees herself as the goodie and Toby as the baddie. Toby, however, feels that he was waiting for far too long for the trowel and that Sophia was being mean. He sees himself as the goodie and Sophia as the baddie. In truth, neither position is correct. As the adult it is our job to help them see that WIHOUT becoming the rescuer.

Why we MUST avoid becoming the rescuer

At Mud Pie Explorers we teach children how to resolve conflicts and empower them to communicate with each other, as equals. By doing this we step away from the drama triangle by moving from a rescuer role to the role of coach. This is VITAL. In rescuing the ‘victim’ we are reinforcing the view that the ‘persecutor’ is the baddie. The baddie then feels bad about themselves and something terrible happens. This child is now the victim and YOU are the persecutor.

I’ve seen this happen when I am at the end of my resources and feel I have no other option. When I’ve said “you need to listen or I will need to talk to your parents” or when my approach has become more authoritarian because I feel out of my depth. I am human, I make mistakes but I am learning from them.

When a child is in victim and I am the baddie they suddenly, say all the ‘right’ things and behave the ‘right’ way. Not because they know it’s the right thing to do or because they want (internal motivations) to but because they are worried about what I will do if they do not conform (external motivation). This does not sit well with me personally and certainly isn’t the way we do things at Mud Pie Explorers.

Changes in behaviour of the child who has been reprimanded are almost always short lived (as the underlying needs and cause of the behaviour are still unmet) and externally motivated. Neither of those things are good for them or their self perception. What we are aiming for is that children can speak to each other as equals to communicate their needs and negotiate with each other. These skills are essential to healthy relationships now and for the rest of their lives.

Tricky transitions

Here at Mud Pie Explorers we are working with an increasing number of children who are are faced with additional challenges particularly those living with autism spectrum conditions, attachment issues and the impact of current/ past trauma (such as living with domestic abuse). While most of the children in our groups do not want Forest School to end the transition from the woods to home can be particularly anxiety provoking for those mentioned above. In order to support these children the best we can the first thing we need to do is understand them.

We always view behaviour as a communication of needs. Children who feel anxious as a session comes to an end may display behaviour that expresses their emotions. Some children will feel out of control and attempt to regain control of the situation. They do this by using delay tactics such as dropping belongings, ‘forgetting’ things and getting ‘hurt’ or ‘stuck’. Other children feel so anxious they need to vent their frustrations more strongly. This may involve hitting trees and plants with a stick, being verbally unkind to others or even lashing out.

These behaviours are a very clear way of communicating to us the scariest thing for them; they feel out of control. Why? Well, transition is… “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another” Oxford English Dictionary. So, by their very nature a transition is a change. Generally, change is challenging for those with an autism spectrum condition, those with attachment disorder or those living/ have past experience of trauma. Transitions at the end of a session are inevitable, so we need to work to make them as predictable and therefore emotionally safe as possible.

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that when a Forest School session ends there are many, many changes: the environment, the people, the mood, the rules, the clothes, the smells, the sounds. If you stop to really think about it, everything changes. This can simply be overwhelming. Especially if the individual is tired, unwell, hungry, thirsty, disappointed, ashamed, worried about something at home, not wanting to eat what they have for tea tonight and so on! This is one of the reasons having a drink and food at Forest School is so very important.

Once we acknowledge, and accept, that this process is a genuine challenge we react and behave differently ourselves. Children are very perceptive. Especially those who are hyper sensitive to social information or who have had to develop heightened vigilance to live in a challenging situation. They can feel our attitude towards them. They know if we are being genuinely kind and wanting to help or are simply attempting to make them comply.

To ensure smooth transitions it is essential to understand your group and allow plenty of time for travelling back to parents along with any anxiety induced behaviours. Some children manage best when given a task. For example, asking “can you show us your shortcut?”. This keeps their mind distracted while clearly identifying them as an important member of the team. Others benefit from deep sensory input such as carrying/ pushing heavy kit or stopping to climb on the way. Sometimes what is required is something more nurturing such as a biscuit while sat with a trusted adult at review time.

A vital part of the work we do is enabling self refection and self regulation. Therefore, we have calm, reasoned conversations with children about how we can support them to manage the end of sessions to ensure that they feel as comfortable as possible. One such conversation, mid session, went something like this:

Me: I’ve noticed that you find the end of sessions tricky.

Child: *looks down*

Me: I’m not telling you off *smiles* It’s just I want to be able to help you with that, is           there anything I can do to help?

Child: We need to make the sessions longer.

Me: But there would still be an ending…

Child: Can’t you just get me to the park (where we meet parents) without me knowing.

Me: Hmmm… I don’t think I can do that *we both laugh*. How about I hang out with           you on the way back today to help you if you find it tricky?

Child: *smiled and went off to collect more firewood*

That week we walked together, away from the rest of the group. He has a genuine need to be away from the group during the transition as he is already overstimulated due to feeling anxious. He explained to me that he doesn’t like to be asked to talk at review time at the end. I agreed that I wouldn’t ask him. He agreed to sit with me, where he felt safe. Listening to him enabled me to meet his needs and enable him to know that he is a valued member of our group.

Another important factor in minimising anxiety around transitions is routine. Endings need to be predicable and feel safe. we can only stick to our routine when we allow enough time for the ‘loosing’ of bags, the getting ‘stuck’ etc. mentioned above and enough time for those that need to feel in control to dawdle and get to us when they are ready. It’s impossible to gauge the needs of the group correctly every time, there are so many variables in play, but we do our best!

Over the 2 decades I have worked with children with additional needs one of the most valuable things I have come to learn is that my own confidence in supporting children to cope with transitions is managing those moments in which I feel deskilled. As adults we can revert to what we were taught as children in these moments which is that “the adult is in charge/ you do what I say” approach. This simply does not work here. All it does is create a no win situation.

Children who are anxious because they feel out of control are functioning from their amygdala, they can not distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. They are in fight or flight and can not be reasoned with as the more rational part of their brain is not accessible to them at that time. This is why we always allow children time and space to calm down before talking to them about how we can support them to manage things differently next time after making a mistake, such as lashing out during a transition.

Only in viewing behaviours during transition as communication and seeking to understand them through dialogue with the child can we possibly seek to support them. Children who need are anxious need to feel in control. Punitive approaches simply do not work as they increase anxiety and will make the problem worse. Worse for the practitioner. Worse for the other children in the group. But, worst of all for the child who is already struggling to cope.

“Why don’t we have a ‘Star of the Day’ at Forest School?”

Last week a child was proud that they had contributed towards group tasks and climbed a tree previously inaccessible to them. I was speaking to her pointing out that I had also noticed how kind she’s been to someone during the session. She brightly, and hopefully, asked, “Why don’t we have a star of the day at Forest School?”.



This seemingly simple request and my response, illustrates one of the main differences between Forest School and more traditional methods of teaching. I thought I would share with you my thoughts on this as it will help to partly explain our ethos. I often get asked similar questions to the one above:

“Why don’t we have certificates for being able to light a fire?”

“Why don’t we give out these stickers to the children that are being good?”

“I’ve been the best today haven’t I?”

I always answer the same way. It goes a little something like this:

Me: “You know that feeling you get when you light a fire/ you help someone/ you climbed across that tricky branch?

Child:” Yes”

Me: “It feels good doesn’t it”

Child: “Yes”, usually with a quizzical look

Me: “That’s your reward. Keep hold of it for as long as you can”. Sometimes they smile, sometimes they are simply confused.

This seemingly simple exchange is the result of a conscious and well thought out decision to focus on the development of internal motivation as opposed to externally imposed motivation. This blog post gives an overview of how I came to this decision.

External motivation in education and parenting generally comes in the form of rewards:

  • Certificates
  • Pudding after eating dinner
  • Stickers
  • Moving ‘up’ the behaviour board
  • Approval- “You are a good girl/ boy”

and it counterpart, punishments:

  • Loss of freedom- being sent to bed early; being grounded
  • Moving down the behaviour board
  • Loss of pleasures like sweets, screen time
  • Disapproval – “Why can’t you sit still like everyone else!”

carrot and stick

At Forest School we do neither of those things. Rewards may seem to be positive but are really the flipside of punishments. The absence of a reward can feel the same as a punishment. Here are a few real-life examples to explain what I mean:

  • In a busy classroom many excellent, hard earned behaviours go unnoticed and therefore unrewarded.
  • Some children get rewarded for a behaviour while others do not. For example, Sam may get moved up the behaviour board for sitting still at carpet time as it’s usually a challenge to do so. Sophie exerts an huge effort to sit still every day, but no one notices as she always sits still.
  • Not everyone can be Star of The Day. Some children wait all year for that status, some never achieve it.
  • Not everyone can reach the top of the behaviour board or sit on the ‘rainbow’.

Therefore, punishments and rewards both induce shame. Shame is the only emotion that does not serve a purpose- guilt does, shame does not. There is lots of writing about this if you wish to look into it. 


At Forest School we focus on internal motivation as this is what we believe will provide the best outcomes for children. This is for several reasons, here are some of them (very succinctly presented):

  • We want to teach children to make good choices for themselves simply because they are good for them, not in the hope of getting a reward for encouraged behaviour.
  • We want children to be able to complete a task and feel proud of themselves without needing feedback from someone else. This is one of the keys to good self-esteem, a vital component of happiness.
  • We want children to help others and be kind because it is the right thing to do, not because they may get a sticker for doing so.
  • We want children to be able to tap into their own internal motivation when things get tough in other areas of their lives. Internal motivation is transferable, external motivation is not.
  • We want to teach children that all types intelligence are valued and are valuable. Our group needs people that are physically strong to carry things, people that are good at finding things we have lost, people that make us laugh, people that tell great stories, people who have lots of nature knowledge and people that notice when someone needs help. They learn that everyone isl important.

So, we don’t have a stay of the Star of The Day at Forest School because everyone is a star in our group. Everyone contributes, everyone learns. Also, I feel that stickers, reward charts and the like are simple behavioural techniques to condition children to behave in a certain way. Conditioning is not education. It is not transferable and does no more than serve the purpose of encouraging specific, time limited behaviours. At Forest School we teach life long skills and promote happiness. There are no stickers or certificates for those.

Death as a learning opportunity: the gift of unanswered questions.

Death is a pretty uncomfortable subject for most of us and talking to children about it can feel particularly tricky. The borderline taboo nature of death and the innocence of childhood may feel like an uneasy pairing, but the reality is that coming to terms with our own mortality and that of those around us is an important developmental milestone. Death is an inevitable part of all lives, we need to learn about it.

Children explore death in their play. Sticks in the woods become guns, swords, bows and other weapons. Children ‘kill’ each other in their games. They pretend to shoot, stab and destroy all manner of living things from zombies and aliens to Minecraft mobs! Death in play is something they can be very flippant about which can sometimes make adults feel a tad uncomfortable. However, in my experience, when confronted with death in real life they behave very differently.

Children play at 'killing' things.
Children play at ‘killing’ things.

At Forest School we talk about the cycle of life and sometimes come across dead animals. We’ve discovered a few shrews, a young fox, a bee and a wood pigeon. Recently, the children in one of our Forest School groups discovered a dead rat in the woods. They were curious, looking carefully at its teeth and claws. One of them was amazed and thought his long tail was a stick. Dead animals allow us the opportunity to look at them more closely. There is always a lot of conversation following such discoveries and many, many unanswered questions.

Cause and effect: “How did it die?”

rat funeral
Rat grave complete with engraved headstone.

The children were keen to know how the rat had died. They looked at the body which had no clues for them so they came up with some ideas of their own. Maybe a person had hurt it? Maybe it was old? Maybe it had a disease? Maybe it got attacked by a fox? Maybe it drowned in the stream? None of us know how it died and we never will. Not knowing can be tricky but sometimes we just have to accept that.
Finding meaning: “Why did it die?”

The children were keen to know why it died. Why wasn’t it still running around the woods? Why did it have to die? Sometimes we know how an animal died. The pigeon had been killed by a bird of prey. The young fox had been unwell, a dog walker told us later that he’d seen it the day before wandering about the woods. None of us had the answer about the rat, shrew or bee though. This led to lots of discussion about why would it have died and also feeling of how unjust it all seemed.

Self reflection and emotional literacy: “I’m sad that it died”

Children often say that they feel sad that the animal had died. One boy said to me “I wish it didn’t die, I wish it was still alive”. This simple statement illustrates some complex internal processing. He recognised his emotions, was able to label them, could identify the cause and was looking for a way to resolve the uncomfortable feeling (i.e. if it was alive he would no longer feel sad). That is a complicated set of processes for a four year old to articulate.

An emotional connection: “What shall we call him?”

Interestingly, whenever we find a dead animal the children will name it. They do this with no suggestions or prompts from us. This shows that they have an emotional connection with the animal and a respect for them. When naming the animal they often choose something alliterative- Rodger the Rat, Belinda the Bee etc. By naming it they also touch on the attribution of a personality which enhances the emotional connection and also feeds into speculation about the cause of death. For example, Roger the Rat was exploring with woods and drowned in the stream.

Compassion: “I think we should bury it”

Children choose to bury dead animals. They do it with the utmost respect for the animal. Often they are quiet and sad while digging the little grave. They will also collect wild flowers to place on top. When we buried the rat one of the boys even engraved a gravestone with the initial ‘R’ on it. They worked together and sat quietly for a moment before carrying on playing.

rat funeral 2
Listening to ‘Frog and Birdsong’.

Transition: “where has it gone?”

During and after animal burials children will begin to wonder what happens next. This naturally brings them to talking about a transition to another place. They talk about reincarnation, heaven and the use of the energy to grow plants/ feed other animals (the cycle of life). At the rat funeral there was talk of digging up the body next week to see what it looked like. This was pure science and nothing more. They decided themselves not to following the advice of one of the group. He said “if we dig it up it wouldn’t be fair on the rat because it would have to leave heaven then”. The respect for the rat was far greater than their desire for investigating it’s decomposing body.


The week following the rat funeral I read the children the story “Frog and birdsong” following a recommendation from a close friend. It was a wonderful moment. The story included many of the things the children had done- finding a dead animal, burying it, feeling sad, finding flowers. They identified with the message in the story about the cycle of life continuing after a death, despite the unanswerable questions.

Finding dead animals in the woods children presents lots of questions for them to ponder. Many of these questions do not have answers. So, children are challenged to come up with their own ideas and to make their own mind up about lots of things: how it died, why it died and what will what happens now after it’s death. In answering these questions for themselves they are making sense of their world and beginning to formulate out their own ideas about death.

Children are the curriculum: schematic play

As a practitioner, and as a mother, one of the most appealing things about Forest School is that it is truly child-led and child centred. Our planning at Mud Pie Explorers is informed by the children, their behaviours and their interests. There is no other agenda than to enable them to get the most out of their environment and the relationships with others in their group. We gather information about children’s needs, gaps in skills and preferences by watching them do what they choose to do. We observe what drives them and lights their fire. We find that children will seek out activities that meet their needs. Our role is to trust those choices and facilitate similar experiences that may extend their learning/ experience.

Hammocks are perfect for those with enclosure schemas.

One of the things we look out for is evidence of schematic play. Schematic play is a fancy way of talking about the repetitive play we see children taking part in. This may be when a child chooses to play on the bikes at preschool everyday or when they spend hours and hours playing with lego. It may be when they like to hide in small places or build dens everyday. Schematic play is a way of practicing the skills they need to develop, it has a very real purpose and it feels good to them too as they are responding to an internal impulse. There are many categories of schematic play, we see them all in the woods. Here are a few examples of how we use this knowledge to inform our planning.

Connections schema

One of most memorable incidences of a connection schema was when a child used to ask me every single week, for at least 10 weeks, “Nickie, do you have any string?”. I always did, what self-respecting Forest School Leader wouldn’t? To start with he would connect sticks, then he started making traps (alone and then with friends). We made all made boats one week, which he loved. I taught him how to make swords and he became an expert bow maker! By simply meeting him where he was at we were able ensure he got what he needed from his time at Forest School.

Bow making, a great activity for those with a connection schema.

Enclosure and enveloping schema

Enclosure and enveloping are very closely linked schemas. Children can display enclosure schemas in a variety of ways. The most obvious in the woods are den building and snuggling up in the hammock. Enveloping is evidenced when they choose to cover themselves in mud/ camouflage paint or tuck themselves tightly into one of hessian sacks! When we notice children have enclosure and enveloping schema we ensure that the tarps, ropes and pegs are at hand. Some children enjoy enclosing things other than themselves so making animal homes/ fairy houses is appealing to them too. We also enable access to the Mud Kitchen for those that can’t resist the sensation of being enveloped in mud!

Den making, possible evidence of an enclosure schema.

Transporting schema

We can usually spot a transporting schema quite quickly. They will be the children who always take you up on the offer for a collecting bag. Or those that will spend a whole session moving rocks from one area to another. They will be keen to help carry equipment to and from the woods. When the group spontaneously were involved in a house building role play game one child, the one that was moving all the logs and rocks was heard saying ‘I don’t want to be the manager, I am happy being the builder” as he wandered off to move more resources. He was happy because he was meeting his own needs through his play. Another example I can remember is when a girl pulled a heavy log up a fairly steep hill. It took all of her effort, but she didn’t give in. She did it because she felt like it. There was no agenda other than that.

Transporting and team work.

Other schemas
There are other schemas that we take note of and use to inform our planning. These include:

Trajectory – where a child is interested in up and down movement (vertical trajectory) or side to side movement (horizontal trajectory).

Rotation – where a child enjoys rotating objects or themselves.

Filling – where a child seeks out opportunities to fill containers with a variety of materials.

Boundary – where a child enjoys putting themselves or an object through a boundary (such as a hedge or tunnel)

Mixing is a good activity for those with a filling or rotation schema.

Children with boundary schema can’t resist getting into bushes, no matter how spiky!

Children are the curriculum

In the process of supporting schematic play we are able to teach children lots and lots of things. Let’s take the child with the  connection schema as an example. He learned to identify hazel trees as they were the best for bow making. He gained confidence in sharing ideas and resources with others when making traps in a group. He gained confidence in tree climbing as lots of his traps required tying to the branches of trees he couldn’t reach from the ground. He learned some new knots which boosted his skills as well as his self-esteem. He learned about patience, persistence (things did not always go to plan!) and therefore became more resilient too.

Meeting children where they are at helps them to feel good. We don’t try to move them away from the place they want to be. We trust their choices. By working alongside children when they are doing an activity they have chosen we are able to guide them to new ideas (using the principles of Vygotskys scaffolding) and enable them to learn the things they want to in a way that suits them. Funny thing is they don’t even notice they are learning! You know why? Because they are playing. It’s amazing what a child can learn from ‘just playing’ isn’t it!

Enveloping in all it’s glory!