Tuesday, 9 May 2017

I found a dead animal in my classroom and.......

I arrived in a hurry, it was already late and I hadn't even started getting my space ready for a days 'teaching', thirty excited and expectant children would arrive very soon and I was feeling very unprepared. Many teachers may have encountered a similar experience to this,
however the 'readying of my space' takes a little more effort than sharpening pencils and pushing a few chairs under tables.

My 'classroom' is a one acre forest, each day I build a safe boundary, erect shelters, chop wood, light a fire, set up a toilet and prepare a kitchen. Occasionally I pick up dog poo, remove litter, extinguish smouldering wheelie bins and I once found a group of sixteen young adults asleep in the very space where I tell stories, a music docking station still gently vibrating to the sound of the latest RnB hits! Yet, on other days I'm greeted by a woodpecker drumming on a dead tree, a friendly robin, a cautious deer or a guilty squirrel hanging from my bird feeder again.

On this particular day though I was greeted by something totally unique; a dead animal. A dead wood pigeon to be precise! As I spotted it I was filled with sorrow then under closer inspection sadness at the poor birds stupidity. If you know anything about pigeons you'd be aware that they are very intelligent creatures, only one of six animals outside of mammals that can recognise their reflection! Its a real shame that this pigeon had failed to recognise the huge oak tree that it lay beneath.

I picked the poor bird up to find it was still warm, there were no marks on it and the cause of death was clear as its broken neck hung loosely. Immediately I thought how amazing it was to be able to look so closely at this beautiful bird, I fanned out its wings, and its tail to reveals a myriad of colours and shades. For a moment I became lost in the wonder of this fascinating creature. Then suddenly realised that the clock was ticking and I had a lot to do. At this moment I paused, and encourage you to too...........what would yo do if you arrived at school and found a dead animal in your classroom? 

In my mind I quickly checked a few things:

The pigeon is dead:                                                                                  CHECK
The pigeon died of a broken neck:                                                           CHECK
The pigeon is not disgusting:                                                                    CHECK
The pigeon is not diseased:                                                                      CHECK
Its very cool get to see a pigeon this close in its natural environment:     CHECK
In its death the pigeon has the opportunity to teach and inspire:             CHECK

So with very little risk to the children and massive potential for engaging the children with a very unique and memorable natural experience, I placed it back on the ground where I had found it and continued frantically rushing around the woods setting things up, nimbly manoeuvring to avoid any large oak trees! Maybe the children would find the wood pigeon, or maybe they wouldn't only time would tell.

And, of course they found it! 

Within 15 minutes of the children 'heading off to play' they discovered the wood pigeon at the bottom of the oak tree. To my glee they were as inquisitive and curious about the bird as I had been. We gathered around it and spoke about its breed, its habitat and how we thought it had died. We looked carefully at its body, put on gloves and examined its wings, tail, head and breasts. The children were amazed by the colours and intricate design of its body. I was beginning to wonder where we would go from here when one of the children shouted, "the wood pigeon needs a name". Another child cried out "lets call him Woody". And in a strange twist woody the dead wood pigeon was born. What transpired over the next hour took me completely by surprise and could only have happened in a child-led environment.

 Together the children decided that Woody needed to be laid to rest  in the proper way. One child took the lead role in organising the proceedings. There would be a coffin made from cardboard and tied together with twine, some children would be responsible for digging the grave. Two children who were experienced in lashings volunteered to square lash a cross and scribe the name "Woody" on it with charcoal from the fire. A number of children then offered to write a poem about Woody, while some picked up the djembe drums and tambourines and began composing a goodbye song for him. The children pulled out all the stops and held a full funeral for Woody, a truly magnificent send off.

At the end of the session we gathered around the campfire to discuss the session. Many children spoke about their sadness at Woody' passing but also at their pride of giving him an honourable 'send off'. A child-led discussion then began about where Woody would now go, some children spoke about 'heaven' while others believed he'd become another bird.

Welcome to Forest School, welcome to my classroom. During that day I witnessed a wonderful learning experience: we studied the anatomy of a bird, we discussed habitats, we spoke about how a bird flies, the children showed empathy and compassion toward a creature, we experimented with music and poetry and we discussed the spirituality of life and death. Forest School is a holistic approach to learning, each day is totally different and we are guided by nature in our practice, on that day I'm so pleased that I left the dead animal in my classroom!

Friday, 28 October 2016

Silent Summer: How Technology is Destroying our Connection

For weeks we've been watching our world change colour once again, the vibrant greens of summer have begun to ignite, exploding like a New Years firework into a plethora of bright autumnal shades; reds, yellows, oranges, green and even purples. I saw a quote earlier today that read "Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower" it describes this picturesque autumn beautifully. We mustn't forget though that Autumn is a time of death, decay and renewal; with a final blast of colour and enthusiasm we say goodbye to the long light days and tilt with the Earth, becoming more inclined and beginning a long period of rest and renewal.

This morning I watched a small bee as the early cold grabbed hold of it tightly and began to squeeze, I sensed that it's rest would be long, this was a chilly autumnal day that would mark it's end and along with the colourful leaves it would return to the earth, it's fluffy black and orange body becoming the energy force that pushes up vibrant new flowers next spring. As I watched I began to feel a loss within me, this was quickly replaced by an emerging anger as I recalled a presentation I witnessed not too long ago: "we don't even need the bees, with modern technology we can now make nano bees"!

The words took me back to a 'tech fest' that I reluctantly attended in 2015 to support a friend of mine. Entombed in a futuristic 'office block' where people marvelled over the fake 'garden' that had been erected indoors for therapeutic means, complete with its very own fish pond. For most of the day I found myself feeling contemptuous towards those 'Tech Dudes' as I heard them discuss such things as 'The Internet of Things' and how more material items are now connected to the internet than people! It wasn't until this particular speaker took to the stage that my contempt turned to sheer anger and disbelief. 

He began by discussing how privacy is a thing of the past and how the younger generation don't want or value it and soon it will be forgotten just like LP"s and cassettes. He even went as far to suggest that people demanding privacy rights were "holding the technological revolution back". I was easy bait and already felt beads of sweat rolling down the back of my neck. Surely somebody with such claims has never sat quietly on the edge of a cliff top and marvelled at the silence and beauty of solitude, wrapped in a blanket of soothing privacy the only company being our soaring soul,  beating hearts and the sound of the swirling wind.

If I wasn't already upset enough he continued with his next point, other people holding back the 'technological revolution': 'Greens', 'Hippies' 'Environmentalists'! He swung back on his comfy chair and flippantly began "they want to save the bees, what a waste of time, why? We can create nano-bees now, bees that we can control, we don't need the original thing, get out of our way!" I almost felt the sweat rolling down my back begin to bubble and boil! Bees are extremely important to our lives and our food sources alone, but even more so please take a moment to just recognise their intrinsic value of being alive, conscious, intelligent,  living species. However, it was his final point that really tipped me over the edge! 

He chose the topic of virtual reality and began to convince the audience that it was the answer to societies crumbling sense of empathy and compassion: "Virtual Reality will provide people with the opportunity to engage in a virtual world,  developing personality traits that lead to increased empathy and compassion!" This man is dangerous, I thought to myself and what more, there are people around me nodding their heads in agreement! The question of how this person had embodied such views that clearly disconnected him from the real world made me very very worried and highlighted more than ever before the human/technology crisis that we are facing.

The crisis is one of a disconnection from nature and our communities into a quasi virtual reality world. Some of you may be familiar with a famous book by Rachel Carson titled  'Silent Spring' . What I witnessed earlier this year could only be described as 'A Silent Summer", deserted streets, empty parks and playing fields and silent woods that should be filled with the sound of laughing, running and playing children. While away from our Forest Camp I was shocked at the sheer absence of children 'playing out', it led me to ask the question "where are they all"?  Here's a few stats from recent studies to begin to give us an idea:
  • in the UK 98% of children use a computer daily
  • on average children spend 5-8 hours per day using screen based media
  • Annually £713 million is spent on treating adolescent and child mental health disorders, the highest ever
  • 35% of children are obese
  • Less than 50% of children have been to a wild place to learn about nature
  • 37% of children haven't played outside by themselves
  • 78% of parents are concerned that their children don't have enough access to natural spaces
As we thought, the technological revolution isn't only putting the lives of bees at risk but its putting the emotional, physical and spiritual health of children at risk too. Only 25% of children feel connected to nature while 92% of people recognise that access to nature and wild places is important. 

Technology has totally changed our lives and overall for the better, we turn on a tap and get running water, we flick a switch and have electric light, the production of solar cells allows us to harness energy from the sun and the internet has the power to educate masses and bring people together from all over the world, they are all amazing advances in technology and have positively enhanced the human race, however technology for technologies sake has become a poison that some see as a power to control regardless of the consequences. 

The speech that I listened to in that fancy office block was dangerous, not only did it disregard the lives of an important species; a creation of nature an important strand in the fine web of life but it also questioned the very essence of our communities. Strong communities are built around a culture of humanity, values of kindness,  fairness, empathy and compassion that can only be learned through personal interactions when people share a genuine moment that evokes feelings and emotions, love, passion, anger, frustration, happiness and joy in a bi-directional exchange. Empathy and compassion can not be developed in a world of virtual reality and to think it can be is more worrying than the idea that privacy is unimportant. 

During one of our recent Forest School sessions, we took a moment to recognise the changes that had taken place in the woods since we last visited. Each of us visited a tree, sat still for a moment of quiet time and observed; how we felt, what we heard, what we could smell and what we could see When we returned to our community circle nobody had to share, it was a private moment between ourselves and nature. 

During the session the children found a small mouse, clearly unhappy about its predicament, they cared for it and gently built it a place to rest out of sight and reach of others: it was a genuine experience that gave them the opportunity to show care and respect for another strand in the giant web of life. On the same day other children contested who 'owns' the long sticks in the woods, the best ones for making dens. Some conflict emerged, there were even some tears but eventually they found a fair and just resolution where everybody was happy: it was a real life interaction that dealt with conflict, empathy, love and compassion. 

These children are the lucky ones, they come out to Forest School one day per week as part of their curriculum to have these real life experiences. It should be this way during the summer holidays too, that silent summer should be filled with the sweet sound of laughter and joy. The woods, streets, parks and fields should be full of people, they're out there to be discovered, mother nature has them waiting for all. It's with great hope that next summer instead of children spending their days indoors playing on their games console, typing code into computers, sheltering themselves in a virtual reality and dreaming of how to replace another delicate species with a robot, they will return to the wild places. Every joyful meaningful experiences they have will ensure that our future generations will be closer to understanding the unique beauty of the natural world, the sense of connection that only comes from solitary moments in the wild and developing the human connections that build a strong sense of community and a better world for all.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Forest School and Mortlock's four stages of adventure.

A long wet winter appeared to finally draw to an end during the last few weeks. Only last Friday we were all sat around the fire circle, hard packed dry earth at our feet,  bare arms reflecting the sunlight and a bright spirit in our hearts; the one that we observe in the busy Robins as they begin to nest in the early weeks of spring. At home we even began working on the garden, turning the soil, repairing the fence and generally getting things ready for the continuing dry weather.

You can only imagine the shock I felt when I opened the curtains this morning and revealed a beautiful winter wonderland with icicles on the washing line and my newly planted Lupine covered in thick white snow! One of the greatest lessons that nature offers us is that everything is always changing and there is real beauty in variety and diversity. I often remind myself of the quote "better to appreciate the changing seasons than to be endlessly in love with spring", but today I realised just how deeply I had fallen in love with the warm spring days. recently.

Today's Forest School session was with a group of nursery children in a small wood on their school grounds. They're really interested in caterpillars at the moment so we decided that we would base our session around collecting natural materials for a caterpillar house and making some caterpillars for them to take home.  When I arrived on site that plan seemed completely out of sorts for such a snowy day so instead we decided to let the session evolve and follow the children's lead. As I set  the site up the snow began falling heavier and heavier, the wind blew stronger and stronger and I became a little worried about the potential for learning in such harsh conditions. When faced with decisions about cancelling any session I always ask myself "If my daughter was going to school today and they had Forest School would I want her to be outside?' On this occasion the answer would have been "yes" for a number of reasons: It was such a beautiful and unusual day, there was a sense of magic in the air as the snowflakes and the white petals from the cherry tree merged together against a thick grey sky. Every child remembers the days when they raced out all bundled up and excited to run, jump, slide and play in the soft and inviting snow.

The session started really well, we spoke about looking after ourselves and how best to keep our hands and bodies toasty warm. Then we went off to play! Firstly many of the children wanted to throw snowballs at me, I quickly diverted their attention to a target and to my joy they took the diversion. Many more children were lying on their back catching snowflakes in their mouth and making 'snow angels'. After 10 minutes of throwing snow and making snowballs a few of the children began to complain of cold hands, one boy in particular became quite upset and began to cry. Some of the teachers reminded him of how to warm his hands then stood back as he hurriedly rubbed his hands together. I observed one young girl rolling down a small hill, this looked like great fun so I joined in then mentioned to her that I'd seen another, larger hill on the field and asked if she'd like to go and roll down it. With a huge smile on her face she agreed, we told the others and together we tramped off to the school field. At this time the group was doing well, there were a few complaints of cold hands but with a little rubbing everybody seemed eager to head to the hill on the field.

The next 15 minutes was filled with rolling down the hill and making a snow slide; one of the children slid into a huge puddle at the bottom of the hill drawing a few others to splash in the water. A few fell into the water and pulled themselves back up with great laughter. The joy and elation on many of the childrens faces as this child-led play unfolded filled my heart with joy. I stood back for a moment and looked around to observe, I could see excitement and hear shrieks of joy. In a world where children are often asked to grow up so quickly this was one of those rare moments when childhood was running rampant, a joyous scene filled with carefree unadulterated FUN and plenty of learning too!

I went to join the children jumping in the puddle, when I arrived they were seeing who could make the biggest splash. They jumped and jumped and jumped, then one girl fell into the water and instead of picking herself up she burst into tears. I asked if she needed help and she began to complain of being cold. I asked her to run up the hill with me, which she did but when we got the top I spotted another boy also in tears and complaining of being cold. I tried my best to encourage the children to keep themselves warm but to no avail, suddenly as a leader I was faced with dilemma.

Colin Mortlock, in his book "The Adventure Alternative" devised a four stage approach to learning through adventure:

Stage 1: Play- Characterised by little emotion through relatively easy participation in activities that are below the persons skill level.

Stage 2: Adventure-Characterised by enjoyment and excitement, where a person is using their capabilities more fully but maintains control over themselves.

Stage 3: Frontier Adventure: Characterised by peak experience which emerges from a person experiencing adventurous challenges very close to the their limits.

Stage 4: Misadventure- Characterised by a person choosing or being forced to participate in challenges beyond his/her capabilities resulting in negative emotions (fear, hurt etc.) possibly injury or even death.

Mortlock believed that as you pass through the stages of adventure there is greater opportunity for learning up until Stage 4 where the experience is detrimental to learning and development. Other than Mortlock's poor choice of the word 'play' (we now know that play is a valuable, essential and organic way for people to learn) we agree with his theory and have witnessed it on many occasions.

Back on the school field in the howling wind and snow three children were now in floods of tears complaining of being cold and asking to return to school. Naturally I began to worry. I looked around and saw many children in stage two and three of Mortlock's learning theory but three potentially moving towards stage four. One of the main reasons for carrying out our work is to create opportunities for children to have positive experiences in the outdoors so they develop an affinity with it and later care and respect it themselves. Were we running the risk of giving three children potentially negative experience?

I made the call to head back to our sheltered space where we had a campfire burning. There we made hot chocolate and toasted food on the fire, 95% of the children continued in good spirits still buoyed by their snow adventure, however the other 5% continued in floods of tears and wails! Together with one of the teachers we decided to call the session to an end with 30 minutes still remaining, the risk of even one child having a negative experience was to much and 95% of the others had participated in a rich learning experience.

In reflection I asked a similar question as earlier "if my daughter was involved in Forest School and she had been the child in floods of tears wanting to go inside, would I want the leader to make her stay out?" I want to raise a child who is resilient, who appreciates the beauty, harshness and wonder of all weathers, but also a child who knows her own limits and knows how to ask for help when she reaches them. If that was my daughter I hope the leader would have recognised her limits and gently tried to encourage her but also identified the point when learning halts and suffering begins, for on that fine margin is where children fall in or out of love with nature.  

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Outdoor Education: The Play Based Holistic Way

People aren't always sure what to expect when they visit us for the first time. Whether it's a family event, a birthday party, Forest School session, curriculum day or one of our adult events, its always a 'step into the unknown' for most people. It's hard to describe CommuiTree: it's just one of those things you have to see and experience to understand.  At the heart of what we do is 'reconnecting people with nature', that’s a continuous thread that runs through all our work, but there’s much more too. 

Earlier in the month we had a an entire school team come along to the woods for a PAD day based around CommuniTree, Forest School and Outdoor Learning. Throughout the day we did a variety of things including story telling, nature art and campfire cooking, most importantly we took the time to 'play' together. We run our Teacher Training days in the hope that schools can begin to develop a culture around Outdoor Education and integrate it into their curriculum back at school. You can imagine how thrilled I was to visit the school this week and tour the grounds with a very enthusiastic teacher who has been taking her class into their small 'environmental area' for Outdoor Learning sessions. 

As we walked into the space she began telling me about their visit the previous day, "we'd only walked 100 meters and the amount of natural learning that occurred was amazing, I hadn't planned for it either, it just unfolded." 

So what happens when we take children outdoors into the fresh air to learn? First of all we give them freedom to play: to follow their interests; to explore their relationships with each other; we encourage them to engage with their feelings and consider their relationship the natural world too; it's holistic play based nature-led learning, and it's great fun! Then we step back and let the magic happen; a humble observer as mother nature takes the reigns. Here's a reflective experience that we hope will help you understand the potential of Outdoor Education on holistic development:

The Magic of Mushrooms
During a particular session some children took it upon themselves to identify mushrooms, give them names and characters. With careful observation and sensitive questioning I was able to encourage the children to further develop the personalities of the mushrooms, they developed a family and then a community. Each mushroom had roles to play and the children considered conflicts with the mushroom groups, they also identified ways of them living peacefully together. This feeling was not mutual between all children and some advocated war between the mushrooms instead. Later at community time the children engaged in a discussion about the morality of killing mushrooms in the woods, firstly from the perspective of other mushrooms and eventually from the perspective of themselves. The conversation between the children considered the role of the mushroom in the forest (risk to human life, usefulness and intrinsic value), how it may be connected to our needs and the important role it may have in the ecosystem it supports. As the children left the site and walked through the woods I could hear the heated debate continuing all the way back to the classroom 'to kill the mushroom or not to kill the mushroom, that is the question!). 

This is a great example of how play can spiral and support holistic learning in Outdoor Education. The children began with physical exploration, through naming and developing the mushroom characters they were experimenting with self-discovery, fantasy, imagination and creativity; by identifying family roles and community roles the children were exploring the idea of interconnected relationships and when the idea of opposing groups coming together arose some children identified the need for understanding, empathy and acceptance.  This whole experience was brought together in a discussion around the fire that was carefully led by myself, and aided the children in understanding the interconnectedness between themselves and the mushrooms. Most importantly their learning was real, they interacted with the subject, they used their vibrant imaginations and they became connected to the topic on a personal level. At the end of the session there was no closing of books and moving onto the next topic, because there learning was meaningful it travelled with them back to the classroom and most importantly with them into their everyday life, until the next time they were venturing into the woods and considering the morality of killing mushrooms. 

There are many different ways to engage in Outdoor Education, you may see children walking around with work sheets identifying plants, you may spot children hanging from ropes on ropes courses and you may find children huddled on the banks of a river carrying out a water survey. At The CommuniTree Initiative you'll find children playing wholeheartedly amongst the trees, trying to make sense of their relationships with each other and the natural world, inquisitively exploring their environment with a sense of wonder and doing all this with a huge smile on their face. We believe that when children have personally meaningful, pleasurable experiences in the outdoors they begin to fall in love with nature and will ultimately seek more experiences there and protect it in the future.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Magical Christmas Gifts that Connect!

It's that time of year again when the shops are brimming with new gadgets, penguin jumpers, tinned chocolates and all the latest games and toys. Children are already writing their lists and sending them on their way to Santa and his merry band of elves! It's a joyous time where the feeling of gratitude is abundant for all who choose to partake.

It can also be a worrying time for old St.Nick though as he opens those sticky envelopes to find request after a request for games consoles, tablets, computers, mobile phones and a variety of other digital wireless electronics. How he fondly looks back on the days of simple toys that would be used to stimulate a child's insatiable imagination. Toys that would change from day to day: one moment it would be a tree, then a plane then a horse then a spaceman and finally a plane with a horse riding a tree in space!

It's been a moral dilemma for Santa. Does he really want all of those wonderful children tuned into a virtual reality when there are so many other fun things they can be doing with their time? He knows that screens often force us to look down into a virtual world when the real beauty and magic is found looking into the eyes of loved ones or looking up and marvelling at the wonders of the world.

So, here's Santa's ' alternative gift recommendations' that will encourage you to look into the eyes of a loved one or up at the magical world around you with marvel and wonder:

1) 'Experince Vouchers': Maybe your child has recently shown an interest in something that is completely outside of your own comfort zone (ice skating, mountain biking, sketching, baking) and it's been an inner battle for you to overcome your own fears and engage. This christmas give them an 'experience voucher' that allows you both to spend some quality time together trying something new. If it's something out of your own comfort zone it's a great opportunity for your child to see you taking risks and trying something new, a fantastic thing to role model!

2) 'Photography adventure': There is a certain excitement around taking pictures, its a wondrous experience where we can capture a slither of time and preserve it forever. Disposable cameras are relatively cheap and easy to pick up as are photo albums. Gift a disposable camera and a photo album then set a time in the diary where you'll go out together and capture a particular day. Maybe have a theme (different creatures, colours or shapes; funny faces in different places; headstand landscapes; your teddy's adventure) but be sure to make it a special event. Once the prints are returned add them to an album that you can cherish throughout the year and for years to come!

3) Give the gift of giving: Christmas is the season of good will, an opportunity to show thanks and  to give gifts as a token of appreciation. As a  child with little or no access to money that whole element of christmas is taken away and the whole experience becomes about receiving and that certainly isn't something to encourage. So, give you child an opportunity to give, there are many excellent charities that provide an opportunity for your child to engage with the beauty of giving. Kiva (http://www.kiva.org) are a charity that allow you to identify people around the world who need small loans (£15) to get themselves out of poverty by starting their own project.  A simple envelope under the tree called 'The gift of giving' can make a huge impact.

4) Ingredients for a chocolate cake (and time together to bake it): Wrap all the ingredients of a chocolate cake together along with instructions of how to bake. Then set aside some quality time in the kitchen to create your masterpiece. You could even go the extra mile and share the cake with friends and family, it will be a great opportunity for your child to be proud of their achievement!

5) Plant a fruit tree together: Christmas is a good time to plant fruit trees and they can be producing as early as the coming summer/autumn. Throughout the changing seasons make your tree a point of interest by recording (and maybe drawing) the first bud, first leaf, largest flower, first visitor and finally the first fruit. Then when its ready pick the fruit and eat it, maybe in years to come there will be enough to make a pie or jams. Its sure to be great fun and helps children understand where their food comes from too!

6) Choose a star: To stare into the night sky with awe and wonder is something we have been doing as a species since the dawn of time. There is something magical about the changing night sky. Our ancestors would have spent night after night gazing into the heavens whereas these days we're more likely to draw the curtains and switch on the T.V. The night sky is a gift of its own that is under appreciated so this year gift a star to your child and bring some wonder and magic into their nightly routine. There are a number of websites (some bogus) that will send you a certificate etc. I'd recommend making your own, choosing a star and asking your child to name it, then every night send a wish to your very own star.

Choosing a christmas gift can be a very personal experience, we hope that your choices are well received and that your christmas is filled with gratitude! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

All you need is Love!

It's been a busy busy summer with many many highlights. Although the long, warm dry days never really arrived we still managed to squeeze every ounce of goodness out of each beautiful day.
There have been many memorable experiences from this summer that come to mind as I sit here in quiet reflection. However one moment in particular stands out for me, I think it is particularly memorable because of the way it caught me by surprise.

During our Forest Camp  we had a group of high school leavers from the NCS (National Citizenship) program join our community for a few days. The purpose of their visit was to learn about what we did,  meet the children at Forest Camp and in their shared experience break down some invisible barriers that society has drawn between us due to our differences such as age, race, gender or religion. For us it was another way of bringing people together and building community. As part of their visit the young men and women took photos and created a video as a memento of their visit.

During one afternoon I was stopped by one of the young people and asked if I could 'sum up' The CommuiTree Initiative in one word. For somebody who likes to talk it seemed difficult but I have been asked this before and had a ready made answer: "connection", hence why I was surprised when out of my mouth came a different response: "Love". The lady who had asked looked as surprised as I felt and replied, "awww thats cute", I wasn't quite sure what to make of that either. Looking back on that moment now though I think, no it isn't cute, love is not cute, it's the greatest and most powerful of human emotions, and YES it makes up the very foundation of what we do at The CommuniTree Initiative.

A few years ago I was moved by a documentary that I watched about the human degradation of our planet 'home' and the ubiquitous yet unnoticed abhorrent inequality that is speciesism. It cut me really deep because I had a profound love for the Earth and its complex communities that make it so beautiful and vibrant. I was angry by what I saw and for a while I went on a personal mission to ensure everybody was aware of the destruction that was taking place and in hope rally them to change their ways and stop the destruction. I wouldn't have called myself an 'activist' per se  but I was fiercely trying to raise awareness and make a difference. So you can imagine how hard it was when people didn't seem interested or were blasé about my protests.

I quickly realised that what I was doing wasn't working, I began to question why and it didn't take me long to realise. I had been acting from a place of fear, confusion and resentment. Once I realised this it quickly became apparent to me what had happened. I had been so deeply affected because of my great love of nature and I realised that only when people felt that same love would they be open to change.

I was 25 when I fell in love with nature, it wasn't love at first sight it was a gradual process over a year or so. I was living in New Hampshire in a small wooden cabin surrounded by tall pitch pines.
When I arrived there was snow covering the ground and the whole place lay deadly silent. I didn't have much money and fewer distractions. At night time I would sit bundled up in coats on the small deck at my door and watch the stars, I would marvel at the Milky Way as it swept across the sky like an unfurled ribbon of silk blowing in the wind. In the mornings I would walk out and across the frozen lake with only my thoughts and the sound of my breathe to keep me company.

As winter turned to spring I swapped the walks across the lake for canoe adventures around the thawing edge. I watched, listened, smelled and felt the changes both around and inside me as the whole connected system woke from its winter slumber. Before long it was summer, the canoe lay on the beach and I took to swimming the same route I had previously walked, and now instead of marvelling at the Milky Way bundled up in coats I lay on my back beside a campfire and traced the constellations way above in the beautiful night sky. As summer drew to a close and fall appeared with its glorious colours of oranges, reds and yellows something inside me began to slow down, the air once again grew cooler, the dew started to gather on the intricate spider webs and the cacophony of sound retreated once again as winter returned full circle. It's a love affair that has lasted to this very day and grows stronger with every realisation that I am deeply connected to the mesmeric systems that we call planet Earth.

As I reflected on how I fell in love with nature, I realised that before we can care for something and protect it we must first of all fall in love with it. The first step of falling in love is to notice both the flaws and the beauties, to accept that the only thing in a relationship that is permanent is change and to marvel and wonder at that change, to identify and appreciate all our differences but know that at the very source we are the same and to know that no matter what, you will always be there for each other. These basic love principles are not restricted to a relationship with nature, they are also prevalent to our relationships with our communities, each other as individuals and most importantly with ourselves. Love is the most powerful emotion and a wonderful guide. Whenever I'm faced with a challenging situation I always ask myself, "what would love do" and I'm always inspired to move in the right direction.

If you come along to The CommuniTree Initiatives Forest Camp you won't hear us drilling children with facts or making them identify leaves and buds, instead we'll be encouraging them to notice how nature is always changing and identify with their feelings and emotions because you just never know they may be falling in love!

Friday, 24 July 2015

PLEASE...no more 'Guys'!

Hooray, summer is here at last, or so the calendar says so, I'm still waiting for the long hot days and the balmy nights to begin. Throughout my life summer has signalled a time of great learning, development and growth. As a young boy I taught myself how to swim on a summer holiday in Malta, I discovered how to catch sticklebacks in my local pond and subsequently how to hide them from my Mum, I learnt how to rock climb, I discovered that when Grandma asks 'have you been swealing' (the joys of grass fires) it's a rhetorical question brought about my entire body stinking of smoke, I learnt how to use the street lights as a 'clock' and discovered that throughout the summer the days got shorter and the count down to the dreaded return to school got ever nearer.

As a young adult I spent many years working in a residential summer experiential education centre in the USA, the summer was our busy period and we would always begin with a rather intense 'orientation' where we would share skills and learn from each other. In those periods of orienting I learnt how to Contra Dance, I discovered my fear of public speaking then overcame it with wonderful support, I was awed by the delicacy and beauty of nature, I discovered the magic of experiential education and I learnt a tough lesson that helped me understand how we should always celebrate diversity. It was an intense period of learning and many of the lessons have stayed with me for a long long time and influence the work I do today at The CommuniTree Initiative. However back in 2001 I learnt a lesson that changed the way I would work with people forever.

The workshop was about equality, it was long and intense I remember my hand aching as I rapidly scrawled notes onto a yellow refill pad. I don't think I ever looked at those notes again though, I didn't have to for what I learnt was very powerful and very simple. The lady running the workshop asked us to discuss the term 'Guys' and how we use it when working with children. During our discussion we realised that 'Guys' was used by most of us to address both boys and girls. We were asked to discuss why.

Immediately my consciousness was raised to another level, why do we do that? After years of grouping children into one gender group I had a sudden realisation of the subliminal impact I was having on the people I worked with. In a patriarchal world where masculine values of power, control and strength dominate almost all walks of life we are constantly reminded of the inequality that is rife throughout the world. Women work for less,  have fewer opportunities to access education, unequal legal rights make women more likely to face violent abuse, sexual harassment in the work place, which is still rife and diminished responsibilities in family and work life based on gender, all still evident even today. Then there's the derogatory language that women have to endure on the streets on a daily basis; terms such as darling, sweetheart, gorgeous are common place in the English language and further perpetuate the inequality between men and women. But what can be more degrading than actually being referred to as the 'other' gender? By addressing the groups we work with as 'guys' we do just that, and by addressing our girls as guys we further tip the scale of inequality towards the side of the patriarchs.

You may be reading this and completely disagreeing, a friend of mine did exactly that which led to a firm debate between the two of us. He looked up guys in the dictionary and explained to me that it is defined as 'people of either sex'  (try doing a google image search of 'Guys') further intensifying my stance that we shouldn't be gender grouping our children like this, the dictionary input further confirms the complete hegemony of women by the patriarchal power. Ask yourself how you would feel if suddenly everybody began addressing you, your child and large mixed gender groups as 'Girls', 'Dolls' or even 'Ladies', it just wouldn't be accepted so why do we accept this constant use of 'Guys' when addressing girls?

After that workshop I didn't hear the term 'Guys' used again in the community where I lived and worked. If you visit The CommuniTree Initiative you won't hear me us it there either. On that day I chose to make a simple change I dropped the word 'Guys' and started using other more gender positive words such as 'Folks' and 'Everybody'. It's a sign of respect to the girls and women who attend our programs. It's a simple act that tells them we respect them for who they are, that their personality and values are important to us and the world and that we encourage them to be themselves regardless of what our patriarchal systems demands.

If you're a teacher, educator, parent, scout leader, grandparent, child minder, teaching assistant, aunt or uncle, I urge you to also take this valuable lesson that I learnt and apply it to your life and your practice, for the sake of all the amazing girls out there, the wonderful women they are sure to grow into and the continued drive for a fair and equal society.