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Environment

Why I left my job and opened a forest school

After years working in front of a computer, Sophie Kyle gave it up for a career in the forest. She talks about the growth of forest schools and the life-affirming benefits of being outdoors.

In a previous life I was a magazine publisher with The Skinny. The magazine began in my student flat when I was 23, and we really just learned on the job how to publish it. Then the popularity grew and grew. 

But working on a magazine for years, I really saw the effects of sitting in front of a computer screen on the people around me – on their physical health and on their mental health. It took a long time for me to realise that computer culture can be really difficult for humans to live with. 

Looking back, I think my childhood had made a really big impression on me. I had the kind of upbringing that exposed me to being outside on a regular basis. We never had a big garden at home, but we always had one. When I was growing up I lived in a few different countries. One of those was Norway, where the lifestyle was very much skiing – taking the bus up to the mountains with your friends and just strapping on your skis. 

So when I was going through a difficult patch in my personal life I started to rethink my options. I was still working with the magazine part-time at this point after the birth of my daughter, but I could see that my values had shifted in the kind of work that I wanted to be supporting. Employing people to sit in front of a computer screen wasn’t what I wanted to do any longer. 

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The Forest School Certificate is a very in-depth learning process, so it was a big decision, but I started it in 2016 and I’m now a trainer as well as a leader. A typical day is working either with a school group or a holiday group. We take a walk into the woods together, taking all our shelters, our ropes for swings, hammocks, kettles and packed lunches. 

Then we find a camp area and set up. We usually do that together, so the children and adults design the space – where we’re going to put the hammocks and where we’re going to play. We have a chat about boundaries in the woods too. So we sit in a circle talking and sharing the health and safety info, and also the activities stuff. 

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In a full-day session I usually have two or three activities planned, like treasure hunts, bug hunts or pond
dipping. The kids can choose, it’s a child-led process. A massive part of Forest School is games, and that’s really to support social cohesion in an environment that isn’t dictatorial about how everybody interacts. 

It’s usually the Additional Support Needs (ASN) groups that see the greatest benefit, and I think that’s one of the big reasons that Forest School is increasing in popularity. It’s a chance to maximise the therapeutic effects of being outside. Relaxation is the main benefit, because you’re in a natural environment that’s full of stimuli.

You’ll quite often find that people with ASN can be in that space in a more authentic and relaxed way. It allows them to receive the natural stimuli – the smells, the temperature, the weather – so they’re receiving all of that information in an environment where their body knows how to regulate. You see their gradual relaxation over a period of time, and I think we all know the benefits of relaxation in this full-on world. 

Of course, children who don’t have ASN can benefit to the same extent. It’s just that the signs aren’t as obvious. Children in that environment are given other ways to communicate because they’re in nature and you start to get a deeper connection with them. 

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With lockdown and the restrictions on our living patterns, everybody is a lot more aware of the effect of being in a green space and having plants around us or the sound of birds. It has a big effect on us, and I think that’s another contributor to the growth in forest schools. 

I don’t ever get children who don’t want to be outside because it’s too wet or too cold. But I’ve been in horizontal snow and had to finish sessions early – then they’ve complained, because they don’t want to leave! 

For me, the secret is layers. I have super-warm merino layers, and I even wear them in July and August. I also have an army of Thermos flasks, and once I’ve got them all lined up I’m OK.

We all get days where we’re tired or unmotivated, but I’ve found that I’m one of those people who prefers working with kids than adults. It doesn’t really take much for me to remember the unmotivated days of my previous life. 

sophiekyle.comforestschoolassociation.org

Sophie Kyle was speaking to Sarah Reid

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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