A special relationship developed through forest school

Over the past two years I have been leading forest school after school sessions for children locally. One of the after school clubs was established to support children with additional needs or disabilities. Hackney Forest School worked alongside the HIT Squad to provide this provision for a 6 week and a 10 week block.

It was a pleasure to see the children exploring the natural environment, in a calm and relaxed manner without displaying any discomfort or distress. The children clearly thrived in an environment not enclosed by four walls, restrictions, rules or prolonged sitting. The children were entranced by the breadth of sensory opportunities they were able to experience from the different textures, colours, sounds and smells around them.

During my time leading the sessions, a strong bond was made between myself and a child. This happened spontaneously during the sessions, providing me with some of the most rewarding moments in my role as Forest School Lead Practitioner.

X has been diagnosed with Moebius Syndrome which affects the nerves, primarily the cranial nerves not developing properly. This means that X has limited control over a range of muscles and sensations around his face (bulbar palsy which also affects X’s vision. X was born with bilateral talipes equinovarus (clubbed feet). X has been walking independently since 2015 for short distances (200 metres) and sometimes uses a wheelchair for respite.

From his arrival at the first session child X would call out to me and various questions. He would hold his dad’s hand on the way but would say to me:

“What are we doing today?”

“Are we going to play a game?”

“What is the game?”

At the FS site as we explored, X took my hand to guide them around. Every now and then he would check in on his dad to make sure he was close by.

X was confident with expressing his preferences and taking the lead. X directed me around as he enjoyed looking for other children to see what they were doing or he would watch other children climb the trees. Sometimes we would just watch the children exploring and have a discussion about what we could see happening.

X loved playing hide and seek, initiating this during the first session – he would tell dad to hide and X and I would need to do the seeking.

By the next session, X initiated playing hide and seek again on the way to basecamp. This time child X would take my hand from the Children’s Centre and walk with me over to the FS site.

Taking part in activities was a challenge for X. He was strong minded and would insist in watching instead of taking part unless he initiated it. Activities involving tactile experiences with textures were a challenge especially when he was playing with mud! With great determination, X sat down on the floor with me and mud printed using a small log, dipping it the mud with support and stamping it on to the material. At this moment I felt proud that he had demonstrated a can-do attitude whilst with me.

X also loved dancing, especially doing funny dancing. For a moment we danced to the sound of sticks being hit together by another colleague. X mumbled a rhythm and clapped his hands.

There was a moment when we sat on a log listening to the sounds around us. During that moment, X pushed me gently so I decided to pretend to fall off the log. X began to laugh out loud, and this made me laugh. I sat back down next to him and he repeated this action. We laughed and laughed for several moments as we continued with this game. This was the point at which I felt a deeper connection with X as we were beginning to share more fun moments with each other, as our relationship grew.

By the next session, the children were beginning to engage more in group activities and X was excited when the others decided they wanted to play hide and seek with him. He led the first game – telling everyone their roles. X and I were to seek whilst others hid. He even began to use the “1, 2, 3 where are you?” as a means of calling out to get a response, which he had not liked in the beginning as when I initially read this story.  

Although he loved the role of seeking, X was happy to share his role with others.

X was becoming more comfortable around me, and would call for me if I was spending time elsewhere. He was also becoming more confident to explore around the uneven grounds more, sometimes without holding my hands.

Another magical moment was during the treasure hunt for pine cones. X requested that he should watch from the log with me, sitting down. He said, “The clues”, implying we should give them clues to help them find the pine cones. What a great idea!

So I mentioned, “some may be high and some may be low,” and X added, “some may be this way, that way, that way”. This made me smile. He told me to repeat it and he joined in this time making it into a whole phrase.

“Some may be high, some may be low, some may be, this way, that way, that way”.

He loved this phrase, laughing and using his hand to point left, right, up and down as we repeated it. Collaborating together was another special moment for me, that we had just come up with a phrase together and this would always stick with me when I hear the words “Can you give me a clue?” Even now as I type, this makes me smile.  

Another special moment occurred during the twilight sessions. It was now becoming dark by the time we were in the forest, and we were exploring the marshes with our lanterns as we went on small walks. At first, X was a little reluctant to walk in the dark and of course visibility was difficult; we had no street lights to support us, only small lanterns. Walking was more of a challenge for him. With courage, he persisted, each week becoming more confident and taking the lead showing us which way we should go. X loved holding the small lanterns and walking along by the canal. We made beats with our mouths and hands as we stomped and danced along.

How often do children get to experience being out in the dark in a natural environment?

Dad had explained to me that X enjoyed coming to Forest School and would look forward to Wednesdays.

It was a pleasure to see X again during the next 10 weeks blocks the year after.

We shared special moments again as we:

  • Made songs using the same beat he had remembered from the last block.
  • Sat down together having discussions about our favourite theater shows or playing I-spy. 

X’s parents commented:

He really engaged with Forest School and was keen to put down his digital devices and get his jackets on to arrive on time.  He loved helping to organise, so assisting getting the trolley over the bridge and to the forest site was part of the excitement.  He developed a strong desire to spend his time with Lauren who played games aligned to his unique sense of humor and needs.  As a result he tolerated things like getting his hands dirty, without realising it was happening, while confidently chatting with Lauren (and the team) about his week as if she were a long lost friend.  After the mandatory game of hide and seek he was always sad to find out it was time for home.