I haven’t blogged for a while because I have been busy working on 2 exciting projects with external partners. One of these might interest colleagues who are working in the Secondary phase of education: ‘ACEWild or Alternative Curriculum Education out of the Wild’. I first became involved in this project at the bid writing stage with a colleague, Susan Falch-Lovesey, when I was working for Norfolk County Council. The European Commission (Erasmus+) bid was successful and we have now completed, reported on and shared the findings of this two-year, three-nation project.
ACEWild set out to explore how secondary schools can improve their students learning, skills and ‘life chances’ through outdoor or environment-themed learning programmes. The project outputs might be particularly relevant for those who support young people with additional needs and where students would benefit from a little extra support to reach their goals.
The project was action-research based with work in schools in the UK, Germany, and Netherlands. Teachers worked with students who had been identified as being at risk of becoming NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) to:
• raise pupils’ aspirations and self-confidence
• provide experience, qualifications and work opportunities in the outdoors or environmental sector
• develop communication, collaboration, critical and creative thinking and global citizenship skills
This website www.acewild.eu summarises the findings from these projects and provides information and advice for those who would like to introduce similar outdoor/environmental programmes at their own establishment/setting. One thing we are really proud of is all of the tools we have developed/used to evaluate the impacts of the outdoor learning programmes and inform the planning of activities. The tools used by the teachers provided valuable insights into student behaviour, attitudes and progress, which allowed teachers to focus on individual needs and develop more targeted learning plans for their students. On the website you can also find case-studies, activity ideas and suggestions for partnership working.
I have been working alongside other colleagues on International environmental education and sustainability projects for 6 years now and it is such a privilege to learn with an international community of educators. I just need to find a new one now ACEWild has been sewn up; I am feeling the gap in my life 🙂

Checking in in the outdoors

Since beginning my teaching career I have always endeavoured to be a reflective practitioner; considering my practice and how effective it was for the learners in my care.  In order to be able to do this effectively you of course need to self-assess but you should also seek feedback from your group/class.  Planning in this sort of reflective evaluation time into lessons and/or CPD gives you an opportunity to reassess how you would do things differently next time AND encourages participants to be self-aware.  Here are some of the techniques that I regularly use outdoors:


Head Heart Bin (Bag)

  • Have three posters with a head, heart and bin drawn in the centre of each
  • Participants write feedback on post it notes and stick to corresponding poster
  • Head: things you learned (about yourself, knowledge, skills, contacts)
  • Bin: things you would rather have done less of or things that didn’t go so well
  • Heart: things you loved or things that made you feel happy

People in the tree

  • Print and laminate a set of ‘people in a tree evaluation’ drawings
  • Before and after an experience you ask participants to choose a figure that represents how they are feeling
  • Participants explain to a partner which character they chose and why
  • Can be repeated after the experience to gain an idea of ‘distance travelled’

Mood landscape

  • Similar to People in the tree above but instead participants are presented with a drawing of a landscape and asked to draw themselves into the landscape
  • They must explain why the location they chose represents how they are feeling about their current learning

Voting pebbles

  • You can use pebbles, conkers or pine cones for these evaluation activities. Or any natural materials that is abundant locally.
  • Zones of relevance: Draw a target of concentric circles and ask participants to place pebble in the most appropriate place for them with bullseye being ‘agree’  and outer circles being disagree
  • Ballot: have ice cream tubs with slots cut in their lids and happy, sad and neutral faces on.  Pose a question to participants and ask them to vote with their pebble
  • Questions: take some flip chart paper and make a grid of questions and spaces for happy, sad or neutral answers.  Participants place their pebble in the most relevant space.
  • All outcomes can be photographed as a record of the pupils’ feelings.

Diamond ranking

  • Used as a way of prioritising
  • Choose top 9 ‘things’ (experiences, moments, learning, statements….) and arrange them into a diamond shaped formation with most important/relevant at the top and least at the bottom

I use these strategies regularly in my training and have used them during outdoor learning sessions with children and young people.  These techniques can all be used effectively for assessment purposes; either for an individual lesson, an outdoor experience, a school-grounds development, a residential visit or a whole scheme of work.  Versatile and straightforward!

NB: for more info on these and other evaluative techniques you can visit the brand new ACEWild website which is a result of a 2 year UK/Dutch/German Erasmus+ Project.

Gerber, Kohn, Lansbury, Ockwell-Smith….

Twelve years ago I did my Level 1 Forest School training which involved both observing and supporting work outdoors with Reception age children. I am a secondary Geography Teacher by training and twelve years ago I didn’t have children of my own so very small people were a bit of a mystery to me and Forest School was an eye opener. I am not a Forest School expert at all but I can tell you that an important part of Forest School philosophy is that activity is child-led: children opt in to things rather than being told by a teacher what to do.
Around the same time a friendly conversation on a summer day in the woods with my clever friend Louise Ambrose (of Outrageous Nature Company and Birchwood Learning fame) also sowed a seed. Louise was talking about working in a Primary School and how sad she felt about systems of sanctions and rewards.
Fast forward 12 years and I now have my very own small person. The stakes are high! I have this child with me 24/7…..I need to do my absolute best for her. So I rooted around. And when you root around you uncover so much. There’s plenty of duff stuff in parenting but one of the lovely things is that we can get to intimately know our little ones and navigate through raising them by choosing the philosophies that we think will work best for them, and us, in our own unique situation. Parenting advice is abundant and diverse…….you have to wade through it all to find the things that chime with you.
Thanks to Forest School and resonating chats with my good friend Louise Ambrose and more recent mummy friend, Karolina, I found things that chimed with me in Elevating Childcare by Janet Lansbury, Toddler Calm by Sarah Okwell-Smith and Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Exploring their approaches led me to Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy. www.magdagerber.org explains clearly that the basis of RIE philosophy is respect for, and trust in the baby to be an initiator, an explorer, and a self learner. Magda encouraged parents and caregivers to provide:
• An environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging and emotionally nurturing.
• Time for uninterrupted play.
• Freedom to explore and interact with other infants.
• Involvement of the child in all care activities to allow the child to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient.
• Sensitive observation of the child in order to understand his or her needs.
• Consistency, clearly defined limits and expectations to develop discipline
So you know a bit about my personal parenting choices but how is this relevant to learning outside of the classroom? Well, for me it comes down to remembering to give children time and space. On my courses I try to build in 5 minutes of silence in an outdoor space: so simple but almost always greeted by delight among the teachers because these opportunities are not forthcoming in day to day life. It’s the same for children; to develop enquiring minds I believe they need to be given the time to observe and explore. Not every minute of our outdoor learning needs to be structured and planned out. I think as educators we’d all benefit from stepping back, waiting and observing the children in our care. What are they interested in? Can we provide more opportunities that inspire them? Can they negotiate interactions with peers without our interference? What have they got to say on a topic? What happens when we back off? How do they problem solve?
Our school system and National Curriculum dictate our school childrens’ days so wouldn’t it be good sometimes to just give them (outdoor) space to breathe?

Using geocaching in school

The week before last I published a blog explaining a little bit about what geocaching is and I thought I’d return with just a few ideas about how geocaching can be used in school.
Last autumn’s new OFSTED guidance states clearly that for a school to be graded ‘Outstanding’ they wish to see teachers who innovate and children who are curious and interested learners. I’d say that a dose of geocaching might help you to achieve both of these things!
Longitude and Latitude
Geocaching uses coordinates to explain the location of caches. This is a good way of introducing the idea of longitude and latitude, which are now in the KS2 Geography curriculum.
Map skills
Once children have looked up caches local to their school they can plot them on an OS map of the area, perhaps using the excellent digimaps for schools resource which you can add pins to. If you have a local environment walk to visit some caches you can plot your walk on a map or even make your own map of your journey. You can work with children to express the location of your local caches in 6 figure OS Grid references (also KS2 Geography).
When navigating around local caches (or a cache trail you have set up) there are many opportunities for estimating and measuring distances, describing locations using positional language and using degrees to express directions.
Travel bugs
Knowing the countries and counties of the UK is now in the Primary Geography Curriculum. A class could release a travel bug with a specific mission to visit every county in the UK. Each time a geocacher logs the travel bug has moved your class can get the maps out to locate the bug’s position and record it on a wall display. You might prefer to have a bug whose mission is to visit different rivers or coastlines to fit in with upcoming topics. You could even send a bug to a country you are studying and ask geocachers to share facts about where they live in their cache logs.
Topic work
Educaching is a spin off of Geocaching where a school hides geocaches temporarily, often on their school site, linked to topic-based work. In this case you might have a series of caches hidden which teams of children find and which contain a topic themed challenge/piece of information.
A key part of geocaching is to record your finds online so that the cache owner can enjoy hearing how people found their cache. Children can each write a cache entry and one could get posted on line. You could ask children to write a letter to their grandparents explaining what geocaching is (quite a tricky task!) or to their parents describing the thrill of their first find; this might provide a nice home-school link.
I am by no means a physicist but there could be an interesting lesson looking at the science of GPS systems and how the satellites in space help us determine our location on earth.
Local history
Many geocachers place caches at significant locations and use their cache log to share information about it. I have a cache in Branston, Leicestershire for example that I chose to locate in a hidden away and disused Ironstone quarry. People who find the cache are discovering a locality they never previously knew about.
I hope that is enough to whet your appetite! I’d love to hear your own ideas for how to embed geocaching into your curriculum: salixeducation@gmail.com or https://www.facebook.com/salixeducation

The mystery that is Geocaching

Back in 2007 a colleague introduced me to geocaching and I remember my feeling of intrigue and slight confusion.  Fast forward 8 years and when I mention geocaching in training courses I’d estimate that 70% of delegates are unaware of it’s existence and therefore as excited by it as I was upon my first discovery.

In case you’re one of that 70% I’ll endeavour to explain a little about geocaching.

It is a sort of global treasure hunt using GPS (Global Positioning Systems) to find ‘geocaches’.  All over the world people like me hide geocaches for other people to find.  You can find out where the geocaches are hidden by logging on to www.geoaching.com  Whenever we head away on holiday or out for the day we’ll punch the postcode of our destination into the geocaching website and download any nearby geocache coordinates.  In concert with a map we’ll use the geocache locations to plan some nice local walks.

In 2007 having a GPS unit was a necessary part of the geocaching process but now you can download effective apps to your smart phone.  Either way you just input the coordinates you have found on the website into the unit or app and it will navigate you to the destination, within around 3 metres accuracy.  You can then put down the technology and search!  The website will have told you roughly what you are looking for.  Traditional caches are Tupperware box size.  Micro-caches are the size of a film canister and nano-caches are the size of a sugar lump.  You can choose to decipher additional clues from the website if you wish.  When you have found the cache you can often sign a log book to prove you found it and can go on to log your find online to keep a record of your finds and also inform the cache owner that you visited their cache.  You can even take photos of yourself and upload those too.  In the bigger caches there are often ‘swaps’ which are small low-value items that you can take away with you, to be replaced by something of equal value.  We have a bag of mini spinning tops, stickers, gel pens, plastic snakes and bracelets that we take with us in case Primrose fancies taking anything from one of the boxes.

An additional aspect that we love are things called Travel Bugs.  These are often small creatures (cuddly or plastic ones!) that have a dog tag attached with a special code.  These travel bugs have a mission and get moved from cache to cache by geocachers.  We released a dolphin travel bug in 2008 and it has been flying (literally in some cases) around the world ever since; she’s currently residing in Finland.  When people find a cache and discover a travel bug they can look up the the special code online to find out what the bug’s mission is.  If geocachers think they can help the bug on it’s mission they will take it and move it on to a new cache.  Anyone can release a travel bug and chart it’s progress.  We’re going to release one for our daughter’s 3rd birthday in March.  I’d like it to be a native species such as a mouse or a fox….it’ll probably end up being Elsa J

So why not make 2016 your own year of geocaching, punch your own postcode into www.geocaching.com and see where your nearest cache is.

Next time I write a blog I’ll focus on some ideas for using caching in schools.  SO MUCH potential!

Training that is good for the soul

With a career that has involved working in the private, public and voluntary sectors I have been on a fair few training courses myself over the years. Something that really bugs me is attending a course about education/teaching and finding that the facilitators have totally ignored most teaching and learning theory. My top five crimes are 1) too much PowerPoint/PowerPoint that is for the facilitator not the participants/Powerpoint slides that you can’t read or are not given time to read 2) sessions that overrun leaving you late to toilet breaks or departure 3) a facilitator who sees themselves as the fount of all knowledge 4) not enough participative hands-on activity and 5) poor quality cake.
Over the last few years I have worked with colleagues in Norfolk’s Environmental and Outdoor Learning Team to develop a training ethos that extends the emphasis away from imparting knowledge and towards holistic learning experiences that feel good for the learner. I always include a standard outcome in all of my courses: that participants leave the course having had a day that they feel has been good for their well-being. Teachers work hard, they often do long hours in high-pressure environments; it is therefore desirable to look after their needs carefully when they get out of school to undertake CPD.
Through trial and error, and requesting, and listening to, feedback from participants I have come up with a recipe for a more soul-nurturing approach to INSET training:
• Share the programme with participants so they know what to expect when; be clear about when coffee/eating/toileting opportunities will occur. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is clear on this: for effective learning to take place basic needs need to be catered for.
• Ensure that some outdoor learning happens. No matter what the course content there is generally always some learning that will be enhanced by going outside
• Provide opportunities for both group and individual work/thinking…..no everyone thrives in a group setting
• Try and give enough supporting materials to ensure delegates can focus on participating and thinking rather than note taking (unless, like me, you need to note take to process your thinking!)
• Use slides that you think will help your learners. If a slide is to help you as the facilitator then keep it in note form to make reference to in private
• Be friendly and honest about your experiences and skills; it’s okay not to know the answer to a question. Do your best to find answers and communicate these to delegates afterwards
• Do your best to run to time. If sessions look like they’re over-running think fast to adapt other elements of the day and always ensure breaks and departure happen on time
• Prioritise time for plenaries and reflection so that delegates have time to process learning and feedback about it
• Provide regular and wholesome food. Ideally locally sourced and seasonal, which we are lucky enough to get as standard at Holt Hall when I work there. Learning Outside the Classroom is hungry work and plenty of cake-based fuel seems to help
Sometimes the cake is beyond my control, but I’ll never give up lobbying for it 🙂

Secret Friends

A year ago I went on an Outdoor Learning conference at the beautiful FSC Castle Head Field Centre in the Lake District. I was lucky enough to meet a group of practitioners working in Hungary (Pangea Cultural and Environmental Association) who shared a simple idea that I have used to great success recently and I thought you might like to hear about it.
In Hungary, Pangea hold annual ‘Hedgehog Camps’ for groups of children which last for 10 days. The camps are environmental education focussed. The children who attend the camps do not necessarily know one another so the Pangea volunteers establish ‘secret friends’ on the very first day. Each child is given the name of another child which they must keep secret. It is their job to look out for that child throughout the camp and generally be friendly towards them whilst keeping their identity secret.
I loved this idea and have used it successfully now on many of my training days. At the start of a CPD day I distribute names on slips of paper to delegates. I request that they secretly befriend their assigned person throughout the day. The secret part is quite important; we don’t want to give the game away; we want to be subtle. As a result I have found that a lovely atmosphere of care and respect is established. During our end of day plenary I ask delegates to guess who their secret friend might have been and 80% of the time no one has the first clue! It’s all hidden in offering to make cups of tea, picking up dropped equipment, partnering up with people and offering positive feedback on contributions made to the training. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that for successful learning to take place we need to ensure that certain conditions are met such as love and belonging, and esteem: secret friends helps to establish a very healthy learning environment where people feel valued and respected.
In a school setting I can see this working beautifully. Maybe at the start of a new school year for the first week whilst you are establishing a good ethos for how your classroom works. Maybe when you go on a residential visit to help ensure that the less confident feel included and cared for during fieldwork activities. Maybe on a day visit to London when the strategy might help to foster a good atmosphere for learning outside the classroom. Maybe in your Eco-Council after school club to help develop social skills of cooperation, communication and care. Such a simple idea that can bear so much delicious fruit!

What do you do again?

I get asked this question pretty frequently. I think my husband has finally grasped what I do. My father has no idea. Most of my friends assume that I teach children how to pond dip. Fair enough, my job is pretty niche. I created the job to fit me so it is bound to be a bit special 🙂
I am a freelance which means that I could undertake a huge variety of tasks, dependent on what people ask me to do. Over the last 12 months I have written a book to help Primary teachers teach about the coast, I have created an Eco-Trail for a local eco-charity, I have created a website to support a European Project looking at environmental education and I have coordinated the CPD programme that a local authority offers its schools. But in the main I facilitate CPD training for teachers on the themes of outdoor learning, sustainability and primary geography. What does that mean in reality?
I get an email saying: “Mrs X from X primary school said you do outdoor learning training, can you come and work with my teachers on X date?”. I then liaise with the school to ascertain exactly what their requirements are and I suggest a programme of activity to them. I go on to prepare all of the resources for that training day, sort childcare out to ensure I can be away for a long day and possibly an overnight, arrange somewhere to stay and then turn up in the right place at the right time full of enthusiasm and armed with cake and waterproofs.
The training day often begins the night before when I scrabble around by torchlight in my storage shed to gather all of the equipment I need ahead of loading my car. Friends are familiar with my sand and leaf strewn car and it’s assortment of pond nets, egg boxes and book laden boxes.
I get on the road early to ensure I am at the venue 1 to 2 hours before the course is due to start. Turning up to a venue you have never used before is a gamble; mostly IT related. I unload, set up the room, sort out the equipment we need for various activities and cajole my laptop to talk to their projector.
I then have the pleasure of meeting a new group of teachers and leading them through a day of learning. Sometimes it is focussed upon how to teach the literacy curriculum outdoors, sometimes numeracy. Other times it is about how to make an engaging primary geography curriculum or how to embed ‘Eco-Schools’. One thing these courses always have in common is that I always give myself too much to do and am therefore dashing around all day. We do however always end with a thorough plenary and reflection so that’s a nice way to wind down ahead of saying cheerio to delegates.
It’s then time for a snack and a massive gulp of water ahead of clearing the messy training room, loading the car and listening to the evening edition of the ‘Archers’ and ‘Front Row’ as I drive home to try and give Primrose a cuddle before I pop her in bed.
Finally, I ignore the car laden with festering ecological equipment and have a glass of wine instead. All in a day’s work 🙂

Some Outdoor Learning Practicalities

It occurred to me on Thursday when I was facilitating some INSET training in Leighton Buzzard that it’s often the small practical suggestions relating to outdoor learning that teachers love. We might be doing a fantastically fun and effective numeracy activity but it’s the logistical stuff that always sends the teachers for their notepads. I thought I’d gather a few of those suggestions here.
Firstly before you plan your outdoor learning remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The very bottom rung can be interpreted as helping your children/young people to be comfortable so that learning can take place. Make sure they’re warm (outdoor clothing is a whole other blog) and well-fed. Make sure when you gather them together in a ‘safe-space’, away from traffic and other hazards, that it is you who is squinting into the sunshine not them and position them so the wind is not in their faces. If you are doing any work that involves sitting down provide them with a sitting mat of some sort. You can buy ready made sitting mats or you can make your own by cutting up old camping mats or using carpet samples.
Have a think about how you are going to manage any equipment you might need. Are you going to carry a class set in your rucksack? Do you need so much that children will have to carry some? How will you ensure you don’t lose any whilst out and about? I always use a brightly coloured and patterned sarong/throw which folds down really small as my ‘equipment base’; after a few sessions children understand that this is the location where they collect spare pencil, clipboards, tape measures etc from and that all equipment must be put back there too.
Writing outdoors can be tricky. It’s worth considering whether your fieldwork activities require writing in the first place. If note taking/idea generating/planning work is due to take place then mini white boards, old CDs with whiteboard pens or A6 pieces of card are useful. For most activities I use A5 clipboards. These feel a bit special; like they’re just for outdoor learning. They are easier for most small hands to handle. Clipboards come with flip over covers which are useful protection when it’s raining. I also have a couple of A3 clipboards in my training kit which are useful for group work/editing/brainstorming/art. The A3 boards also give some writers a more stable base for writing because you can lean on them as you would a desk.
If you are data collecting with older pupils or collecting images with younger pupils then the use of iPads is both appropriate and possible if you invest in some of the (expensive) rugged cases. These durable cases mean that a rain shower or a careless drop won’t cause anyone a headache.
And finally: always use pencils! They don’t smudge in the rain, they write better on damp paper and are cheaper to replace.
Now I have noticed that teachers like these tips about learning outside the classroom logistics I will start to note other ideas down and do a part II to this blog in the future.

Why Salix?

g on w logoWelcome to my occasional blog attached to my shiny new Salix Education Website. “Salix Education, why Salix?” is what I am asked. My ecologist friends understand my business name but most other people do not, including my husband who likes to amuse himself by saying it is “Say Licks”. Fact is, at the same time as relocating from Norfolk to Bedfordshire with an 11 month old in tow I needed a business name quickly to register for a piece of freelance work I had been offered. I wanted a name that was short and nature-based with plenty of options for creating pleasing accompanying visuals (which Takayo Akiyama – www.takayon.com – has done beautifully for me).

So Salix it was. Salix is the genus to which willow trees belong. Our native white willow for example is Salix alba. Like Homo sapiens, but more woody. Being a keen (but very rusty) botanist the word Salix conjures up images of lowland river banks like those immortalised in Constable’s paintings of Suffolk and Essex. It makes me think of freshness and my favourite colour green. It brings to mind sturdiness and strength. It also suggests creativity and beauty when I think of the things you can make from flexible willow whips. But to my husband it creates an image of someone saying “licks” in a speech bubble. But he is not my target client base so all is well.

If I had better knowledge of mythology I’d have known before a relatively recent Google that willows are associated with sadness and mourning. Whoops. My Salix is not. My Salix is to do with getting children out of their classroom to learn outside, about the awe and wonder that can be found in the natural world, about the lessons nature has for us, about supporting teachers to take their lessons outside, about campaigning for fieldwork to be a normal part of school life, about helping the whole spectrum of learners in any given class to learn.

Once upon a time Google, Kleenex, Kodak and Xerox meant nothing to the majority of people but it’s a different story now. Twenty years hence Salix will be synonymous with environmental and outdoor learning CPD. That’s me, dreaming big J

PS. Despite taking the mickey out of my business name my husband has just created me this beautiful green website with not a speech bubble or tongue in sight and for that I am very grateful. Thanks Terry.