Just over a year ago, I was a ‘serious’ academic*, teaching and carrying out research at the University of Southampton. My specific area was English as a Lingua Franca, or ELF. By Christmas 2021, I was dressed as the kind of elf more familiar to most people, playing in the woods with three year-olds, working for the charity Youth Options. So what happened? How did I go from Dr Doubleday to Little Jill?
*I was never really that serious.
That’s Little Jill on the right, made by one of the young people attending holiday club in July 2021. I think she’s captured my spirit rather well! After eleven years working at the university (while studying for a PhD for more than eight of those years), I’d decided the time was right for a change. I’d developed a love for ‘local’ nature, and thanks to my involvement with the Friends of Peartree Green, assisted at some bug hunting sessions there run for local school children by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. This led to me volunteering with the Trust on a Forest School programme for 5-7 year-olds at Testwood Lakes nature reserve in autumn 2019. I absolutely loved it, and could see the difference it made to the young people who attended. I wanted to do more, so began training as a Forest School Assistant in spring 2020, again with the Trust. When lockdown happened and the Trust couldn’t run the programme I was due to assist on, I had to find another one in order to complete my training. Step forward Youth Options!
Tom and Henry at Youth Options were running a series of sessions at a school very close to my area of Southampton. After completing the necessary DBS checks and training, I joined them as a volunteer. The setting was the amazing beech wood you see on the left, and autumn was a fantastic time to be there. This time I was working with slightly older young people (10 -11 year-olds). Tom and Henry were fantastic colleagues to learn from, giving me the time I needed to learn how to plan, deliver and reflect on sessions, so that I could complete my training. This time volunteering gave me the opportunity to practice some of the skills from my forest school training, such as making a godseye, as well as learn several new activities. Given the time of year, and the interests of the group, we discovered more about hibernation and about different types of trees, for example. By the time the programme ended, just before Christmas 2020, I’d left my job at the university and was also volunteering in the Nature Zone at another school (see previous blog post), ready to make this my new career.
During the school holidays of Easter 2021, Youth Options gave me more opportunities. I volunteered at a holiday club for Thornhill primary, then had a few days of paid work at the main holiday club at Itchen Valley Country Park. I was now officially a member of staff. Yippee! My contract was casual, so I worked as I was needed. Both holiday clubs, then a forest school programme with a junior school, plus some cover for colleagues on other programmes, all gave me valuable experience. Not long before summer, in June, I was asked if I could work at the pre-school Youth Options runs, Little Owls. Given my limited experience with that age group, I wasn’t sure what to expect but was willing to give it a go. After one day I was hooked! Luckily for me I was needed regularly, and my colleagues Suzie, Lisa, Becki, Rachael and Zara shared their skills and knowledge with me. During summer I worked almost full-time on holiday club with young people ranging from 5 to 11 years old, then in September I was back at Little Owls for two days a week. That increased to three or four as the year drew to a close, with a week’s gap for October half-term holiday club. By now I was developing my repertoire of crafts to go alongside cooking on the fire, bug hunting, natural art and all the other fun activities that make up a typical day in the woods. The forest folk and their rope ladders on the right were made for a ‘Rebuild the Village’ activity (their village has been destroyed by a clumsy troll, hence their expressions).
Alongside building my repertoire and skills in the woods, I kept busy learning through formal training sessions (Makaton; Outdoor and Paediatric First Aid), webinars organised by the Forest School Association and the Institute for Outdoor Learning, Skill Shares with the FSA Hampshire group, and reading, reading and more reading. Early on, I realised that working in outdoor learning or forest school is not just about engaging young people with nature and inspiring them to look after it (my original motivation for doing this). It’s also about that young person, helping them to develop their self-esteem and find their direction. But that’s a whole topic in itself – watch out for another post on that!
In September I began training to be a Forest School Leader. This is a long process requiring a substantial portfolio of written work as well as demonstrating the ability to teach practical skills such as choosing and using the correct knots to secure hammocks or shelters, and using tools to saw, whittle or carve. I’ll also run my own programme, probably at Youth Options’ new site, the Outdoor Learning Centre. And I’ll be doing this as a permanent member of staff, a role that officially begins on 4 January 2022. This will give me new challenges and opportunities, including delivering 1:1 sessions. I can’t wait to get started!