The time when nothing happens

It doesn’t seem to matter how long they’ve been coming to the woods, when children first arrive there is always a space of time where nothing happens. They sit, they wait, they hang on their parents’ shoulders. I worry that I’m not providing enough.

The temptation at this point, is to start making suggestions, ‘why don’t you guys play tag?’, ‘would anyone like me to get some tools out?’, ‘you could help me collect some firewood’. But invariably my suggestions are met with shrugs, blank stares or outright refusals.

It’s like that uncomfortable lull in a conversation with someone you don’t know so well. You can’t stand to just stare at one another but you don’t want to come across as a gibbering idiot in an attempt to fill the awkward silence either.

But something always happens. (Because otherwise we’d all be sat staring at each other, trapped in an endless cycle of not knowing whether we should be looking at someone’s nose or eyes or hands while we’re waiting for inspiration to strike.)

With the children in the woods, there is no identifiable moment when they’re struck upon the head with inspiration. It isn’t even entirely obvious, as they are all slipping away, where they’ve gone or with whom. And what are they doing? That’s anyone’s guess.

If you leave them long enough, don’t break the spell, and don’t try to work out whether they’re learning anything, they will invariable come back with Big Plans: tickets for a show; something delicious for you to eat; or a request to get a rope really high up a tree (usually best not to ask why).

I give them the space and the time – even when that time seems endless and I’m worried I should be doing more to support them or engage them or to facilitate their learning. They just go right ahead and get on with it – I’m mostly there to apply plasters.

And now here I am, here you are, here we all are – with nothing but time. Some, but not most, of us have no demands on our shoulders other than those we create for ourselves. And to be honest, I feel exactly like those kids do at the beginning of every forest school. Waiting for something to happen. Waiting for inspiration to strike. Wishing I could just rest my head on my mum’s shoulder while she produced packets of crisps for me to snack on.

I feel really lucky to have seen this same process enacted hundreds of times. Because even though I know that the kids always find something awesome to do, the moments before still fill me with anxiety that the children won’t get anything out of being in the woods. But they always do. I know they always do.

Which means that I know that I will. And I know that you will too. Right now we’re all those kids right now – isolated in a great big wilderness, no one expecting anything from us, not knowing how the day is going to pan out, disappointed that none of our friends are around. We are all going to have some Great Ideas.

Maybe they will be small great ideas, enacted on a small scale with not many others even knowing they’re being done. And maybe they will be world changing Big Great Ideas. Everybody’s idea of a good time is different.

Take heart out there – each of us on our own island – and take the advice of someone who’s seen it hundreds of times before. The seemingly endless expanse of nothing always gets filled with something.

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