When life gives you lemons….

This has been a crazy week. For all of us. I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘I don’t know’ so many times in my whole life and while I’m doing everything I can to remain positive for the sake of my boys, on the inside I’m terrified about what is to become of my business. I know I’m not alone in this.

Whoever would have thought that technology, social media and our ability to manipulate resources to suit our needs would, at a time of global crisis, the closing of borders, financial collapse and the uncertainty of billions of people, be our salvation?

So, I’ve spent the last however many hours thinking. Thinking about how I can keep my family afloat, but also thinking about how I can bring what I know and offer it to the global community at a time when resources are going to become more scarce.

This morning it occurred to me that not only could we not go to the supermarket because we’re self-isolating, we may discover that supermarkets are very low on stocks or that the price of healthy food goes up so high that I can’t afford it. My instant thought was that we need to plant some fast growing veg in our tiny garden (I will, I just don’t have any seeds yet). But then I remembered something vital:

The natural world is full of free, healthy food!

RIGHT ON OUR VERY OWN DOORSTEPS!

How poetic then that the UK government made an explicit point of saying that everyone who is self-isolating (in this country that could well be longer than the 12 week timescale we’ve been given) should still take time to get fresh air and exercise in the outdoors?

You don’t need me to harp on here about why going outdoors is good for your immune system or mental health. I know you have all heard this a million times.

But now we’ve actually got a job to do: we all need to find ways to feed our families without relying so heavily on supermarkets and we need to find ways to live more frugally. Did you hear that? You need to go outside to stay healthy and you need to find a way to get more food into your home without spending any more money.

Have I mentioned that the natural world is full of healthy, free food?

So, I’ve decided to commit myself to the following enterprise: take my children out to find some locally growing food every day. Cook it into a delicious and healthy meal. Share the results with you.

You’ll notice that I’ve added a ‘donations’ button to my pages and all of my blog posts. I won’t be making any money at forest school for the foreseeable future and I hope that if you enjoy my posts on foraging you would consider donating a small amount in exchange for my tips and ideas. I’m not asking for anything huge – (unless you just happen to be a long-lost mega rich uncle of mine who has a couple of million going spare) – just 50p from my regular readers would allow me to buy groceries for me and the boys for a week.

Not that we can actually buy groceries. But you know.

Dandelions

The dandelion is an obvious place to start any foraging adventure; it is easily identified and has no poisonous lookalikes so it provides a first foraging experience in a neat, risk-free bundle. It’s incredible that a green which is so high in the nutrients that our bodies need to fight off infection are currently just lying around being stepped on – or worse, called weeds and chucked in the bin!

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who didn’t know what a dandelion looked like, but should you have been living in your cellar for your entire life, they are a bright yellow, round flower made up of multiple small florets. The leaves have a distinctive repeating arrow shape which grow in a circle, tight to the ground.

Although dandelions are the bane of suburban gardeners and farmers, they’re nutritional power houses. Just a handful of dandelion leaves contains more calcium than a glass of milk, more iron than spinach ad is rich in Vitamins A, C and K. It’s also an excellent boost for the immune system – and I think pretty much everyone is hoping to boost their immunity right now, so get munching.

You can find dandelions pretty much anywhere, but if you’re picking them to eat, you probably want to stay away from the ones next to the road, along a well-used dog-walking route or anywhere that has been sprayed with fertilizers or other chemicals.

Harvest the leaves when they are small and slightly lighter in colour as they will be less bitter than. (Depending on where you live, the best time to find new leaves in late February and throughout March – I guess April too if you live particularly far north).

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Picking dandelions doesn’t need to be a chore, it’s fun to go out and discover them in wild places. When you’re picking early in the year, the flowers probably won’t be out yet so it’s a bit like a treasure hunt finding the circles of leaves on the ground. You’re best to bring a bag or some pockets with you for collecting as small people can be very zealous at this stage in the proceedings!

When you get a good couple of handfuls of leaves picked and everyone is done having whatever fun they are having, it’s time to head home and do some prep. Give the leaves a really good rinse, make sure you pick out and repatriate any rogue snails that have escaped into your house, then roughly chop the leaves.

I made us a delicious pearl barley risotto with our harvest. I’m not a chef so you just have to wing it a bit when you’re reading my recipes. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil with a couple of vegetable stock cubes dissolved in. Once boiling add 400 grams pearl barley and reduce to a simmer for about 20-25 minutes (until cooked through but still retaining a bit of bite and still slightly watery).

About half-way through cooking, shred about 100 grams of peeled sweet potato right into the pot of boiling water. When you’ve got about 5 minutes cooking time left, throw in your chopped dandelion leaves. I’d say grate some Parmesan into it but, if your kitchen is anything like mine at the minute, (No I didn’t stockpile. Yes we are self-isolating. No I did not manage to get a grocery delivery slot.) you’re going to need to do without the cheese. But anyway, yum.

If you enjoyed this foraging recipe, please consider donating. Just 50p per reader would enable me to buy our staple groceries for a whole week!

Trust, not Timetables

Bin the covid-19 lock-down learning schedules and embrace your opportunity to find freedom

I’ve been told by many friends over the years that I’m a ‘do-er’. Sometimes this is presented as a criticism by someone highly sceptical of the wisdom of always doing things. Sometimes it is said with wonder, and a bit of uncertainty, about how I manage to fit it all in. The upshot though, is that they’re right, I am a do-er.

Sometimes my do-ing is necessitated by life: laundry, cleaning toilets, making a million packed lunches. But usually my do-ing is something that I bring on myself because I want to do whatever it is that I’m doing. I want to write this blog so I choose to sit down and write. I want to learn to play the piano so I sit down and practise. I want to make sure that my co-workers have a chocolatey treat to eat on Monday so I set about baking it.

I relish the opportunity to do all of the things that I do because I want to spend my life engaged in activities that fill me, and the people around me, with joy. And that is the gross domestic product of a life spent doing what I want – joy and satisfaction in my life. My schedule is my own, my doing is my choice, I am free to develop my passions and to quit when I’ve had enough.

So, permit me to take a moment to evaluate these timetables, schedules, lists and suggestions that are flooding social media in the wake of the corona virus we’re all self-isolating with our children off school social shift. Plenty of people seem to think that the answer to the question that every home educator has been asked a hundred times, ‘but how do you spend all day together and not get sick of them?’ is by creating a military-style schedule where free play is slotted in between 4:00 and 5:00 pm and later bedtimes are promised for children who don’t fight.

Home education looks very different from one home to the next and nobody can say what’s right or wrong for one family will be right or wrong for another. We home educators all know this and respect these differences, and as such we’re a pretty diverse community who somehow manage to treat each other’s points of view with respect (for the most part).

But one thing I think most of us would agree on is that a period of de-schooling is necessary for any family before they can develop and modify their own routines to suit their own needs. De-schooling, despite its reliance on the word school, is actually a term which suggests a process of shedding the institutionally-bred characteristics of adhering to routine, following orders and completing tasks which have been designed and dictated by others.

Deschooling, a term rooted in the beliefs of Ivan Illich, is the shift from a traditional, government-influenced institution of schooling to a less-restricted method of learning that focuses on being educated by one’s natural curiosities. (OED – because I had a late night last night and they’ve pretty much said everything I was trying to anyway)

To be honest, I think our entire society needs a bit of deschooling; from the person who spends their life working a job they don’t like so that they can pay the mortgage on a house they don’t need and afford a car they only drive to get to the job they don’t like, to the person who tells me that my kids ought to learn to do what they don’t like when they’re young because one day they’re going to have a job where they work for a person they don’t like who makes them do things they don’t like.

The freedom and autonomy that comes from a life where children are given the opportunity to choose how they spend their time is an essential life-force to which every child should be entitled. Not just the privileged ones like mine, whose parents have the wherewithal, the finances and the social capital to make the decision to home educate. Children who are bestowed with those gifts will not grow into a life of drudgery – they will use their compassion and creativity to carve a life for themselves which brings them joy and satisfaction.

And please don’t tell me that your children need the structure or that they will fall behind or that it’s different for you Jenni because you guys are used to it. It’s not. They don’t. They won’t.

Trust me, I was just as schooled – and probably more so – than most of you. I went from pre-school, to school, to university, to grad school, to being a teacher. For 35 years I lived and breathed the school system. Until the day when I decided to stop.

And what a beautiful thing it is to watch children who are fundamentally free of the rigid constraints of the timetables and expectations of the school system. When they want to think deep thoughts, they do – for as long as they want. When they want to play board games with their friends, they go call on some friends and play board games until they’ve had enough (which around here seems to be somewhere between 3 and 5 hours!). When they want to learn to tell the time, they sit and study a watch for 3 or 4 days until they completely understand it. They allocate precisely the exact amount of time that is necessary for them to learn, achieve and enjoy whatever task they’re involved in.

A schedule means doing maths when you might want to be drawing, being told it’s time to finish when you’ve only just got started or having to switch your brain into play mode when actually you really want to go eat your lunch (even if it is 9:30 but this is a whole other issue). Drawing up a timetable where creativity is slotted in between lunch and walking the dog is not going to make children creative. Setting up a craft at night so that children can start being productive first thing in the morning doesn’t take into consideration that actually, they’d like to lay on the sofa and daydream for an hour when they wake.

School closures, lockdowns, isolation, whatever situation you find yourself in, take this opportunity to create something beautiful for your family. Allow them the freedom to choose how they spend their time. By all means, put limits on screentime if that’s what you need to do (I am very rigid about screens and they feature very little in our lives because of that. And no, I don’t believe for even one fraction of one second that I am restricting my children’s freedom by not allowing unfettered screen access – but that’s also a different conversation for a different time.)

You are going to argue with your kids. You are going to watch them arguing with each other. You cannot stop this from happening and nor is it a sign that you are doing something wrong as a parent if your children spend the whole day bickering with each other. They just do that sometimes. Because, you know, they’re human beings.

But setting an expectation that children won’t argue is bound to set everybody up for disappointment. Just like setting up expectations for learning maths between 9:00 and 10:00 is not going to help anyone who just happens to be thinking about dragons and fairies at 9:00.

The most important tool you need at this time of social flux and uncertainty, is the ability to trust in your children. In trusting in the natural curiosity to learn we have watched children in our forest school discover and grow from the most unexpected places, and your children will too.

Trust that they will fill their days with creativity and expression and ideas and inventions without you dictating what they should be doing every hour of the day. Of course you will need to facilitate those opportunities, but for the most part that will mean tearing off bits of tape when requested and being willing to look the other way when they’re attaching toilet paper rolls to the ceiling, not making ‘suggestions’ or directing their play.

Trust that they will learn the things they need to learn to get themselves through the day, whether that’s learning to count change so that they can play Monopoly or learning to multiply fractions so that they can make a triple batch of brownies. So much of what is ‘taught’ in school (particularly when it’s taught to a schedule and not revisited except on one end of unit test and anyway, how many kids do you know that can’t actually tell the time or count back change even though they’ve been going to school for 5 days a week for literally YEARS) can be learned simply by taking part in life; it truly isn’t necessary to force this stuff into their heads.

Trust that they are learning even when they are bickering. They’re learning to explore the boundaries of other people’s tolerance, they’re learning to negotiate and they’re learning about the consequences of one person refusing to compromise. And maybe they’re learning what happens when you hit someone in the top of the head with the claw of a hammer. Take the opportunity, even right in the middle of the storm, to try to see what they are going to learn from that disagreement and then talk about that with them later. Children don’t need to be told not to fight – they need to be helped to see how to fight better so that, as they age, they can focus their frustrations on sensible things like climate change and social justice.

Trust that your children will flourish and grow in an environment filled with trust. Know that your child is an innately creative and imaginative creature who will, when given the space and time, put their powers to use to be creative and imaginative with their time. Believe that all that is good and necessary in this world will come from modelling kindness, patience, passion and empathy.

Trust that if you invest in freedom and trust over the next few months, you will have taught your kids far more of value than you ever would have by sitting them in front of an educational computer game.

Ditch the schedules and give your children the gift of freedom for the coming months. They deserve it. You deserve it. And you’ll all be a lot happier in the end.

When ashes are better than branches

One of the things that I love about my forest school is all of the unpredictable avenues of conversation that take place round the fire whilst the children are off doing Important Things. This week I met a mum who told a story that fitted in so well with my current educational worldview that it was almost as if she’d come along at exactly that moment, to tell exactly that story, just so I could feel assured that I am doing the Right Thing. (Don’t you just love it when that happens?)

Having decided to emigrate, this mum was faced with the task of sorting through several years of her children’s extensive collection of homemade arts and crafts. They were all, no doubt, lovingly created – some presented as gifts, some made to express their thoughts, some as clear representations of the mad fantasy world that exists within a child’s mind. I’m sure that in their own way, each of these pieces of art, having already been selected for saving, represented a special moment in life which this mum relived in melancholy waves of joy and sorrow whilst facing the reality that her babies were growing up.

And yet, she vetted, she thinned, she shook the wheat from the chaff. Eventually she was left with a couple of boxes of indisputably indespensible Art which was then stored for safe keeping in their house which, though unoccupied by humans, was stuffed to the gills with memories and treasure. And then the story took a darker turn.

Emigration achieved, an unexpected phone call informed the family that the house had been ransacked, the boxes of art upturned and used as tinder to set the place alight. The irreplaceable record of her children’s evolving artistic endeavours was incinerated without remorse.

And even though she was crying when she told this story, she said she was happy. Because the decision had been taken out of her hands. The weight of owning ‘things’ had been lightened and somehow she felt that, though it was sad, it helped her to move on with her new life in a new place.

Shame then, that a ten year old did not quite see the simple beauty of being freed from the bonds of possession when he arrived at the woods to discover that his den, the den that had been meticulously and passionately planned and debated and which eventually took the shape of something resembling a den, had been destroyed by thugs (I’m sorry if I just called your child a thug – they’re not – it’s just an expression).

Because for him, that den wasn’t just a den, it was a physical manifestation of his ideas and his plans. Its existence was proof that he was capable of developing an idea and turning it into something tangible. It really didn’t matter if, once built, the den had no practical use and lay abandoned, doomed to become firewood for one of my roaring blazes.

And I get this, I do. Building something – dreaming it, vsualising it, planning it, developing it, testing it, and then setting it loose on the world – is a beautiful thing. But the thing about things is they keep us still – they keep us tied to a place (or an idea or a pair of shoes, or whatever). So if we want to grow and evolve our lives, we have to be willing to walk away from the things.

And even though he’s ten, and even though he was devastated, he found a way to get over it and get on with his day. Certainly it was a harsh start to the morning, but perhaps there’s something vital in having the decision to free yourself from your things taken out of your hands. That mum couldn’t throw away the art. That boy couldn’t dismantle his den. But once someone had done that for them, they were free to get on with other things.

There’s no way of knowing, when you build your den, whether the next people who come along will think it’s amazing and look after it and use it and eventually start to build on it themselves and make it better until it’s the best damn den on earth. Or maybe you leave your den in the woods and the next people who come along jump on the branches and turn it into a bonfire. (I guess if it was a roaring bonfire that might feel a bit better).

But you have to leave it there. Because you can’t take the den with you. You can’t travel the world with ten years of your children’s art in a backpack. You can’t hang onto your ideas and keep them yours and believe that everyone else better just stick with the programme or else.

And even though I’ve promised that I am Absolutely Not going to keep looking for the hidden learning opportunity in every. single. thing. the children do, please permit me to do that for just a moment here.

Surely when your den is wrecked you are learning a most valuable lesson. Out of the destruction of a den comes the realisation that usually when you have to make something a second time it turns out better. Perhaps you also learn that it was the process of creation which inspired you to act rather than the possession of a finished object – and surely it is willingness to create and innovate which gives us pleasure as humans. No doubt you’ll learn that you just can’t take it with you anyway.

If you’re lucky, you’ll also learn to acknowledge that, just as you gained wisdom and pleasure from building the den, someone else will be able to grow stronger and healthier because of what they did with it once they made it their own. (Who knows, maybe a den turned into a bonfire could enable a late night conversation which could spark a great idea which will eventually change the world?)

Have the ideas. Build the stuff. Create the art. Enjoy being in the moment. Embrace the process of creation. And then be glad that you have learned to walk away.

That way it doesn’t matter if someone makes a bonfire of your hard work.

When good people turn violent

When I started using our little woodland for my fledgling forest school business, my youngest son couldn’t walk. He was potty trained there the day I forgot to bring spare nappies. Today he whittled a rudimentary weapon designed, but thankfully not sufficiently robustly, to puncture the tyres of the owners of our woodland.

His best friendships have been made in our little woodland. Great dramas have been enacted there. Friendships built and broken. Loves professed. Games played. The trees have been given names which depend a bit on their purpose and also, just because they have names. Babies have been born (I mean, not actually there, even though I have tried to encourage it) and are now kids who can go off and play on their own. Treasured pets have been brought to our woodland to be laid to rest.

When a bird dies and the carcass is found on the floor, it is given a burial. When a branch falls off a tree it is discovered and repurposed. When the chives start growing in winter, they get stuffed into water bottles and brought home for parents to chop up in potatoes – every year. When a tree is chopped down, we mourn it.

In short, our little woodland is like a second home to the children who’ve known this place just as long as they’ve known anything else. They know its nooks and crannies, its seasonal rhythms, the best hiding places and where they left that spade three months ago. From one week to the next they return to their projects and places – they pick up where they left off as if it was only moments, rather than days, since the last negotiation over territorial rights to that bit of bramble hedge took place.

So yes, they feel like they own the place. And rightly so.

Which would be fine, if it wasn’t actually owned by someone else. A someone else who, despite saying that the only reason they own it is so they can look after it for everyone to enjoy, actually doesn’t seem to do anything but cause our little woodland harm. Trees are chopped down without warning, treehouses are removed with chainsaws, clear-cutting and leaving behind the detritus is not uncommon (although we did use that detritus to make a very fine pine village, thank you very much).

So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the children who love this space, who treat this space like it’s an extension of their own homes, spent a day crafting weapons and devising various schemes to bring torture, illness and ruin upon the owners of our woodland after we arrived today and discovered 5 trees had been chopped down without warning, and seemingly without reason.

They feel like they have to defend their space. Even though it isn’t their space. And it’s pretty obvious to everyone that the people whose space it actually is don’t actually care about it like these kids do.

But they’ve been pushed. They’ve been disempowered. They’ve not been asked how they feel or what they think or what they would be prepared to do to look after the woodland. They’re just treated like spare furniture that just happens to be sitting in the shed when a renovation is getting underway.

The owners of the woodland are too short-sighted to realise that the attitudes of these children, and the rest of their generation, are the attitudes that will shape the health and well-being of this planet for many years into the future. They want to love the land. They want to be the possessors of the land. But they’re being made to feel like intruders. And instead of growing up to be passionate warriors for the environment, all they’re really learning right now is to hate the people who own the land. And all they’re really going to be able to do with that hatred is fight the people that they should be working with to improve all of our lives and the health of our little woodland.

These kids aren’t spare furniture and our little tucked away woodland is not an old shed. It is our home and it is our love. These kids have ideas and ambitions and they should be being respected and consulted – but instead they’re being antagonised by the very people who claim to be trying to protect the land. The powers that be need to take note that these kids are prepared to fight; the adults would do well to get on the right side of the battle.