At the young age of 21, Kate Milman temporarily suspended her English degree studies at the University of East Anglia to partake in the Newbury bypass protests. Taking up residence in a treehouse in the path of the bulldozers, Kate lived there for months, living closely with the nature surrounding her. This experience led Kate to start Wild Things, a workers’ cooperative that offers children hands-on experience with nature.
On a day at Bestwood Country Park, one of the many locations where Wild Things operates, Kate and her colleague are dressed in clothes that resemble those of forest school practitioners. The concept of forest schools, which emphasizes imaginative play in a woodland setting, developed in the UK in the 1990s. The alternative form of schooling has gained popularity in recent years as a form of opposition to the strict national curriculum.
When discussing forest schooling, people often say the concept is "middle-class and white", but the group of children attending Wild Things that day are from diverse backgrounds. All members of an "English as a second language" group from Forest Fields primary and nursery school in central Nottingham, the children have arrived in the UK from various countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Romania, and Syria- some of them from refugee camps. Their teaching assistant, Yasmin Khaliq, who speaks five languages, has been bringing groups to Wild Things for nine years.
As the children run ahead through the woods, Kate’s calls evoke the sounds of the wildlife around them. They come running back in response, eager to explore and discover more. One child, Mohammad, is sprinting uphill, and a little Syrian girl, Amira, radiates joy. Wild Things offers these children a new and unique way to experience the natural world.
The nine children are full of energy, reminiscent of a group of puppies ecstatically playing outdoors for the first time. Kate and I make our way to the Wild Things base camp, while the children excitedly run ahead of us, exploring the surroundings with the inquisitiveness of chickens. They investigate the branches, tree stumps, and clippers available on a tarpaulin laid out on the ground.
When Kate isn’t taking the children to camp, she scours for charitable funding, as the only way to provide sessions for pupils from cash-strapped state schools is by offering them for free. The Wild Things team manages to survive on a small co-op "share" wage. Kate lives with Nick and their eight-year-old son in a small rural housing co-op. They travel in a battered high-top Transit filled with tools like bow saws, loppers, clippers, ropes, tarpaulins, plastic mugs, hot chocolate, and other essentials such as children’s wellies and wool gloves since the students often lack outdoor-appropriate clothing.
The pupils gather around the fire circle, where Kate, Kath, and Kat (the three Ks) show them how to use saws and loppers and explain the day’s activities. The children pick their own adventure, a child-led approach that’s intended to offer an alternative to conventional didactic, adult-led education, which doesn’t provide opportunities for children to be wild animals. Ten-year-olds are "at that stage of development where they need to feel liberated and free," explains Kate.
Today, the students can choose to learn how to use bows and arrows, build a fire and cook on it, or lay a trail, hide and have another group track them down. Kate and her colleagues discover the infinite creative thought span and willingness of children to express themselves in the woods, with each child responding to the place in their unique way. One boy decides to build a gym, another a mask, while a girl spins a fable about a frog and a turtle crossing her path.
I accompany Kat and three young girls – enthusiastic Amira, Homa, a Pakistani girl, and Cristina, a Roma Gypsy from Romania with a long plait, dressed in a purple jumpsuit and a shiny purple padded jacket – on a mission to lay a trail of arrows made from sticks through the forest to hide in a spot where the other group members can seek them out.
As we twist along a narrow path, passing a tree stump covered in gleaming bracket fungus, Beech leaves shine with an orange luminosity on the forest floor. Cristina is thrilled, gasping with excitement. She didn’t even speak last week, according to Kat.
Breaking a large stick into arrow pieces is no simple task for me, but Homa finds my struggle amusing and teases me, "Cristina is stronger than you."
Wild Things has served with many migrant children who grew up in rural areas, a discovery for me as I previously assumed that refugees mostly came from cities. Meanwhile, British-born city children belong to a country called Indoors and are not familiar with playing in the woods. They are curious about things like mud, and ask questions such as "Why are there so many trees here?" In contrast, rural children from overseas are often restricted to city-center flats in the UK, and their questions like "Are there elephants?" or "Are there deadly snakes here?" stem from their experiences in their countries of origin. Many feel the woods bring about lost memories and a longing for home. "As soon as we light a fire, they say, ‘Ah, I know this,’ or they point to a plant and get really animated. They are in their element," remarks Kate.
As we gather around the fire, the children excitedly discuss their plans for the upcoming week. Sanaya suggests building a wooden house, reminiscing about the times she used to build stick houses in Pakistan while her grandmother would make a fire just like this. The children seem to love being in the woods, and when asked about what they enjoy the most, Homa answers "everything" including playing hide-and-seek, the warmth of the fire, and baking bread. Adnan fondly recalls playing with his cousins in Syria, which was similar, except with less trees.
As the day comes to an end, Cristina expresses her reluctance to leave and eagerly asks Kate if they can come back again. Kate reassures her that they will return in seven days, but Cristina looks disappointed at the prospect of waiting so long. However, she joins the rest of the group who excitedly run back down the hill towards the minibus that will take them back to the city and their new homes.
Kate and her team of Wild Things workers feel the burden of the children’s longing to stay in the woods. The program enhances the children’s lives by teaching them to fall in love with nature, but it’s difficult to measure the improvements in their confidence, self-esteem, friendships, and behavior. Although forest school is relatively new, there is a wealth of scientific research demonstrating its benefits for mental and physical wellbeing, as well as growing evidence pointing to its specific benefits for education.
Studies indicate that outdoor learning can improve physical activity levels and attentiveness in children. It can also lead to better academic outcomes, as shown by a three-year study of primary school pupils who attended weekly forest school sessions. However, forest school teachers are aware that their program offers only a glimpse of the magic of nature to children who spend most of their time inside. They hope that their program instills a love for nature that the children can carry into their later lives.
In conclusion, the children leave the woods with memories of the fun they had but also with a newfound appreciation for nature. They may not have easy access to green spaces, but they know that the woods are there whenever they need a break from the hustle and bustle of city life. The Wild Things program may be just a small part of their childhood, but it has the potential to make a significant impact on their lives.
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