Who Goes Down to the Woods Today?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Last century, when we were children, we were lucky enough to spend our childhood living in the country where the woods were at the bottom of the garden. Playing in them was an integral part of our lives. Discoveries and adventures were on the daily agenda and in all weathers we ventured into those woods.


This is where we discovered that digitalis came from foxgloves. Did people with heart problems come and eat these flowers, we wondered as ten year olds?!  Dead foxes were inspected to see why they had died, if the local hunt hadn’t been through that week. All manner of tree houses were built and wood fires were made to cook our flour and water concoctions.


Wonderful childhood.   How lucky we were.


Nowadays it’s a different story.  Most children in the western world have hardly any contact with nature.   Too many dangers?   Too much anxiety on the parents’ part?  Lots of city children have never even seen a live chicken or cow!   But even children who don’t live in the cities and could go into the countryside, just don’t   It doesn’t seem to be a natural thing anymore to turf your children out of the house to go and play in the woods as it was during our day. Hence, children who are housebound and glued to televisions or computer screens have a lot of unleashed physical energy bottled up which is often transformed into frustration or even agression. A lot of parents don’t have time to sit down and talk to their children which means that kids often use attention seeking behaviour.


So why are we talking about all this? Because Kheli Italiano, who is a qualified Forest School Practitioner, and a Colour Therapist, has started up this lovely Forest School Association, together with her husband, in Sant’Ambrogio. She has been practicing in this field for over 20 years.  Carmelina is her secretary, helper and booking agent for the project and also ferries the children from the village, who follow the course, up to the woods of Guarneri where Kheli holds her school.


Kheli and her Forest School children


Kheli, who is of Sicilian origin, was born in Basel, Switzerland where she grew up. She has also lived in the UK for 20 years. Now she has come back to her roots to launch her Forest School. She worked with the children throughout the winter, using her own books on colour therapy, introducing them to movement through colours. In the UK Forest Schools are very well established but here  they are virtually unheard of and hers is very much a pilot scheme.


So what exactly is a Forest School?  The philosophy is to use the forests and woods as a means to bring children into contact with nature  so as to build independence and self-esteem.   Emphasis is also put on teamwork and problem solving. It promotes curiosity and exploration with all of the senses, empowering children in the natural environment, encouraging spatial awareness, motor development and  emotional intelligence. But it is also a lot more than just this.


The day I went up to see them all in action there was a group of eight children aged around 8 to 12 years.  They had already done the first activity of finding the boundaries, which Kheli had marked out with white flour. Were they learning that there are limits in life?


The dragon game



Then came the dragon game. The children have already established a fairy kingdom in the wood and the dragon has destroyed the fairy houses and taken the keys away from their realm so the kids need to get them back to take repossession of the fairy kingdom.   One child was blindfolded and sat on a fallen tree trunk representing the dragon. She or he had the keys to open up the realm and the other children had to silently creep up on him/her and snatch them away without being sprayed with water by the key keeper.


Here they were learning to control their excitement by being as quiet as possible (no mean feat for these children!) when creeping up on the dragon and its rider.  Kheli also studies their behavioural attitudes. She has some children who are particularly hyper-active.   Even if she has a set programme for the day, Kheli privileges the childrens’ ideas and intitiatives and then works her own into them. She also inspects the area every morning before the session just to make sure there are no hidden dangers or obstacles or other people’s litter around the play area.


To one side of the tree-trunk-dragon  is a roped off area with a small stone wall around a tree where the children are allowed to go in and start beating the living daylights out of the stone wall with a stick, thus  releasing all their pent up frustrations before the start of the day.   In a previous class Kheli had observed a child expressing himself in this way so decided to designate a safe area for them to release their energy if necessary.  I can imagine a lot of adults would welcome a bit of this therapy too!


A bit further down the path are another two parallel ropes strung between trees where the kids put their feet on the bottom rope and hang on to the top, wiggling and moving about so as to learn balance. A lot of children, and even adults, don’t know how to walk over uneven or rocky ground without losing their balance.


So now we were in Fairyland and the children showed me the little houses they had built for the fairies. The kids all seemed to have their own personal duties. One was a moss collector. Another went looking for sticks and stones to make furniture out of.   A shier child performed tasks that the more dominant partner  told her to do. We could immediately see who had the leader potential and who didn’t.


One mother who accompanies the group, and who grew up in Switzerland, so knows her forests!, has her own tasks and never interferes with what the kids are doing. She thought the project was absolutely brilliant as one of her sons was hyper-active and they had already seen a great difference in his behaviour at home.   Her child had always had problems relating to other children. He lived in a world of his own where integrating with other children, especially those he did not know, did not come easily to him.   Often he felt misunderstood and in frustration, would lash out at them. She felt that he was so much more calm and relaxed and had completely stopped hitting the other children.


As I was photographing the fairies’ houses….. (will you put the one of me on me on my Facebook wall, said 9 year old Elisa!)…..I listened to her and Carlotta discussing whether it would be better to put the moss as a mattress…….Softer to sleep on……Or whether to use it as a bedcover…….Warmer at night……and wouldn’t it be better to put the wild flowers they had picked, along the path up to the house rather than all over the moss lawn………..Didn’t they need some sort of  barrier protection from the dragon………Yes……..Fern fronds were quickly brought and intertwined to form the dragon barrier.


Little Simone, instead, proudly showed me his fairy house which was the only one with a garage. Otherwise, where were we supposed to park the Fairymobile…..silly!


Just think what all the other kids in the village were missing, probably glued to video games on their tablets when, instead, they could have been protecting the fairies from the dragon up here in the woods. This sort of children’s game just doesn’t come naturally anymore.


Watching and listening to the children play in the woods with absolutely no equipment other than their own imagination and curiosity and perhaps the odd spider and ants nest which they were coming to terms with too, was heartwarming and refreshing and certainly something that I hadn’t  experienced for a long time.


Well done Kheli and we wish you every success with your Forest School project here in Sant’Ambrogio.


If you are interested in finding out more about this, just contact Carmelina directly and she will put you in touch with Kheli to organise your children while you are all on your family holiday here.


The balancing rope


Building the Fairy Houses

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