By Josie Gritten
“Forest School…” calls the leader.
“Caaaamps.” Chime in 119 other voices
We’re in a field. Cold, wet, muddy. It’s the middle of a Welsh summer. And there’s a hurricane coming.
We’re getting ready to batten down the hatches. To make sure that everything is ship-shape, pegged down and ready for the coming storm. And we go at it with a will.
I see a stocky four-year-old dragging a heavy spade; helping a group of camp elders to dig a new fire pit. Six-year-olds hold down flapping canvas – hair and voices whipped wild by the rising wind. Groups of enthusiastic teenagers singing rousing sea shanties as they stack up wood for the fire – a human chain of grinning kids pulling together for the benefit of the community.
And as I look around me I’m filled with such wonder and gratitude for this – the pulling together of each individual for the benefit of the whole. It’s challenging. It’s glorious. And it works.
In Forest School Camps we call this The Good of The Lodge.
I grew up like this. No ‘normal’ annual family holiday for us – just Forest School Camps. Two weeks of every year spent camping in all weathers. Food cooked on open fires in old army six gallon pots. Kids divided into age groups with strange names like Pixies, Elves, Woodlings, Trailseekers, Trackers and Pathfinders. A couple of people from each group brought together each day to be ‘on clan’ – to cook for the whole ‘lodge’. Huge evening campfires where we all sat and sang sea shanties, folk songs, 60s protest songs. Two weeks of gloriously being myself – letting go of the “me” I had to be at school to fit in. Two weeks of living outdoors, making life-long friendships, overcoming challenges and coming together for The Good of the Lodge.
Forest School began as a progressive educational establishment in 1930s England and drew its philosophy from Native American teachings, the Woodcraft Movement and Quaker beliefs. An emphasis was placed on everyone learning to work and play together whilst being close to nature. The school closed during the Second World War, but, in 1948, former staff and pupils came back together to continue nurturing the original ethos in a new format – Forest School Camps (FSC).
My grandmother had attended those early camps and enjoyed them so much that she introduced her sons (my father and uncle) to FSC. They loved it and it became a huge part of our family’s life, informing so much of who I am and how I interact with the world.
The FSC website states: ‘Our education is about discovering for oneself how to do something rather than being told in the abstract. The outdoor demands and encourages learning.’
It’s midnight. It’s very dark and very, very wet. Water is sheeting down the hill behind us. Thunder rumbles all around. I’m up with the other night-owls; those of us who sat up late around the fire – talking, laughing, singing. The storm came in full force and it is formidable. The river is rising; threatening to flood the Woodlings’ tents. We grab picks, shovels, storm lanterns and set to. We’re digging a trench around their site – 20 tents of sleeping 9-year-olds (and a couple of still-snoring adults!). Silently, grimly, we dig; slowly making progress, diverting the rush of water from the slumbering kids. I look up, catch someone’s eye and we grin wildly. There’s such a joy in this – the rain, the mud, the determination, the teamwork, the success.