I am delighted to bring you this interview with Rachel Stevens who runs Little Gulls Beach and Forest School in Kent, UK. Rachel is a creative, warm, driven mama who is bringing some really inspiring projects to life, and I am so pleased to share this conversation with you.
Can you introduce yourself and your family?
Hello! Our family are myself, Rachel, my husband, Jon, 4 year old Sebastian, 19 month old Natalie and two fat cats. We live in Deal, a little seaside town on the East Kent coast. I’m an Early Years Practitioner and Forest & Beach School Leader. I do educational outreach work for for our local Wildlife Trust and I have recently started my own Beach & Forest School practice called ‘Little Gulls’.
What is it that you love about the Forest School philosophy?
Such a good question! A cornerstone of the Forest School philosophy is that it is for all and I think one of the first things I felt, when I first discovered Forest School was that it wasn’t just for my son, it was also for me. The Forest School we used to go to near Reading was the first place, as a new parent, that I felt was a Site of Mutual Fulfillment for both my child and I and this is something I always strive to achieve with my own parent/ and child groups. Though equally, I also love the fact that Forest School is driven by the learners – no matter of age. A true Forest School programme is shaped by the participants. Learner-centred education is something that is increasingly rare in the UK, even in the Early Years, and it’s a real loss because I believe this is the key to empowering people to be involved in their own learning for life.
You recently launched a Beach School which looks amazing and makes me want to move to the Kent coast! What made you choose the beach as your location?
I’m obsessed with the coast! It’s my favourite place in the world and I’ve dreamt of living and working by the coast all my life. However, I do believe the coastline, like woodlands, is an incredible educational resource – the fauna, the flora, the geology, the colours, the textures, the smells… There’s just so much to stimulate the senses and so much to engage with. And who doesn’t love playing on the beach?
You recently told me you’d been exploring the crossover between the Forest School and Montessori philosophies. Can you tell me a little bit about this?
The two philosophies could seem to be quite far removed from each other, because the Montessori approach can be perceived by being a lot more formalised than Forest School. However, Montessori’s foundations for learning were centred around care for the environment, care for oneself as an individual and care for others in the community and this has so many parallels in Forest School, which strives to develop a life-long connection with the natural world but also resilience, self-esteem and respect. Montessori believed in ‘following the child’ and in Forest School learning is initiated by the participants, so both philosophies strive to build intrinsically motivated learners who have ownership and feel valued in their learning experiences. Plus Montessori was a pioneering advocate of children spending time in nature.
What is your one “must have” piece of kit when heading out to play outdoors?
Suitable shoes! There’s not much worse than being held back from having fun because of inappropriate footwear. That’s probably good advice for life really…
How important is suitable clothing for the children? Is there anything you recommend they should wear?
Working outside with children all year round, I can confirm that the adage about there being no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing is completely true. Apart from boots (see above), my children’s most used item of outdoor clothing are waterproof dungarees-style trousers. They keep you dry, you can layer up underneath them in the cold, but you can also wear them over shorts and t shirt if you are at a muddy festival in the Summer. I’m still seeking an adult-sized pair.
Are there any tips you could give to parents who would like to spend more time outdoors with their children, but perhaps don’t know where to start?
The easiest thing to do is just to head out for a walk with no pre-determined agenda. Go out for a suburban safari. See where your child takes you, you’ll be amazed what they see and what takes their interest. Children are amazing at spotting details, because they love exploring outdoors for it’s own sake, so you’ll probably see nature you’ve never noticed before, even on your own street.
What is your favourite thing to do outdoors with your own young children?
Going to the beach with my kids, skimming some stones and eating chips out of paper. Simple pleasures.
Has anything about leading outdoor play sessions surprised you?
That even very small children can really flourish when they have the freedom to make decisions and choices. Both my children have gone to Forest School before they could walk and they have benefited so much from this kind of first-hand experience.
Lastly, what are your favourite children’s books with an outdoor theme?
For Under 5s and their grown ups, it has to be ‘Du Iz Tak?‘ by Carson Ellis – the illustrations are exquisite alone, but once you decipher the insect’s language you can’t escape their beautiful world.
Thanks so much Rachel! Find Little Gulls on Facebook here: www.facebook.com/littlegulls