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'Under One Tree' - National Forest School Association (FSA) Conference 2019

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

So again we found ourselves, rather unashamedly, sitting around our favourite table in the Black Jug pub in Horsham, feeding off Mary's creativity and wondering if we really could cook on campfires, to feed 300 plus hungry forest school folk, at the National FSA Conference later that year.

From a request put out by the National Forest School Association, a small team of Forest School Leaders from both the Sussex and Surrey Local FSA Groups had come together to create the organising committee for the 2019 annual FSA conference. There were so many things to think about - where? when? size of venue, parking, food, focus of event, title of conference and 'job roles' to name but a few.

A site visit to High Ashurst Outdoor Education Centre left us assured that this was the venue we were all looking for. Located on the top of Box Hill, near Dorking it would be within easy access of the major motorway network, with a train station near by, straight out of London and with brilliant accomodation and facilities, plus to top it all - Ben; who we got to know very well over the course of the year - poor guy.... He must surely now be missing all our emails, phone calls, wierd queries and nagging!! He and his team really did go above and beyond to accomodate our event and to ensure that whatever we requested was, wherever possible, catered for.

So, we had the makings of an event all it needed was a name. Our next mission was to think of the perfect title along with a snappy tag line for our theme of 'Inclusivity'. We also were enlisted to find workshop providers and speakers, evening entertainment, marquee providers.... the list went on. Soon we had emails pinging out across the ether, with responses flying back to inboxes, building not only the excitement but turning a tiny spark into the beginnings of what was to be a rather beautiful and dynamic flame.

Mary - who is by nature not only a very creative thinker, but a very natural leader, had come up with the excellent 'Under One Tree' title, after much Whatsapping between the team over a period of a week or so. She soon established a link with a local primary school in Worthing and set up a logo design competition. The winning design would become the conference logo, appearing on clothing, event publications and social media. Within a shimmy of a birch branch our logo was chosen and one lucky child was set to receive a smaller version of our conference hoody. The logo, once embroidered onto our orange 'Organising Team' hoody, looked like a jewel encrusted broach - a tree standing strong and proud with its lower branches reaching out, seating a row of people on either side of the trunk, gathered under its brightly autumnal coloured leaf canopy - just stunning!

We were essentially a team of Forest School Leaders, some retired and some not so, who were drawing on skills from other aspects of their lives. Connections were being drawn upon and new ones being made and within a short space of time Keynote Speakers had been confirmed and a long list of potential workshop providers was being worked through. By our next Black Jug rendevouz in early Spring, we were well on the way to having more than just a plan set out on that old pub table.

A major consideration was our budget. We had obviously had this strongly in the forefront of our minds from the very outset. Fortunately we had Tina - and it proved that everyone should have a 'Tina' in their lives. For she is a wizard with numbers and proved an incredibly valuable asset to have on our team. Keeping us on track, allowing us to spend within limits and encouraging us to resist urges that were beyond our means. Fingers crossed, from past records, if we could get the bookings in, Tina's paperwork told us we'd be ok.

And so time passed ..... and initially having taken this event on as a national conference, by nature of the speakers and delegates we had attracted, we now found ourselves hosting an event with an international element. Understandably, we also then found ourselves amidst concerns over the issues of climate change and air travel, along with angst of some over having Gatwick as a lead sponsor. There is a strong connection between Gatwick and Forest School in Sussex, for they have funded and supported alot of Forest School training through the last couple of decades, and without them hundreds of children would not have had the nature connection experiences that they have undoubtably benefitted from during their school years. And so we accepted the responsibility on a local FSA level of embracing our sponsor and all welcomed with open arms our visitors from oversees, relishing in the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that they would share with us over our weekend together.

As time drew nearer, the ultra fine details, that just could not be considered in the early stages, were now being ticked off one by one and late afternoon on Thursday 10th October, with bags packed and vehicles filled to the hilt, we travelled to site ready for an early start the next morning setting up, with providers due to arrive early that afternoon and delegates arriving shortly after.

'There's no such thing as bad weather' so we're told, and for certain we definitely do not shy away from rain, but having watched the forecast extensively of the week leading up to our conference weekend, we had all prepared for a very wet weekend indeed. Unfortunately the forecast was not wrong - for once ;) From the moment we arrived on site, until the moment we left the rain fell - we were extremely grateful that there were no accompanying winds to speak of. With waterproofs on and hoods up, with the site prepped and ready to deliver over 60 workshops throughout the weekend, we were ready to welcome our fellow Forest School folk.

Saturday morning came very quickly, following an evening cut slightly short for most by the wet conditions. Niki Buchan our introductory speaker celebrated inclusivity and explored the national and international diversity of Forest Schools and other nature based practices benefitting children; before our keynote speaker Tristan Gooley AKA The Natural Navigator captivated us all with his presentation, introducing us to the ancient skills of natural navigation in a wide range of remote landscapes throughout the world. With the use of clues hidden in our landscape we learnt that by understanding why and how they are living or behaving in their environment, we can navigate our way from A - B .... who knew?

Workshops in both woodland, meadow and a few indoor settings both mornings and Saturday afternoon, took people in all directions to learn, create, discuss, explore and just be. There was an opportunity to meet the National FSA directors and to understand the new Recognised Provider Scheme after lunch on Saturday and the Village Square area - a place for people to chill and enjoy a cuppa or a tipple in the Wildside Bar, drop into a workshop or purchase a 'vintage' tool, was just as we had hoped and open throughout the weekend.

And so back to the what some may say was a ludicrous idea (me included) and other's might say a vision (Mary) .... did we cook over campfires for 300+ people on Saturday evening in the pouring rain? YES WE DID!! It was a challenge for sure, but one that was not going to beat us. As the sun (if only we could see it) went down and the harmonies of Katie Rose's Scratch Choir workshop sung around us, dinner was soon served - vegetarian curries, samosas, scones and a variety of flat breads followed by vaniila sponge with foraged blackberry and apple coulis filled many a stomach and warmed many a heart.

The sounds of Croydon Steele Band lifted the tempo and as we tidied away the aftermath of the outdoor feast, the Grand Hall began to fill in readiness for the Ashdown Forest Band to lead us into an evening of barndancing fun and frolics. It also felt quite a luxury, by this time, to be out of the rain for a couple of hours at least.

The end of the evening saw people retiring to bed - a comfy log cabin for some, while others crawled precariously into tents, trying hard not to bring the wet of the outdoors in. The hardy few hung in hammocks from the trees edging the campsite and others climbed into campervans. Most of our team shared a teepee, which felt rather like a boarding school dorm (not that I'd know what that actually was like but ...) we chatted, laughed, tried to get to sleep and chatted again. With a few hours until we were up for breakfast we finally caught some well earnt zzzzz.

Michael James, author of his recently published book 'Forest School and Autism', Andy Smith and the Brighton based Stay Up Late charity, hosted a discussion forum on Sunday morning offering an insight to life as an adult living with autism and encouraging us all as Forest School leaders to be autism aware within our practice. The forum would have run all morning if we'd let it, the enthusiasm for learning from Andy - a young autistic adult was phenomenal and his aptitude for public speaking and entertaining an audience was enviable.

As all things do, the conference was sadly approaching its end and by lunchtime we were feeling the many hours of hosting the conference catching up with us. With the FSA Directors settled in the marquee for feedback and discussion, a continuation of Saturday's session, we were ready to follow on with the closing ceremony - a rhythm based send off using boomwhackers, expertly and most entertainingly led by Jamie and Virginia Morgan of The Sussex Drum, really was the finale this event truly deserved.

And so.... like all good things they do come to and end - but the memories and camaraderie of a team brought together by a common interest and desire to pass on their passion for nature connection, getting children outdoors playing, learning and having fun will live on for a very long time to come.

Four months after the event and we are still finding reason to sit around that old table at the Black Jug. No, we're not going to plan another event on such a scale for a very long time, but the skills we learnt and connections that we made are not to be wasted and while the iron is hot, we are already planning things for our own Sussex and Surrey Locality groups and other future combined events are also in the offing - 2020 looks like an active year for us and we hope to see you at some of our events very soon.

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