A beautiful experiment!

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It can often feel as though much of what happens at Little Forest Folk is from using my own children as guinea pigs. Any time we consider introducing anything new to the forest, any time we want to try out how the children feel about something, we use my children. With the ever-looming spectre of ‘mummy guilt’, this can sometimes make me feel a bit guilty, but on occasions, the beauty of our experiments just blows me away.

Due to our work towards opening our primary school, I find myself these days often attending conferences, workshops and debates about education. Some of these are inspiring, some of these are a bit depressing and others are interesting. I attended a workshop last week, which was thought provoking. It was a visit to a school in North England which is trying to bend the concept of primary school education, whilst still fulfilling their government requirements. The interesting part of this day came when we were banded into groups of head teachers, teachers (and me!) to work through some tasks. Now these are really forward-thinking teachers and head teachers, by the very fact that they are attending this workshop.

The question asked at one stage was ‘how do you motivate your children?’. We were asked in our groups to produce 9 post-it notes with details of how we motivate our children. Something that became very quickly apparent was that Little Forest Folk is utterly unique. Following a discussion, I had to bow out of this task as our methodology is so different to others. Most other methodology of motivating children were attempts to entice compliance or coercion. Bandied about were ‘bribery’, ‘stickers’, ‘telling the children to do it’, amongst many others, including some nice things that we also do, like role modelling.

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What interested me so much in this discussion is the deeper methodology in play here. Everyone else was talking about how they motivate their children to join in with activities, tidy up etc. Little Forest Folk are incredibly different here in that we don’t motivate the children. We work hard to provide the conditions in which the children motivate themselves. That’s the key to success in our eyes. If children are self-motivated, they have such higher levels of wellbeing and the depth of curiosity, learning and development potential is limitless. To us, if we have to motivate children to join in with an activity, then there’s something wrong with the activity. The activity needs to be worked on and changed, not the children worked on to get motivated. 

Some of the elements we use to create our environment of sparking self-motivation were unfathomable to others. A very important part of what we do is encourage empathy. Teachers at the workshop asked how on earth empathy can be used as a tool for motivation, what good is empathy? It’s true that empathy is not much help in motivating children, but oh the power of empathy for self-motivation is incredible. Do you want children who tidy up because they want to earn a sticker? Or do you want children who tidy up because they recognise themselves as responsible members of a community and who want to play their part in society?

We had a moment this week in our family. A small but significant moment which made me in conjunction with the above workshop day, feel incredibly privileged that my 4 year old son is fortunate enough to be spending his early years in an environment that values personal development above academia, that encourages empathy and compassion and helps him to become the best he can be.

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It was that lovely time of day we call the witching hour in our household, that hour towards the end of the day when for tired little children life can be a bit…. challenging. Jack wanted a sweet treat, something we don’t overindulge in and therefore was not an option for him at the time. In his exhausted state, he declared (rather shockingly as this behaviour is very rare) ‘Mummy I hate you’. I was busy with our baby so couldn’t go immediately to talk to him about this. I finished changing the nappy and went to the kitchen to see Jack just finishing a drink and a banana. I popped Indie on the floor and immediately had Jack jump into my arms. He wrapped his whole body around me and said ‘Mummy, I don’t hate you. I love you so much. I love, love, love you. It’s just that sometimes I get really angry and words come out of my mouth that I don’t mean. But then sometimes, did you know Mummy, if I have a drink or something to eat I’m not angry any more’. He’s 4 years old. Maybe I was a late developer but I didn’t acquire this level of self-awareness until I was in my 20’s!

He followed this up with ‘But mummy, can I make you a cup of tea? I’m so sorry Mummy, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings’. Even when I assured him that I understood, my feelings weren’t hurt and I loved him too, he was still insistent ‘But Mummy if you don’t want tea, can I get you something? Can I draw you a picture?’.


How lucky are we? How incredibly fortunate that Jack at an age where many children in schools I visited are swinging back on chairs, on the floor, displaying clear signs of not being at all engaged in their ‘learning’, is in an environment where he’s fully engaged all of the time and where he’s focusing on developing the empathy and self-awareness that allow him to become a truly exceptional boy.

Of course, I’m pleased about the fact that my 4 year old boy can count easily to 100, can add, subtract and multiply with ease. It makes me laugh in disbelief that he knows the mathematical symbol for infinity. Of course, I’m happy he adores books and is enjoying early literacy with his writing. But what makes my heart sing, what I’m overjoyed about and what matters more than anything else is his development in life skills. He’s compassionate, he’s independent, he’s empathetic and he’s resilient. He’s self-motivated, he’s curious, he’s confident and above all else, he’s kind.  

I am so happy that Jack is lucky enough to attend Little Forest Folk. That’s he’s part of a world where kindness and life skills are valued above academia. Where he’s learning to become a part of community and to be a wonderful member of society.

Thank you, Little Forest Folk!