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The Alligator and the Oak Tree

We're fortunate to receive invites to write for professional and academic publications. We wrote this article for 'The Link' magazine published by YouthLink Scotland as part of their annual conference which focused on Climate Action in 2021.

This edition of The Link is full of inspiring features and advice on how to engage young people in climate action.

[Illustration by Tila McDonald, 2021]




Picture the scene. You have been scratching your head over an energetic group of young people that you are anxious to get on board. The local area manifests challenges of the ilk familiar to most Scottish towns. You believe that experiential learning is fundamental to transforming young people’s lives but recognise how circumstances can be limiting. Recent visits to a nearby woodland have opened some promising discussions about living creatures from bugs to badgers. On hearing that the circus is coming to town, you find yourself contemplating if the owner might bring a baby alligator along to the group so that they can learn more about reptiles…

As far-fetched as this story may seem, the event occurred just a mile from where I am writing this article. Two hundred years ago, Robert Owen a cotton mill manager and social reformer, enthusiastically promoted his notion of a cradle-to-grave education-for-all which he believed would be a catalyst for a new era of a more equal and happy society. In his address to the inhabitants of New Lanark on 1st January 1816 he declared:

“That every individual may be trained to produce far more than he can consume, while there is a sufficiency of soil left for him to cultivate…That nature has provided means by which population may be at all times maintained in the proper state to give the greatest happiness to every individual, without one check of vice or misery.”[1]

By hiring the alligator from the circus Owen demonstrated that rather than being reduced to the four walls of a classroom or the pages of a textbook, learning ought to be filled with rich experiences that excite children and young people. Despite investing heavily in schools and community facilities, he advocated children should spend as much time as possible outside, absorbed in nature and the things around us that spark curiosity.

In the intervening years, education reverted to classroom-based learning, with outdoor playtime separated from schoolwork. Whilst undertaking forest school leader training, I realised how much youth-work, although more informal than mainstream education, had nevertheless assumed a predominance of building-based work. Outdoor education usually required extra funds and was led by specialists as part of an adventure day or residential, often at a dedicated outdoor facility.

One positive to come from the pandemic is that youth work gained a fresh opportunity to re-wild itself, doing activities that anyone can lead using Scotland’s abundance of natural assets. Building on this for the future, youth work can learn from the Scandinavian Forest School model. The principles are closely aligned with youthwork outcomes. They refer to activities taking place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a lifelong relationship between the learner and the natural world. Learner-centred processes are used to create a community for being, development and learning. Holistic development of everyone is central to fostering resilient, confident, independent, and creative learners. It offers the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.[2]

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the gravity of issues which young people currently face: rising youth mental health issues, obesity, reduced levels of physical activity and a shift from child-led free play outside to leisure time indoors and more structured adult-led activities. Therefore, the forest school model can help to strengthen youth-work’s offer to young people and sharpen the skills of our workforce.

During a recent session an experienced forest school leader took out a knife from its sheath. The new group let out a gasp on first sight. He traced the outline of two arches in the mud at our feet and asked if anyone knew what the symbol was?, “McDonald’s” they all cried in unison.

“How do you know that?” asked the leader.

“Everybody knows that symbol” replied a young group member.

The leader then picked up some leaves from the ground and handed them out. Smaller than a human hand, with a distinctive curvy edge, the leader asked what kind of tree the leaves were from? The group fell into a deep silence. Nobody could identify the oak tree we were sheltering under at New Lanark, which incidentally was old enough to have stood since Owen’s time.

During this post-pandemic recovery phase, let us continue to broaden our outdoor youth-work provision. After some initial awkwardness group members will start showing signs of natural curiosity, enquiring about the names of trees and other flora, examining animal droppings and footprints, or digging in the mud and under logs for minibeasts. Some like working with tools, some prefer cooking on the fire whilst others enjoy swinging in hammocks looking up at the tree-canopy above. If Owen is right, it may just lead to happier and healthier people that are more connected to the planet.

Link on the image to view the article and The Link magazine


[1] Owen, R. (1816) An Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark, London. Available in the informal education archives: Last updated Mar 17, 2020. [2] Forest School Association ‘What is Forest School?’


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