Family Forest Play


Anyone who knows Neiva, knows just how much more relaxed she is when she is outside. She has such an affinity with nature and all its beautiful elements. It’s almost like she can breathe when she’s outside, you can physically see it. Like a release from a prison of air and noise pollution and into a pitch where sights and sounds are soothing and a comfort to her.

More and more research is showing the health benefits of playing in nature. Of course it makes perfect sense when you sit down and think about it. For children with sensory issues modern day living is like you or I going around with an artificial strip light attached to our eyes all day. Contrast that with the serene tranquility of stepping into beautiful woodland. No honking horns, no petrol fumes, no wifi crackling above our heads, just open quiet space. Where all the colours of the forest are restful to the eyes, the sound of rustling trees and beautiful bird song are a delight to the ears and the woody scent of tree bark sail past the nose encouraging an involuntary deep breathe in. Complete relaxation.

Nature’s Footprints Forest Play and Education are a Yorkshire based enterprise doing great work in the local community. We had the pleasure of meeting the very wonderful Jo who runs Natures Footprints. Her dedication passion and enthusiasm just shines though and her love of nature and the children she teaches is just infectious. A former teacher, she trained as a Forest School practitioner in 2007. Her belief in the values and significance of play, in “having the choice to follow your own ideas, be instrumental in assessing and managing your own risks and in understanding the importance of physical, mental and emotional well-being have taken her on a journey she could never have envisioned”. Today’s forest play session took place in the beautiful surroundings of Beaumont Park in Huddersfield.

Firstly, we formed a circle and had a little introduction icebreaker.  The children were then allowed to roam and explore their surroundings almost immediately.

I took a walk into the woods and came out taller than the trees – Henry David Thoreau

The children then all ran off in different directions, running, jumping and even rolling down the hill, safely cushioned by a leaf carpet. Some older children started to make a den. Neiva did her usual thing and explored the perimeter. What I found lovely about the whole lesson was if the children wanted to take part in group activities they could, if the children wanted to explore on their own, that was encouraged too. No rigid rules, no “I talk, you listen”mentality. Complete freedom to roam and discover.

We did all get called together for snack time. The children all sat around a camping stove on fallen logs. Neiva watched excitedly as the popcorn popped on the stove. It was lovely to all get together and hear what the children had foraged so far on their adventure. After snack time, our teacher for today, Lisa explained what we could expect from the next part of the session. Again, these activities were completely voluntary, if the children wanted to take part they could. The activities for this session included:

  • making various bird feeders
  • making a bird hide and observing
  • setting up hammocks between the trees
  • den building

Time really does fly when your having fun because the morning went so quickly and we were sad for it to end. Neiva was too. All the way back to the car we had the song “were going on a bear hunt….a deep dark forest….thick oozy mud…” on repeat and through tears, she was very upset to leave.

We will be back. We will be counting down the days until the next monthly family forest play. Jo believes every child from every background should be able to attend. The cost of Family Forest sessions is just £5 per child plus adult donations. Healthy snacks and drinks and all tools and materials are provided at no extra charge. Jo and her team really do this solely out of complete love of what they do and the children they teach.

What To Bring

  • Waterproof coat and boots
  • A change of clothes
  • A small lunchtime snack (although snacks and drinks are provided)

If you are interested in taking part in Family Forest Play or any of the other of the outdoor learning events and live in the Yorkshire area, please contact Jo or follow on facebook to keep up to date with the various upcoming events.

“WH” Question Training…

It is common among children with hyperlexia that they particularly struggle to answer the “wh” questions; what, where, why, when and who.

With Neiva, in every day speech we use statements rather than questions. This is fine for the meantime as it enables her to communicate her needs to us but obviously she does need to be taught to understand this particular area for her long term development.

In the same way other children need to learn to read and write, Neiva has to be taught to understand and respond to “wh” questions.

I downloaded 100 “WH” question flip cards by TeachersPayTeachers and printed them onto card. I then made a green “correct” coin for Neiva to place over the right answer and of course being a superstar reader, she read the questions beautifully.

The only downside I can see to this is that I will have to find new questions sooner rather than later, as she will quickly memorise the answers.

Nevertheless, it made for an interesting afternoon activity and if we have a little practice everyday I feel we will see major improvements in her comprehension of what “wh” questions are and how to incorporate them into daily life.

Neiva does have iPad apps that do the same thing,  however I wanted to take some time away from the iPad as it can be very isolating for her. This way it felt more like teamwork between the two of us, which only adds to improving her social skills.


Homemade Bird Feeders

Despite living in a noisy little town, our house resides on a hill that backs on to a steep bank filled with trees, a haven for wildlife. It was the perfect setting to take part in the RSPB’s big garden bird watch over the weekend.

I ordered our free pack some weeks back which, coupled with a few ideas from Pinterest, gave us all the ammunition we needed to get started.

Bird Feeder #1
For this we needed;

  • twine
  • cardboard toilet roll inner tube
  • peanut butter
  • wild bird seed

Using a butter knife we coated the tube with peanut butter until completely covered. Under close supervision from Enid, Neiva then rolled the tube in the wild bird seed. We then  threaded through the twine and hung outside.

To make the second bird feeder below, we needed to first make the suet cakes which ideally need to be done the night before so they can set completely in the fridge. It really was so simple to make and the finished effect looked lovely.

Suet (Lard) Cakes
For this we needed;

  • a packet of lard
  • an old baking tray
  • wild bird seed
  • twine
  • cookie cutters (we used hearts and stars)

Melt a full packet of lard gently. Add enough bird seed to coat thoroughly. Thread through the twine and ensure the two ends meet at the top. Transfer to the cookie cutters packing them down nice and tight. Leave in the fridge overnight to set. In hindsight I would have not used stars as they were quite difficult to remove once set. I would have also laid them on grease proof paper as they did stick to the tray.

Bird Food Garland
This was a little bit more complex but Neiva did love making this. For this we needed:

  • a bamboo stick (or a dry twig)
  • twine
  • two apples
  • suet (lard) cakes
  • small heart cookie cutter

Slice the apples into thin slices and use the small heart cutter to cut a hole in the middle. Thread the twine through the hole (we did rows of three) Remove the suet cakes from the cutters and tie to the bamboo along with the apple slices.

We did enjoy counting the different types of birds on the sheet and look forward to reporting our findings to the RSPB. Poor Enid not so much. Not only did she have the local squirrel to contend with, she had to deal with extra visitors to her garden this weekend.

If you want more information on why the RSPB carry out an annual survey on local birdlife, please click here.


Hyperlexia, Pooh Bear & Other Stories

Hyperlexia –  A precocious, self-taught ability to read words which appears before age five, and/or an intense fascination with letters, numbers, shapes…accompanied with significant difficulty in understanding and developing oral language.

A self taught reader before the age of five has got to be a great thing, right? It is great and we are immensely proud of her, however this advanced reading ability is in direct contrast with her difficulties understanding spoken language.

Unlike other children, hyperlexic children don’t learn language in the usual way. The way a typical child would learn language is a progression of sounds to words and then to sentences. Instead, hyperlexic children, who have amazing visual and auditory memories, memorise phrases, sentences and even entire conversations. It’s this memory that then helps them to learn language.

The repetition of phrases and sentences without understanding the meaning is known as “Echolalia” and is something Neiva has been doing most of the time when communicating her thoughts and feelings with us. We are so glad she has used echolalia to communicate with us, especially in the early days. It helped us work out what she was trying to say.

The majority of the time, when Neiva uses echolalia, fortunately, it is in context. However, we are using the technique of giving her key phrases to memorise to try and weed out the odd few comfort phrases she would repeat that have no context. For example, when she was frustrated or angry, she would say “snap! I win again!” (A Charlie & Lola phrase) and stamp her foot. When she does this, we know to tell her:

  • What the emotion she is feeling (“Neiva is feeling frustrated” or “Neiva is feeling angry/cross”)
  • What she should say instead (“I am feeling cross” or “I am feeling frustrated”)
  • What she needs to do to feel better (take a deep breath and blow the angry away/give mummy a hug)

This ritual is crucial for her to remember. The more she does it, the easier it will be for her to communicate that emotion to us and more importantly, know how to deal with that particular emotion independently.

Her love of letters and numbers has followed her to the choice of films she watches. Winnie the Pooh is a particular family favourite. We watch it often on our family movie nights. It is so gentle and simple with catchy songs.

What I love about the 2011 film, is that words in the book play a role in the story. Neiva loves this. I do feel the storybook setting that features throughout play a major role in loving this film.

Just tonight, after a bedtime story, we snuggled down to watch Pooh at Neiva’s request, laughing loudly at the part where he is so hungry, everything he sees turns to honey, including the words of the book the narrator is reading “honey honey honey honey honey”.

As I am typing this, Neiva is almost asleep. The credits for the film are still rolling. (We have to watch the credits roll up until the end, another hyperlexia trait) She stirs “Pooh bear again please mummy” she sighs quietly and slowly starts to sleep gently.

“Night night my little bear”

Can Our Children Be Friends?

Children are so perceptive in ways we adults really are not. They are also very tolerant of differences, more than we ever give them credit for. They ask the most honest of questions purely out of curiosity and complete openness.

That said, I’ve seen situations where children have tried to make friends with Neiva and been really upset when they get no response, and then asked why, usually very loudly, in front of the poor parent, who then feels awkward and gets in an unnecessary fluster. In all honesty, if the roles were reversed, I would feel exactly the same in their shoes. However, it really doesn’t take a complicated explanation. Simple and honest always works best.

A Quick Get Out Clause
Sometimes, during play dates or at the park, there just isn’t time to properly sit and explain to your child why Neiva is acting differently, “shes not listening to me” “she wont play with me” “she wont stop singing” these are common complaints I hear regularly in a play situation. Kids themselves are in play mode and just want a simple answer to a question. So for those occasions, any of these quick responses will suffice:

  • “say excuse me and make sure she can hear you”
  • “maybe she wants to play by herself”
  • “why dont you join in and sing”

And for the ultimate get out clause and the response I love the most…. “why dont you ask her mummy” I love this one because it completely takes the pressure off the parent.

Making it lighthearted and straightforward is a great sense of relief for any parent with a child with any kind of reduced social interaction. To be honest, I could quite easily become a hermit and never venture out, it would be so much easier. No anticipation or dread, no panic. That would certainly make life easier for me but it would not be helping Neiva in the long term. Neiva loves the park, she loves being outside, I would be depriving her of her own little piece of happiness just so I could avoid potential confrontation and I’m not prepared to do that. Ill do it because I love her completely and her needs must come first.

What if your child asks about autism and you have the time to explain in more detail?

Explaining Autism to a Child (the long-winded version)
Below is a list of simple ways to explain autism to your child.

  • It is not a disease and is not contagious. You cannot catch autism. (Some children do have this worry)
  • They may not talk very much but that doesnt mean they dont understand what you are saying
  • They may have to play with the same toys over and over again. This is ok, it makes them feel calm and safe.
  • Some do not see, hear, or feel things the same way we do, loud busy noises, sights and sounds may be too much for them.

The “Statement” Technique
With Neiva, she doesnt understand “wh” questions. What, where, who and why. If you want Neiva to hear you, give her clear simple commands. Always start by saying ‘Neiva, look at me” (and when she looks) rather than ask her a question say what you want her to do ‘lets play in my bedroom/here is a drink,/here is a biscuit/lets get our shoes on and play outside” (her cousins are naturally particularly good at this)

Using statements rather than questions hasn’t come easy to us so don’t expect your child to get it first time. Its the effort that counts.

I have the ability to see the world differently while loving everyone in it the same, what’s your superpower? – Neiva

Playdate Interaction Winners!
rather than try and converse, if she is playing with bricks for example, sit alongside her and copy what shes doing and talk generally about what you are doing “today I am building a very tall tower, it has 12 bricks and the colours are….”

  • make sure she can hear you
  • short simple statements (not questions)
  • join in with her singing (I hope you know all your nursery rhymes)
  • play ball catch (shes really good)

Just a little side note for parents/adults
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Neiva’s comprehension. She understands and takes in everything she hears whether its directly spoken to her or not. The temptation is to speak to her as though she doesn’t understand English, slow and loud (and even in one instance, with a slight accent) Please don’t do this. Talk to her in a normal tone of voice. As long as she can hear you and is not distracted by loud noises or in a busy room with lots of different voices and sounds and smells, she will try and respond. I think as humans we associate response with listening, so if we don’t get a response we conclude that person isn’t interested in what we have to say. Unfortunately, responding to conversation isnt something that comes naturally to an child on the spectrum. In the same way we have had to learn to read count and write, Neiva is having to be taught how to read social cues. She will get there, like learning anything new, it will just take time.

Finally, we really do appreciate the effort our family and friends are doing already to communicate with Neiva. We know that you love her very much and we are very grateful for that. Thank you.

L x