Children with special needs. So different from their healthy peers that I still find it difficult to grasp. They do not complain about the long paths leading through the forest; they smile all the way. They do not complain about school or demanding homework. They are not afraid of challenges and enjoy life even though it has not spared them. They are contagious and quickly adopt you, so you have no choice but to like them from the first moment you meet them. I am already looking forward to all of our future meetings in the forest. 

I arrive at the school at the appointed hour. Not just any school, but the Jelo Janežič Primary School for children with special needs. I have arranged a trip to the forest with their teacher Vesna, a special educational needs teacher. I have been preparing for it for quite some time; seeing that I do not know much about the field of special needs education, I had to read a great deal of literature on the topic. Armed with all of my (lack of) knowledge and a rucksack, I find myself in a classroom with five children, ages ten to fourteen.
In the locker room we dress appropriately for the weather and the forest. We, the adults, help them to put on their forest shoes (hiking boots), because those awkward shoelaces are simply too long. They help one another to zip up.

Bor, Andrej, Klara, Ela and Jure are my forest bunch of the day

Bor does not talk and uses a tablet computer to communicate; he has a program installed on it that helps him to express his thoughts and answer questions. Ela is his exact opposite – she is a genuine chatterbox. Klara has that (un)fortunate extra chromosome, but is an independent and very practical girl, always willing to show self-initiative and help a classmate or me. Andrej has autism so he has trouble walking; for that reason, we head to the forest with a wheelchair and his assistant Miran. They drove him part of the way to the forest in a van. Jure is a silent, slender boy who often smiles in the forest; he does not see very well though.

In the forest

The weather? Foggy; the forest is damp and muddy after several days of rain. The walk into the forest took almost half an hour but none of them complained. I cannot remember where I read that children with special needs grow tired faster. They probably do, but these little heroes do not show it; they are smiling and talking throughout. Despite their sometimes unintelligible speech the group seems to get along really well.
While walking, we observe the trees, stroke moss-covered tree trunks, and compare leaves; they are drawn the most to the water, which is gushing all over this forest valley. Of course they start thinking about lunch after walking all this way; I have a sitting mat with me and the bunch quickly finds a space in the middle of a muddy road and yes, a forest lunch is very tasty. I entrust Ela with the camera, which makes her day. I show her which button to press and she completely falls into the role of photographer. “Look who I took a picture of this time” she keeps saying. Digital photography is indeed a good invention.
I snap a small twig off a spruce tree and pick up a leaf. I stroke the children's cheeks one after another with both. They tell me whether it pricks (is a conifer) or caresses (is a deciduous tree). The most surprising change occurred in Andrej; when I stroked his cheek he became completely relaxed and I thought he was about to fall asleep.
During lunch I strung a rope for the forest exhibition and the path of the blind. We create the forest exhibition from the leaves we picked up and attach them to the rope with clothes pegs. After all, leaves have to dry after rain. This proves to be the right activity for them because most of them have problems with fine motor skills; attaching the leaves with the clothes pegs thus becomes the most difficult task. We help those who cannot do it themselves.
The next activity is the path of the blind, which I otherwise no longer do, but in this case it proves to be an excellent choice. I tie a kerchief over each of their eyes and guide them up a hill to the strung rope, where they grope for support. In the process they focus on the murmuring of the stream. The terrain is quite slippery after the rain and full of branches and moss-covered rocks, so I offer them both my hands for support. The two girls take more confident and nimble steps, while the two boys need more help. They are very satisfied after finishing this activity. Before tying the kerchief over her eyes, Ela asks me: “Will you clap for me too?” “Of course we will, Ela, go on.”
On our way back we see a big earthworm and I pick it up. It is really huge, a king of composting. It wriggles gently in my palms. Klara is frightened and steps back, thinking it is a snake. Bor and Jure pluck up their courage and soon have the earthworm in their palms. I am very proud of them. We place it back onto the grass. Of course, Ela is still eagerly taking pictures; in slightly over two hours she has managed to fill up the entire memory card.

What can forest activities offer children with special needs?

I can say without a doubt that the forest plays an even bigger role in the lives of children with special needs than in those of healthy ones. Sensory activities are probably the best learning method, as they offer many possibilities for developing skills through non-formal learning. The numerous sensory experiences provided by the forest will prove useful in later life. Cooperation, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, movement in a natural environment, encouraging independence; in Ela's case experiencing nature might improve her ability to concentrate and pay attention; in Andrej's case it will soothe and relax him; and in Bor's case it will give him the chance to observe and deduce first-hand.
Their teacher Vesna More has this to add: “Natural environments such as the forest have a calming effect on students with special needs. In the forest, the students calm down, listen to nature and synchronise with their rhythm, while learning often occurs unknowingly. The results usually positively surprise us.”
For me, such forest visits definitely provide a chance to communicate with them spontaneously and acquire new knowledge and experience in the field of forest pedagogy. Yes, they are indeed contagious, like children's diseases; the only difference being that the latter go away, while these children simply get under your skin.

P.S. Some of the photographs may be blurry. We are still learning.

Forest trips are carried out under the project Nature Stimulates the Learning and Development of Children with Special Needs (Green Learning Environments), Erasmus+, K2 Strategic partnerships in the field of education, training, and youth.

The names of the children have been changed to protect personal data.

"The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsi¬ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein."

Written by: Natalija Gyӧrek; Photographs: Ela and Vesna More
Škofja Loka, Jelo Janežič Primary School, 23 November 2016