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Welcome to Facilitation Stories, where we discover how facilitators ended up in the profession, and how facilitation methods, principles and techniques are used more widely. Brought to you by IAF England and Wales. For more information on our chapter, click here.

Jul 13, 2021

In this episode Helene talks to Alex Williams Lead Trainer and Facilitator for nature-based learning at Muddy Feet.
All Alex and her team’s facilitation is outside, taking groups of all ages out to urban and rural wild spaces encouraging nature connection. 
Helene asks why Alex chooses to work outdoors.  This is largely as the focus of the work is
linking people to their environment.  It started when Alex did Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in the Philippines .  There all planning and group work was outdoors.  She then returned to do environmental projects in Manchester.  This involved taking communities out to look at, and engage with their environment and think about how they could improve it.
Helene recalls training before her own VSO, much of which was about using the natural environment, rather than using things that were inaccessible to people.
Alex still uses all natural resources such as sticks, leaves and pebbles, although this can depend on the environment as sustainability is also important.
They go on to talk about the benefits of facilitating outdoors.  Alex explains the Mental Health benefits -being outside for 20 mins reduces cortisol, which reduces anxiety and enables people to connect in a more relaxing way.  She finds that as it’s not a set up environment, they get more from people as they’re ready to engage and conversation flows.
Helene then asks about the types of facilitation that Alex does.  Alex explains that much of it is around nature connection - enabling people to connect effectively with their local environment, and to stop and notice what’s around them.
They also tackle other issues for example working with children who are disengaged with school to help them to re-engage with education.  They are also about to do a project with Home Start Volunteers to use nature to strengthen adult/ child relationships.  They also deliver training in Forest School and outdoor learning including training teachers to take a facilitator role outdoors when delivering the curriculum.
Alex then explains how they record outputs using a lot of observations, writing notes and having reflective time after each session.  They also use natural art, for example using natural resources to make a representation which they can photograph and annotate after.
She also adapts traditional indoor tools such as the “Jelly Baby tree” using representations of the Jelly Babies that people physically put in a tree to show and explain where they are at the beginning and end of sessions.
She explains that practicalities drive the choice of methods for example using laminated paper and wipedown whiteboards.
They then go on to discuss how to adapt for the weather: This includes preparing participants, dressing appropriately, and having a back up plan for shelter.  They also do dynamic risk assessment and have a weather policy, to consider what conditions are safe to take groups out.
Helene asks about accessibility.  Like indoor facilitation, this is about knowing the needs of the participants and how to address them.  They take time to identify suitable sites including those that are wheelchair accessible and do a recce beforehand with known issues in mind to consider if the site is truly accessible.
In terms of where Alex and her team work, this is a mixture of public and private spaces.  For private sites Alex advises seeking permission from the landowner and if working in parks and planning to use natural resources she suggests contacting the Council or responsible body to let them know you’ll be there and any possible environmental impact.
Helene then asks about the impact of the pandemic.  In early lockdown, they were prevented from working with groups but have been busy between lockdowns.  As people have become more aware of outdoor space and things they can do this has led to more interest in Muddy Feet’s work.
They have still needed to work within guidelines including reduced numbers and social distancing. Most difficult has been taking extra water out to allow for handwashing.  They have also needed to ensure bubbles aren’t mixing with the public and have needed to rethink how they provide food which is an important part of what they do.
Helene goes on to ask if anybody can facilitate outdoors and what are Alex’s top tips.  She says that anyone can, but to learn to adapt and build confidence, she suggests going to a workshop or working with people who are experienced to see how it’s done.  This might include how to put up a shelter outdoors, make yourself heard, give boundaries, adapt risk assessment processes, and safely use natural resources.  There are skills to learn but don’t be afraid - start with small steps and smaller groups.
Helene asks about a recommended activity and Alex describes the “journey stick” which she often uses when people first go out to help them get familiar with the space and as an icebreaker.   Lots of their activities are similarly open-ended to allow participants to take activities to where they want to.
She finishes by reflecting that coming out from the pandemic some people are nervous to go out and that being outdoors can be a supportive way to take part in a session without a lot of pressure, so this makes it more relaxed.

Get in touch with Alex:
Twitter:  @feetmuddy
And Helene: 
Twitter: @helenejewell