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Episode #10

Learning Outdoors - A School in the Woods

with Mary Mclachlan

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“I’m just a bit of a maverick, I see things slightly differently and always gone a bit left field and I’ve always questioned and wondered whether it could be done differently or better."

Welcome to the Spring/Summer series of the Back To The Garden Podcast. Todays guest, Mary Mclachlan, founded the Wood School in Manchester in 2010. It’s an incredible school set in a 1.7 acre woodland. In this episode we’re also joined by our regular podcast guest, Anne Statham (our very own child development specialist). This is a very in-depth conversation so it is split into two parts.

What we cover in both episodes:


  • Outdoor learning

  • Developing empathy in practitioners 

  • The art of active listening

  • Parent Effectiveness Training

  • How the Wood School began

  • The importance of developing a relationship with nature at a young age.

  • Things that have inspired Mary

  • Her advice to someone starting a school outdoors

  • The amazing qualities of Willow 

  • Challenges Mary has faced and overcome

  • A story of hope, the power of a community and how the Wood School has helped a child going through traumatic experience

  • Ideas for families for outdoor activities this Spring

  • Wild garlic, growing plants and spoon whittling!

We’re thrilled to have Mary as a guest on the show and welcome back Anne.

“Concepts around awe and wonder, that’s why it’s set in a wood. The wood is constantly changing. It surprises you each time you go. I was in this week, I’ve had the wood for over 15 years, and this week I saw a new bird.”

In Part 1 we talk about: 

00:48 Mary’s relationship with her children 


1:57 Philosophies, places and schools around the world that inspired Mary. Here we touch on the educational system and mental health. What the pandemic has brought to light around education. 


10:54 Advice to somebody out there wanting to create an outdoor setting. 


13:52 Mary and Back To The Garden and the Willow weaving. 


19:29 Tips for parents to do this Spring at home 


21:45 Personal rituals Mary likes to do in the Spring 


22:33 Spoon whittling 


24:21 One particular story about a child where Mary’s really seen a difference through their time at the Wood School.


27:08 Challenge Mary has faced and overcome. 


34:10 Rapid fire questions

"In order for us to empathise we need to have a lot of empathy for ourselves. Another key component is to have a lot of self-empathy. We often had long check-ins in the morning. Taking care of each other and really listening to each other.’"

In Part 2 we talk about: 

1:11 Mary’s early years - a pivotal moment for her during her childhood and how the outdoors played a huge part of her childhood. 


4:53 Education - how Mary went from studying medicine and law to creating a childcare centre. 


12:11 How being a mum fed into the inspiration for the Wood School and the book that changed her approach. Learning about active listening, non-violent communication and parent effectiveness training. 


16:05 An example from this week where Mary was able to use these learnings and the outcome. Anne shares about the desire to ‘fix things’ and how starting with the pause and recognising the feeling behind it helps. 


22:50 Wood School - the seed of the idea, how it all began. 


27:52 How Mary and Mae work together as co-founders and how did the rest of the team take form.


32:01 Core Values of The Wood School.  


37:43 How important developing the relationship children have with nature is. 


43:25 Why it’s so important to develop empathy in practitioners. Here we also discuss Wellbeing in adults within school systems. 


54:24 Mary shares her courses.

“The joy of Willow is the instant result. It’s also really giving. The kids get to see it grow, Willow grows really quickly, it grows quicker than they grow. It also provides a great resource endlessly. You will now be cutting willow forever and the more you cut the more you can build. And we talked about creating these little spaces that only the kids could fit in so that they could have that sense of a space for themselves.’”


“When a child is in trauma it really does take a whole community, everybody needs to pitch in.”

Episode Resource Links:

Ken Robinson 

Adele Faber - ‘How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk’ - Link 

Carl Rogers - The Humanist Psychologist - 

Marshall B. Rosenberg - Non-violent communication (NVC)

Thomas Gordon - Parent Effectiveness Training - Link to book 

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs 

Adverse Childhood Experiences

The New School in Croydon LINK 

Dr Ross Greene - The Explosive Child LINK 


Reggio Emilia





Thank you for listening!

We’d be so grateful if you could take 2 minutes to leave us a review on your preferred podcast app. Please share with anyone who you think would love to listen.
This episode is sponsored by Kit + Kin, award winning nappies - head to and enter the code BABY20 specially created for our listeners to use on the first subscription.  

Recorded via Zoom and edited at LBS, Stockport.
Producer: Adders Jeffry 
Original Music written by Sadie Pickering, performed by Sadie Pickering, Dan J Logan and Jay Ansill
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