Sean Reeves: Using Outdoor Learning to Help Troubled Teenagers

Sean Reeves is an Outdoor Learning Officer at the Sustainability Centre in East Meon, Hampshire. Within a wide job remit, he uses outdoor learning to help teenagers with difficulties build their confidence and their lives. Vicky Gould catches up with him to find out what the secret is… 

Tell us a bit about what you do…

I work with children, teenagers and adults, though I find I get most satisfaction working with troubled teenagers. I teach them about the woods, showing them how to identify the trees and which ones are good for different purposes. I teach them how to light fires using different methods and talk to them about how each method evolved through history. They learn how to build shelters. They learn how to use all the tools safely and correctly. With these skills they can then learn to coppice, split, chop and shape wood. We learn how to weave willow and how to make a wooden mallet and simple chairs. We also look at the animals that live in the wood and learn from them as well.

What are some of the types of problems faced by the young people you work with?

Each young person is an individual, so each set of problems is different. It might be that they moved from another area, joined a new school and just didn’t fit in and so then started truanting – although truanting can be caused by other things as well. There might have been bereavement in the family leading to trouble coping at school. It might be that they aren’t eating properly or are self harming. Teenager’s lives are very muddled. Mum and dad might have split up, or they are being bullied, or they are dyslexic and can’t do the work…which is what happened to me.

One girl I worked with had a hard time at home. Her mum was a drug dealer, so she lived with her Nan. But she had trouble with anger management and used to ‘kick off’ at school. So she came here one day a week for 6 weeks, with 5 other teenagers. She found that she really enjoyed just being outside and calmed down a lot. She found that she was good at things. She especially liked whittling as it gave her peace.  I find that just being outside gives kids time to reflect. I just talk to them on their own level, and about anything. Sometimes I tell them about my past difficulties if it is appropriate, but it’s so valuable to just talk in small groups; listening to each other and respecting what we say.

Is there any such thing as a typical day

No definitely not! Although I always have a plan for the day, things can quickly change; the mood of the children, their dynamics, the weather etc. I have to think on my feet and always have a plan B – and C.

What’s the secret to engaging disillusioned young people?

Show them respect, don’t pre-judge them and listen.

If you could give one piece of advice to all the young people in need that you’re not able to work with, what would it be?

That’s a really hard question – trying to put it into one thing, because you always have to consider each young person as an individual and look at their experiences.

What was the best outcome or feedback you’ve ever had regarding your work with young people?

Jack* – or TJ for short.  Jack was very, very naughty at school, at home and on the streets. When he came here, I showed him how to do things and just talked to him as an equal. Having someone to talk to and who would listen to him meant he didn’t need to be naughty; he was just happy being outside learning new skills. He had always thought he was a failure, but then one day there was a group of adult volunteers at the centre and they couldn’t get their fire going. So I sent Jack over to show them how to light it. They were very impressed and told him so. After that he was empowered with the new skills he had learnt and the praise he was given. He ended up going to Sparsholt College (a specialist centre for vocational and often outdoors-focused education), before later joining the paras. He now runs a restaurant with his wife and has a baby. I went to the wedding, and we still keep in touch.

This is a quote from one young person I worked with:

I personally think that if I did not spend time with you at the centre I would not have sorted anything out as you were the one who encouraged me to make the right choices

Another boy Rich* also sticks in my memory. He was an orphan and was adopted, but he wasn’t happy and couldn’t talk to his family. Things were very difficult at home and school so he came on our 6 week course. But kept coming back, because he had such a bond with me. He helped me build my den in the woods and then said that he wanted to build one himself and asked if I would give him the wood. I said that if he bought his dad, showed him the den and explained to him how he built it, then I would. It enabled him to talk to his new family and led to Rich and his new dad doing the project together.

What are your top three tips for surviving in the wild?

  1. The will to live.
  2. Knowledge.
  3. Kit.

If you didn’t do this job, what would you do?

I used to be a Foreman for a spray shop. I could never do that again. I get so much job satisfaction from working outside in the environment; it’s a wonderful experience. If I can help people in just the smallest of ways, it gives me a wonderful feeling.

What sort of training do you need for this sort of job?

I only started to train for this job about 12 years ago. Although my dad was a woodsman and I used to work with him a lot, I didn’t really take much in. I was encouraged by people at the Sustainability Centre – where my wife worked – to do some courses and change my job. But I never thought I could really do it because I found school so hard with my dyslexia.

But of course things have moved on in the 20 years since I left school, and I was fully supported through the courses I attended at Sparsholt. I was like a sponge! I just couldn’t get enough of it. I suddenly found that I was really good at what I was doing and became Student of the Year.  During this time I met the The Duke of Kent, he was very supportive and I received some money to buy all my books. I went on many more courses to gain extra qualifications with John Rhyder and Ray Mears. In this way I gradually built up my Forest Schools qualifications.

A selected list of some of the qualifications Sean holds: B Tech National Vocation award – The Environment and Conservation; NCFE  – Level 3 Craft of our ancestors; NCFE  – Level 3 Outdoor Living Skills; NCFE  – Advanced Bushcraft; Forest Schools; Outdoor Leader – Ranger; ‘Return to Learning’ Achievement Award 2002 (The winner chosen from 2000 colleges); Millennium Awards Fellowship.

To find out more about Sean’s courses or to find other courses offered by the Sustainability Centre check out their website.

Interview by Vicky Gould

* The names of the young people mentioned have been changed to protect their privacy, all other aspects of their stories are true.

ABOUT: Sean Reeves

Sean ReevesSean Reeves is an Outdoor Learning officer at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. He works with primary and secondary school children of all ages and abilities. He also works with adults teaching bushcraft and team building activities. Find the Sustainability Centre here:

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