The Fun (& Philosophy) of Forest Schools

Imagine a teacher who inspires continuous wonder and curiosity. A teacher who challenges you to the edge of your physical, social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual knowing, always present and always patient.

Imagine a teacher who welcomes your insatiable curiosity and who gives you the space and time to make sense of the world around you.

Imagine a teacher who instills all of these preschool skills all while you play to your hearts content with your friends.

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Mother Nature is that teacher.

The forest-school model is first and foremost about creating a framework where children are given the time and space to play in a natural environment over seasons. As the children re-visit their outdoor classroom again and again, they naturally take ownership of their play space as they connect to themselves and their place. They begin to feel the aliveness and rhythm of their outdoor environment and intrinsically want to take care of all the wild creatures that inhabit it: from the very shy worm to the always loud and rambunctious woodpecker. Everything has value.

As teachers, we help bridge the children’s wonder and curiosity as they lead their learning by what they are interested in. We support this emergent, play-based curriculum by going deeper together with the children as co-learners when group interests bubble up.

Being outdoors several times a week over the consecutive seasons of fall, winter, spring and early summer connects the children to their natural environment in such a powerfully primal way that they are forever changed.

The fall gives the kids time for their bodies to acclimatize to being outdoors, to notice a shift in the angle of the sun, and to watch as summer’s lushness falls away to a less hurried time.

The winter months teaches the children to persevere through the harsher weather while still finding joy and fun with the snow and ice. They discover their limits, their strengths, what they are truly capable of.

The spring is like one continuous celebration where the children sense that the forest is finally waking up and they are there to witness that in all of its glory. They shed their bulky winter layers and discover how they can move with their transformed bodies. They know the berries are coming.

Then early summer arrives, and the end of our session too. They take pride in all they’ve accomplished, how they’ve grown, and how capable they are! They laugh and dance with friends who were strangers in the fall but are like family now. They move through the wild with a comfort and ease that comes from really knowing a place.

After a full year all of the children’s senses are brighter and more in tune to the wondrous sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells that the forest offers. They notice the clouds floating in the sky, the birds when they arrive in the spring, the taste of the rain, the touch of a newly sprouted bud and the fresh smell of the good dirt.

Toys in nature are the sticks, logs, dirt, and mud. The backdrop is trees, ferns, hills and valleys. As the children incorporate these simple props into their play the forest erupts with their dramatic play. The children’s constant dialogue, imaginative script and continuous role changes within their play all become opportunities for social interactions and learning. A powerful sense of community evolves within the group and the beginnings of deeper learning are sparked. This is how a community is born.

The natural environment helps children connect to who they are. And a sense of self emerges. They develop self determination, self awareness, self sacrifice and self confidence all while playing with and in their forest.

Sue Cameron and Alix Wilson are Nature Educators at Hand-In-Hand Early Years Nature Education Program in Campbell River and Cumberland.