Christopher Nixon is a guest blogger for Forest School Canada, and is currently delving deeply into his Masters degree exploring Forest School in Canada. He is a passionate educator, adventurer, and explorer who has much to offer this emerging field in Canada.
David Sobel, a researcher and specialist in environmental pedagogy for children internationally has argued that what has been lost in much of education, particularly in the West, is a connection between places children can relate to, and the curriculum they are taught (Sobel, 2004). Many children are being told about places and ideas in school that they themselves cannot yet relate with it seems, because they do not even fully understand their own immediate environments. Rather than beginning by teaching children about their local spaces, many curriculums seem to have been teaching intangible concepts that students do not grasp easily, because they lack meaning to connect it to. Therefore, Sobel argues schools need more place-based education; pedagogy that is based on teaching children about the places in which they actually live (Sobel, 2004). He also states that as adults longing for creativity, we often return to our childhood memories as a source of inspiration to be able to produce new creative works, and solve difficult problems in our lives (Sobel, 1990). In addition, he points out that as adults we may find stability and refuge in the special places we experienced as children, which is what makes place so important to the human experience (Sobel, 1990). I find this perspective interesting in regards to forest schools because there appears to be a goal or emphasis on learning through tangible experiences within a child’s local environment.
Professor of Education Cynthia Chambers, has also inspired me through a chapter in her book Life Writing and Literary Métissage called Stories Take Care of Us to look at how my own childhood stories has led to my interest in studying forest schools (Chambers, 2013; Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers, & Leggo, 2009). It has led me to ask the question, how have my past personal experiences affected my relationships as an adult and the choices I have made that have led to my research topic in forest schools? By conducting a self-reflective autobiographical process I can dwell upon my own educational experiences through a method that was termed by William Pinar as currere (M. Grumet, 2006). Professor of curriculum theory Madeleine Grumet at the University of North Carolina defines currere as “an autobiographical process of reflection and analysis in which one recalls his educational experience and examines it” (Grumet, 2006; 111). Using this understanding of currere as my outline, I would like to achieve what Graham refers to as reconceptualization; in order to interpret my life’s educational journey anew (Graham, 1991). Currere is simply a way that can help me answer the question of how I arrived at this topic. Ultimately, it is how I have responded to the places, stories and events that have happened in my life that has led to my interest in forest schools.
As an only child, my early childhood education (before I began formal schooling) was largely shaped by my grandfather on my father’s side of the family, and the time I spent with him. During the summers, I would spend weeks with him at his cottage exploring the woods and stream that meandered through his property. I had so many fond memories of this place that when he eventually sold it, was heartbreaking. I spent so much time at my grandfather’s that I even had my own room in his apartment in which I spent most of the time alone creating artistic drawings of cartoons of people and animal life. I remember one day deciding that I would draw my grandfather who had so much meaning in my life and this drawing still has a lot of meaning for me today because it shows a portrait of him from the way I remember him sitting across from me in his armchair in his living room. Below is a drawing I drew at the age of 6:
At this age, I felt destined to become an artist. I created weekly newspapers for my grandfather to read, made my own imaginary television station using a video camera, and even animated my own films inspired by popular TV cartoons. In thinking about the age I was when I drew this now, I realize that I was engaging in self-directed teaching, because I learned many things by asking questions and using the resources I had such as books, crayons and toys.
Unlike my grandparents on my father’s side who were raised in North America, both of my grandparents of my mother’s side grew up in Norway, and they told me many intriguing stories of their lives growing up in their country. This is when I began to understand the deep connection between nature and Norwegian culture, which as a child who grew up in a city, I found fascinating and wanted to experience. My grandparents told me about how they spent much time hiking and even skiing to school as children growing up in Oslo, the capital of Norway. They also each had a country house by the fjord and a chalet in the mountains that they visited frequently during holidays. My grandparents would take the train from Oslo to go skiing in the mountains which even at that time was electric; the trains were painted a dark red colour with wood panel interiors, and the seats were comfortable giving everyone room to sit down on the train and store their skies in a special compartment. The train ride was about an hour and was always full of children, teenagers, and families. When they would go skiing they wore their traditional Norwegian sweaters and nickers with wool socks. Some skiers had very long skies to do what is called telemarking and others had traditional skies to perform cross country skiing. Most of the skiing was done above the tree line with incredible views of the valleys. The trails were very long and because the trails were so wide you did not notice other skiers very much. It was common for many of them to bring their own lunches and ate outside in the snow, enjoying the nature near their chalet and warming up by the fireplace indoors. At nighttime, regardless of the temperature it seems, the window would remain wide open allowing for snow and ice to sometimes build up on the floors. My grandfather would say growing up there was a sense of love for the cold and having the window open, even during the depths of winter. Skiing was a way of life, a pastime and an adventure all at the same time as a way to explore the country’s natural beauty.
Berry picking was also a popular event during the summer as various varieties of berries ripened throughout the countryside. My grandparents would talk about how they were sent to collect berries for their parents to bring home and make pies, cakes and crepes.
My grandmother also had goats which helped provide a main part of her family’s diet which was to eat goat cheese and the best kind I was told was homemade. These stories would later influence me to help out on a goat farm as well as contribute to my desire to spend time in nature.
I was also influenced by an experience I had with my best childhood friend one day who invited me to go see the opening premier of the Disney film; The Adventures of Huck Finn. Before the film began, a speaker rose from the front of the theatre explaining the significance of Mark Twain’s stories on American childhood culture. I had not at that point ever read his books. However, by the end of the film I was deeply moved by the story telling. Following the film, I asked my parents for copies of Mark Twain’s story books. For the first time, I found myself excited about reading and I spent long hours doing so under shady trees and quiet places during the following summer.
When I entered high school, I attended a school that backed onto a forest and a small winding stream. At the time I thought that the environment was similar to what Huck Finn might have experienced in Twain’s books. I was so intrigued by this stream that I decided to build my own raft like Huck Finn had in the book.
After I began helping as a farm hand on a goat farm my mother worked at, I moved to a small rural property. It was here that I began raising my own goats in a barn that sat behind our house. First, there was much work to be done though in fixing the barn, because it was not insulated and needed repairs to the siding and the interior. My Norwegian grandfather came to help me fix the barn and it was at this point that I learned valuable carpentry skills which improved my mathematics comprehension significantly. The property quickly became an obsession of mine as I attached myself to the land and what it could provide for me. During the long winters I would diligently ensure that snow was cleared for my animals and their water was thawed for them to drink. The following year I decided to build a home for ducks which I became interested in for collecting eggs. I choose to have ducks instead of chickens, because my grandfather on my father’s side talked about having a pet duck when he was young. I choose to have Pekin ducks which layed large white eggs that were often double yoked and very tasty. Living on my farm gave me a sense of creativity in the same way that drawing gave me as a child.
These experiences I believe led me to pursue completing a bachelor’s degree in Geography and my own self-engaged learning experiences led me to want to inspire others as a teacher. While I was completing my bachelors of education degree I also attended a conference that was put on by a physical education organization called OPHEA. It was here that a group called the Back to Nature Network was in attendance that presented the idea that anything taught indoors can be taught outdoors as well. Given my many experiences learning outside and through tangible experiences I became intrigued by this concept. In my education program I also developed very close relationships with several individuals who had similar outdoor learning experiences as I did during childhood and expressed a lot of passion about expanding outdoor education for young children in schools. This began a life changing journey that led me to apply to McGill’s Masters of Education and Society program as a means to pursue my research interests.
During my first semester at McGill during a course in research methods I explored for the first time the teacher and theorist named Loris Malaguzzi who founded the Reggio Emilia approach to education which coincided very much with my own learning experiences growing up. He demonstrated how the environment can act as third teacher through experiential learning and play (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). I was instantly attracted to learning more about this theory and through a conversation with my supervisor which ultimately led me to want to know more about forest schools and their growth.
Chambers, Cynthia. (2013). Research Background and Interests. Retrieved April 11, 2013, from http://www.uleth.ca/education/resources/research/research-centers/literacy-research/ongoing-research/cynthia-chambers
Graham, R. (1991). Reading and writing the self Autobiography in education and the curriculum.: New York: Teachers’ College Press. (ch. 6).
Grumet, Madeleine (2006). Psychoanalytical foundations. In W. Pinar & M. Grumet, Toward a poor curriculum: (111-146). Troy, NY: Educator’s International Press .
Hasebe-Ludt, Erika, Chambers, Cynthia, & Leggo, Carleton Derek. (2009). Life writing and literary métissage as an ethos for our times (Vol. 27): Peter Lang.
Sobel, David. (1990). A place in the world: Adults’ memories of childhood’s special places. Children’s Environments Quarterly, 7(4), 5-12.
Sobel, David. (2004). Place-based Education: Connecting Classroom and Community. Great Barrington. MA: Orion Society.
Strong-Wilson, Teresa, & Ellis, Julia. (2007). Children and place: Reggio Emilia’s environment as third teacher. Theory into practice, 46(1), 40-47.