By Carrie Komesch, Educator
The Meadowlands schoolyard is relatively unexceptional. It does have more trees and grass than some other schools in Ottawa, but it also has the typical expanses of concrete, playing space taken up by a portable classroom, and vistas interrupted by powerlines and towers.
These observations are not meant to disparage those members of the school community who have endeavoured to make room for natural spaces and open-ended play within the schoolyard. I say this only to emphasize that there is nothing unique about the physical space at Meadowlands that would render our successes there impossible at other schools. It isn’t necessary to wait until your schoolyard is naturalized to embark on this kind of exploration. Creating forest school on the schoolyard is about working with what we’re given, and even more so, it’s about finding the exceptional in the spaces we inhabit everyday.
Through the power of child-led learning and truly free play, the ordinary schoolyard landscape was transformed, and we encouraged the students to think of names for the different areas of activity that emerged. (This is something that we do at our site in the forest as well, and as a result, phrases like “The Rocky Mossy Place” have no doubt found their way into the everyday vernacular of our Forest School Families.) Being able to give something a name implies that the individual doing the naming possesses a certain amount of power and agency, something which we hoped to help the students recognize within themselves as actors in the schoolyard space.
In my own head, I had labelled this area “the back corner of the yard,” a bland, utilitarian name if there ever was one. However, it quickly became apparent that this space held considerable appeal for the students. The pronounced hill provided a vantage point for those who wanted to rest, or eat, or who preferred to observe before taking part in play. Furthermore, there was a cluster of trees just off to one side, and a sloping garden that grew down the back of the hill and up against the corner of the fence, its margins delineated by a line of bricks.
On the first day, I watched three boys gleefully realize that they could make accumulated raindrops fall from the trees en masse simply by shaking the trunks.
These students were already somewhat wet (did I mention that our first session took place during what was, for the rest of the school, an indoor recess? #RainyRecess). And they were evidently energized by the realization that they could make themselves EVEN MORE WET through their own actions. This area became a hub for play throughout the remainder of our time on-site, and was poetically dubbed “The Raining Tree Brothers.”
The students named the top of the hill/garden area “The Building Bricks,” which made sense since the bricks provided endless fodder for construction and the manifestation of creative, imaginative play during our time there (with the understanding that they were to return the bricks to their original order when we were finished with them).
The following photo features The Building Bricks in an extension of a “small world” activity we had done in the morning. A group of students had constructed an elaborate castle out of bricks, and later on, during free play, they returned to their world and used pine cones and clumps of wool roving as representations of themselves as they acted out narratives that included conflict resolution (“Yah we’ve been having some trouble with X. so he moved out to the garage.”), as well as the construction of a zipline.
Other names on the map referenced wildlife encounters, which were especially meaningful for the students (and the educators!). For example, a space in the middle of the field was named “Hawk and Crow,” because the previous week, we stood there and witnessed a hawk and a crow flying high above the schoolyard in a soaring, circling standoff. Other students had seen a woodpecker in a tree while taking part in a “listening walk” wherein they moved through the landscape in quiet observation mode. This tree, unsurprisingly, became “The Woodpecker Tree” (and I myself learned that the french term for woodpecker is pic-bois!). And the place where another group spotted a rabbit on their own listening walk was recorded on the map as “The Rabbit.”
“The Rainbow” indicated on this same section of the map refers to a backstop in another corner of the field, whose chain-link fencing had been interwoven with strips of colourful cloth in the shape of a rainbow prior to our involvement with the school. During our last day on site, the students were permitted to climb the backstop up until a certain point. They were carefully supervised from the ground, and it must be noted that the cutoff point was not in fact a very high point, but we nonetheless saw value in facilitating an experience that allowed their bodies to interact with the space and structure in a novel and challenging way.
The yard behind the rainbow was further transformed when Sonja supported the students in creating a “slide” (as seen in a previous post) that was simultaneously many different things to the students experiencing it:
Finally, in keeping with the theme of imaginative play and meaning-making, the following are some shining examples of the “small worlds” that were created on the schoolyard. We provided the students with clay and string and only the briefest of instructions/invitations: wander the schoolyard and collect materials that could be used to construct either a place that was important to them, or a world of their own making. I present these artifacts mostly without editorial comment because to be honest I could not do justice to the elaborate descriptions given to me by the students themselves:
This home was custom built to suit the needs of its resident clay caterpillars.
Now that the labour dispute has ended, the Meadowlands students will be coming to the Ottawa Forest and Nature School site every Tuesday for the remainder of the year (EVERY TUESDAY!!). However, I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to experience what it feels like to do forest school on a schoolyard. I was initially nervous about performing my role without the backdrop of the actual forest to “fall back on,” if that makes sense. I worried I would feel naked, trying to facilitate moments of authentic experiential learning from the middle of an empty field. BUT…I didn’t! It was clear that we were helping the students to see their schoolyard the way our students on site view the forest, and the play we observed on the schoolyard was a direct corollary or extension of the play we see at the forest school. The students wanted to build tiny animals nests and cook hearty mud-based meals and play on obstacle courses of their own construction. They wanted to dig in the dirt and shake rainwater from the trees until their hair and faces dripped. They wanted to PLAY, and afterwards, they wanted to discuss and reflect on the things they had created or accomplished. It is our hope that these students will continue to see in their schoolyard the magic of the forest, and to see within themselves the power to seize upon that wonder and to build something from it.