The "Hidden Curriculum" of Forest School
A guest post from Abbey Cressman, a Teacher Candidate who spent time at Ottawa Forest and Nature School earlier this year:
In the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University, the “hidden curriculum” is something we strive for and prepare to teach: the “soft” but invaluable social and interpersonal skills that students develop in (and outside of) school. These pockets of wisdom are often hiding in the moments we cannot write into our lesson plans as teachers; we may organize a game of dodge ball for gym class, but the social dynamics and problem solving skills that emerge are spontaneous and context-specific — this is where the learning happens. Forest School, I am quickly discovering, is a pedagogical environment that directly engages with the “hidden” curriculum, and in its focus on play and inquiry, boasts an incredibly interdisciplinary program.
Children spend the mornings in free play, and teachers prepare by leaving out materials called “loose parts” as invitations for students. Although they may look like pots and pans to the untrained or un-childlike eye, to the imaginative mind of a five year-old they are hats, bird-feeders, and molds for castles as tall as a tree. Children not only have the chance to be kids and have unstructured play, but they also flex the brain muscles that build resourcefulness. A stick can be a bridge, a piece of a shelter, and a tool to keep balance while walking on a slippery and slushy forest floor. Physics. Geography. Physical Education. These are all topics of knowledge we deem mandatory in a traditional classroom, but in Forest School these subjects interact, bump against each other, and flow into one another – just as they do in real life. History does not exist in a silo apart from Geography or even the sciences, and children at Ottawa Forest and Nature School are deepening and enriching their knowledge of these disciplines when they participate in tasks and projects that have tangible results, consequences, and connections.
The play-based curriculum also allows children to grow socially and emotionally. More often than not, students are playing in small groups. Without a prescribed structure to their play, children gain independence; teachers are available for guidance, but our role is to assist and ask questions that deepen student learning and curiosity, not to redirect or take charge. When a group of 4-10 year olds decides to build a snow castle, they are the ambassadors of their own project, and they are certainly invested in caring for it. This care can spur conflict as well: who gets to build the tower? What if some children want high walls and some want low walls? Residing in these questions are those jewels of “hidden” curriculum wherein students try, fail, and try again to find strategies to cooperate with one another. In my experience as a student teacher, a strategy can always be found.
Furthermore, when children regularly attend a classroom with elements of the unknown – hidden roots, branches, streams, and animals – they develop a deep-seeded curiosity and fascination about the world, which propels and motivates life-long learning. I have never seen a child’s eyes light up so much as when I watched a six year old kneel quietly in front of a squirrel in a tree, listening to the birds above him and watching the squirrel’s every movement. We were on a hike with other students and teachers, and this stop was not planned. But the focus of this child was unbreakable; I usually have trouble helping a six year old to sit still for two minutes, and this one wouldn’t stop. He spoke about the squirrel and its closeness to him for the rest of the day. This child struggles sometimes with impulse control and appropriate behaviour, and the first thing he told me about the squirrel was that “it likes me” – he had found a kindred spirit that was missing indoors. These moments in nature teach not only animal systems and behaviours, but also focus and reflective thinking – skills that it seems children are not able to work on as regularly in our hyper-connected, fast-paced modern world.
Unlike other Forest School teachers I have met, I am an English Lit person. I have undergone years of formalized education during which I spent countless hours reading books, unpacking language, and writing essays. I was nervously excited to enter the world of Forest School: although I love working with children, my skill set does not include differentiating between different animal or plant species, accurately matching a set of tracks to an animal, or articulately describing the fungi living on a tree. I have been so delighted to see the important roles that storytelling and reflective thinking/writing have at Forest School, and I think many parents concerned with their children’s literacy skills would feel the same. These kids are critical readers and rich, descriptive storytellers – even the ones who cannot yet read or write. They ask provocative questions, use observations to inform their responses, and they reflect on what they see and how it makes them feel. This type of personal inquiry underscores comprehension and especially higher order literacy skills such as analysis. When I read stories to these children, they ask questions, they predict, and they often add their own insights about what should have happened. Often we tell spooky stories as we walk through the woods to our destination, and in this informal environment, children practice and often excel at speaking with expression and at an appropriate pace. The skills that we practice are at the cornerstone of current research on literacy**, but at Forest School these skills are integrated into a larger, interdisciplinary practice, where children apply their skills in real-world contexts.
(A child telling me a story about the waves in the dead wood, apparently a special indicator of the finest Italian wood.)
One of my best professors at the Faculty of Education said that as teachers, we should constantly be asking ourselves what students keep when they leave our classrooms. Not what they memorize or what they are able to regurgitate for a grade, but the learning that endures past the week or even school year. This question is at the heart of what Forest School is about – giving children opportunities to learn and grow in an environment that connects them deeply and tangibly to their education. I am so grateful to have had a small part in the learning that takes place here.
**Current research on literacy:
Paige, D. D., & Magpuri-Lavell, T. (2014). Reading Fluency in the Middle and Secondary Grades. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 7(1), 83.
Rasinski, T. (2009). Teaching Reading Fluency to Struggling Readers: Method, Materials, and Evidence. Reading & Writing Quarterly 25, 192-204.