On December 16th, 2014 Forest School Canada had the opportunity to host two classes from the Ottawa Carleton District School Board. Mrs. Jessica Pantalone, a teacher within the OCDSB, led this pilot initiative to assist FSC in determining how we can begin a larger partnership with the OCDSB. The big questions for the educators were: How can we support children’s learning and development within the public board through Forest School? How can we further support educators to implement Forest and Nature School on a regular and repeated basis? Lastly, how will children integrate onto our site and engage in winter play-based learning having never been there before?
The big questions for the children ended up being both far simpler and far more profound. As the children hopped off the bus, they approached the educators waiting for them at the top of the trail, and immediately asked, “But, where is the classroom?” This was the provocation, the inquiry, that was woven throughout our day together. I put the question back to the other children: “Where do YOU think the classroom is?” and another child spoke up, “It’s out there, it’s the forest.” As we walked down the trail, I invited the children to imagine all the things they could learn with the forest as the classroom.
At the end of the trail the students found another educator waiting for them at the “magic line”. This was a visual barrier (sticks in the snow) that served as a means to stop the children and have them consider how they could stay safe while at Forest School. We explained that at Forest School we have many privileges: we can play, climb, have fires, run, explore independently, jump, build, and create. But with these privileges come responsibilities. We need to take care of one another, of our new “classroom”, and of ourselves. And so we asked them, “What will that look like today?” The children came up with many ideas such as making sure everyone listened, staying close to each other, helping friends when they need help, and staying warm. Then we introduced a few other safety elements, including moving slowly and carefully as opposed to running and roughhousing within the ‘ring of fire’ [the circle of seats around our fire pit], answering and coming to our owl hoot and wolf howl calls, which they loved to practice, and always being able to see the Forest School educator when they were playing independently in the forest. From there, we separated into two groups to explore and play in different parts of the forest.
When in the forest, the immediate response to the freedom to play can feel like chaos. It’s this sense of chaos that often scares educators and parents. Many adults feel like there is no control over the environment. Without that, and without four walls, they wonder how children can be kept safe. In Forest School we view children as competent and capable learners. This means we trust children to negotiate what feels safe for them, sometimes independently, sometimes through discussions with peers and educators, and that with this support, they will move through the “chaos” into deeper and deeper play-based learning.
One educator attending this session was struck by the ease with which the children jumped into free play and created their own outdoor fantasy worlds. From unicorns to hunting wolves and magic school buses travelling to India, she was amazed at the questions that came out of these games. There were some intense debates about the colour of wolves fur, for example, and what they eat and don’t eat. There were also many long discussions about which animals hibernate and how they survive.
She also shared and witnessed a special moment with a student who was moving in and out of imaginary play and more hands on exploration. He stopped his game of bear hunt to share his fears about bears; he was upset. The beauty was when the rest of the bear hunt crew saw his distress and all stopped to reassure him and confirm that, in fact, today, no bears would be near them in the woods and they were safe. It was amazing to watch these children respond to their peer’s emotional needs, affirming his feelings while communicating their own thoughts. Indeed, they flowed effortlessly and under their own direction from imaginary play to heated debate and factual discussion.
Lunch happened outside around the fire for those who were warmer, and inside for those who needed a little reprieve. Thirty minutes later we gathered back around the fire with our wolf howl and owl hoot, and started the afternoon with storytelling lead by two children who were very eager to tell tall tales.
Then we entered into our second hour of play back in our respective parts of the forest. There, many things unfolded as the children and adults built on their earlier morning adventures, becoming more confident in their play on this land. They collaboratively built a ladder out of fallen branches, continued a longer and farther bear hunt, made a birthday cake out of snow for another student who was celebrating that day, and then continued to build many other shapes including triangles, squares, hexagons, rectangles…the whole time referring back to lessons they had had earlier in December about shapes. They looked far and wide for deer beds, and followed tracks. They got got caught in thorny bushes and found their way out. Some discovered they could climb higher than they ever thought possible, while some preferred to slither on the ground like a snake.
And that’s the beauty of Forest School: there’s something for everyone. Children are empowered to follow their passions and interests, the ones that are inspired from the land, from the natural place that surrounds them. They are encouraged to inquire, alongside their educators, and to become co-creators and co-conspirators in their play and learning.
As they gathered their backpacks, I saw the same children that ran into our forest, leave at a much slower, sauntering, tired and reflective pace.
David Contant [Lawyer]
I had the privilege of attending my daughter Emma’s field trip to the Canada Forest School at Wesley Clover Parks in December, 2014. I was very impressed with Marlene and her team. Emma and her friends were given the freedom to explore the natural environment and to work collaboratively to dream up some incredible and imaginative adventures. We went on a bear hunt, drove a school bus to India, and built and decorated a Christmas tree. Over the course of the day I watched my sometimes reluctant daughter develop a new found self-confidence. Emma proudly shared about her adventures in front of her peers around the campfire, as well as at home around the supper table. My experience at the Forest School reminded me that play truly is the “highest form of research.” As a parent, I hope that as many students as possible are able to participate in such a worthwhile program.
I was fortunate enough to be a chaperone for a field trip to the Forest School run by Marlene and her energetic and informative team. From the moment we stepped off the bus and did a short hike to the “school” to when we climbed back on the bus again the entire time was non stop fun and educational for the class. The kids were engaged the entire time we were at the forest school. They were excited to stop at the Magic Sticks to learn about proper behaviour when sitting around a campfire and to learn different animal calls to listen for when out exploring. Once it was determined we could cross the magic sticks we sat around the campfire to talk about what we would be doing. We then got divided into different groups and this is where the kids got to really have fun and explore the woods around the school. What a fantastic way to teach kids about trees, animal tracks, listening for birds instead of sitting in a classroom. The kids were genuinely excited every time they found an animal track, were allowed to climb on fallen trees, explored holes in trees that woodpeckers made, they even decorated trees using packed snow to attach to tree branches. They loved howling back in response to our leader to get us all gathered back together as a group. Hard to believe all of this occurred within the city limits of Ottawa! Lunch involved sitting around the campfire but a small cabin with a wood stove was also available for those not so adventurous. Judging by how quiet the bus ride home was, everyone was tired form all the fun that was had from the day!