A Day in the Course: Forest School Training at Willowgrove Farm

Written by Paige Deasley

This past March, we kicked off a record year of Forest & Nature School Courses across the nation.

We gathered on Williams Treaty Territory at Willowgrove Farm in Stouffville, Ontario, with educators, parents, caregivers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all backgrounds.

After a few consecutive warm days in March, we could feel the earth waking up beneath us. The creek was rushing with water, soil was thawing, and birds were singing.

It was a chilly morning at the farm, and we began the day with a Blanket Exercise Workshop led by an Indigenous Elder.

This exercise involved everyone as they stepped onto the blankets that represent the Land, and walked through the roles and experiences of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people. Slowly, each blanket was untied and removed, revealing the history and ongoing impacts of displacement and colonization. This experience prompted deeper reflection, understanding, and empathy for Indigenous Nations and the Land in which we learn and play today.

Following this reflective and introspective experience, we went indoors to take our lunch. Chatter radiated from inside the cabin. Some used this time to eat and connect with others, while others took a moment to be alone outside. A few meditated and walked the slack line strung between tall trees.

After our break, we headed back to the gathering circle for the next portion of the day. Everyone found a space around the bonfire pit while a small, self-appointed fire team collected firewood and kindling.

As we prepared for the lesson, one participant offered a group song, singing “I’ve got hope like the sunshine, hope like the sunshine in my soul”. The folks building the fire continued working at it until the whole circle was filled with warmth and light. The singer called for someone to pick new subjects, and the whole group went on to sing in harmony, “I’ve got love like a fire, love like a fire”. Next, we explored sit spots. This is an activity that can be done with all ages to get grounded in nature, and grounded within yourself. Everyone went quiet to the shhhhhhh of the waterfall and followed the Course Facilitators, Rebecca and Monika, over the bridge and into the tall trees.

People dispersed near the river and around the forest, finding a spot sitting on old fall leaves next to running water or leaning against a tall tree. We took a few minutes to reflect and tap into all of the senses.

People returned to the group quietly, with relaxed smiles strung across their faces.

After grounding ourselves, we played a game called Camouflage which brought back nostalgia for many. One person closed their eyes, while the others ran as fast as they could to the nearest hiding spot.

Visible by just a red scarf poking out from behind the tree, or the top of their head, those who were caught were called back to join the circle. Those hiding had seconds to run back, tap someone seeking them, and find a new hiding spot. The game went on for as long as it took to catch everyone in hiding.

Yelling and laughter echoed through the forest as grown adults remembered how fun it is to play.

Upon returning back to our gathering circle, we were tasked with finding something in nature and getting curious about the item, as though we had never seen the natural artifact before. This invited a sense of childlike wonder where we could understand what children may be thinking when prompted to notice their surroundings.

Teachings continued around the fire. Resources were handed around, insights were shared, and questions were asked, making the lesson inquiry-led and conversational. Topics discussed included: relationship between power and trust, the role of the educator and child, intentions for our personal connection with the Land, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 94 Calls to Action, and the relationship between play, land & risk. 

For the final activity of the weekend, we applied our learnings in small groups. First, everyone was given a bird sound to make in order to find their group. Human-made bird songs echoed across the pond, sure to cause confusion for the birds observing the group.

Once everyone found their group, they were given a scenario to act out, which explored the role of youth and educators in risky play. The groups had fun practicing their scenario a few times before performing for everyone.

One scenario involved two children playing hockey with a stick and rock, except one child didn’t have a stick to play and became frustrated by their opponent. Assisting the children in their creative game involved an act as simple as handing the child a stick to join in.

To finish off a well-rounded day of learning, play, and reflection, everyone joined around the fire as Rebecca led them through a new song. Each voice came together to sing the lyrics “we are one world, one love, one heart beating” in unison. It was a beautiful way to complete the first weekend of the Forest School Course.

This day served as a reminder of how much joy and growth can come from even the dreariest of days. We don’t need to wait for the perfect weather or moment to get busy playing and learning outside.

We are looking forward to connecting, laughing, and playing with as many folks as possible this year! We would like to invite you to join us in training on and with the Land. 

To find a course near you, visit https://childnature.ca/forest-school-canada/!