This past Fall Term, senior kindergarten and grade one students from Meadowlands PS visited the Ottawa Forest and Nature School six times

Bringing Forest School Back to the Classroom

by Jacqueline Whelan OCT

Jackie is a grade one teacher who brings Coyote Mentoring, Montessori and Forest School Practitioner training to her classroom each day and to the forest at Ottawa Forest and Nature School each week.

This past Fall Term, senior kindergarten and grade one students from Meadowlands PS visited the Ottawa Forest and Nature School six times. They discovered, hiked, explored, built, observed, and most of all played. My colleague Joanne Burbidge, OCT and myself wondered how this positive play experience in nature would relate to learning? Back at Meadowlands PS, the students communicated how much they enjoyed visiting the woods every Tuesday, as most of us expected they would. How would this time in the forest tie back to the expectations of the Ontario Curriculum? What measurable skills were the students developing and what knowledge would they gain?

In order to link experiences at Forest School to student well-being and achievement, we embraced “learning-based play”, a child-centred approach to acquiring knowledge and skills through experiences, in this case, in a natural setting. Instead of setting a specific curriculum expectation (e.g., students will know how to add numbers to 20 by the end of grade one) and then finding an activity to meet that learning goal, we began with the students’ play and their noticing and then tied what interested them back to the curriculum (e.g., a passion for learning the names of mushrooms has led to math sorting activities).

By observing this learning-based play, we noticed a positive impact on student well-being. A few students who were not attending to lessons inside the classroom all of the sudden came alive when they went out into the woods, exhibiting that “naturalistic intelligence” Daniel Goleman refers to in his book Ecoliterate. MA, who was shy and a reluctant speaker in class, would notice the tiniest detail at the Rocky and Mossy Place (e.g., all the different colours of rocks, wintergreen, mosses, etc.). She lead her friends as they hunted for mushrooms on the forest floor. AM is another student who avoids written tasks in the classroom and happily lets others answer for him during lessons. But in the forest, another child emerged, one who spotted three different kinds of woodpeckers in one day or who builds amazingly complicated structures. Being in the forest has allowed these two students to gain confidence in themselves and take on leadership roles. This opportunity may not have presented itself in the regular classroom.

We also noticed how experiences at Forest School had an impact on student achievement in all areas of the Ontario Curriculum. The play that occurs at OFNS is linked back in the classroom to the Big Ideas of the Ontario Curriculum. The most noticeable increase in student learning was in French language. Even though we had been taking the children outside at Meadowlands PS, it was not until we went to the Ottawa Forest and Nature School that we noticed a huge jump in student use of forest vocabulary. When students ask Mme Joanne or myself: “Qu’est-ce que c’est Madame?”, we answer in French, identifying the object by name. On Wednesdays, after each session, the grade one students share their noticing and we co-create anchor charts and vocabulary cards with new words and expressions related to the forest. With each visit, the students expand their vocabulary and gain confidence in their abilities to share their ideas in French. As experiences at OFNS are woven into many areas of the curriculum, when we got back to class students easily acquire new vocabulary related to all areas of the Ontario Curriculum (e.g., Science: understanding structures & mechanisms and living things, Math vocabulary related to positional language and measurement, etc.).

Week 1

During our first visit to the OFNS, EH had asked, “Is this a real forest?” The next day when we were back to Meadowlands PS, students shared their noticing of what made the Ottawa Forest and Nature School a “real forest”. It turns out, that even though we have trees at Meadowlands PS, there were MORE at Forest School (and more birds, pinecones, branches, rocks, etc.). We made up a list of what there was “more” and “less” of at Forest School. This exercise, while totally student driven, was linked directly with the Mathematics Curriculum (e.g., Number Sense – more and less, Data Management – classifying objects using one attribute). We were also able to relate our experience to the Big Ideas of the Social Studies Curriculum such as (e.g., “Communities have natural and built features”).

Students were encouraged to draw a map of where they went while at Forest School, meeting yet another Big Idea of the Social Studies Curriculum: “A community consists of different areas, each of which has a specific layout and characteristics”.

Week 3

On our third visit, the forest was covered with a fine layer of snow. The children were fascinated by the pond we found on our hike to the Rocky and Mossy Place. It was covered by a layer (or two) of ice and had white bubbles floating just below it. We used heavy rocks and sticks to break the ice. The rocks were more effective and this phenomena lead to a discussion back in class about the non-standard units of measure we used to measure mass (e.g., rocks and sticks) which is directly linked to the Measurement strand of the Mathematics curriculum (e.g., estimate, measure, and describe the mass of an object, through investigation using non-standard units). We were also able to gage the temperature using non-standard units of measurement (e.g., relate temperature to experiences of the seasons – in late fall, it’s cold enough for there to be ice). In grade one, students are expected to develop an understanding of all the elements of design. The ice also lead to a discussion in class about “texture” (e.g., textures of familiar objects – fuzzy, prickly, bumpy, smooth, rough).

Week 6

This week students took a “shortcut” while hiking through the woods. On our way there, AM noticed a white flash in the woods and thought it was a wolf! The group at the front of the walk, approached the animal cautiously and quietly only to discover TWO DEER!! At the Rocky and Mossy Place, students engaged in all kinds ofplay revolving around the idea of hunting. SA-H, MA and SA were up in the trees spotting animals below. VH, UT and MA went on a mushroom hunt with me. And JW, helped me discover 9 different kinds of moss during our last sit spot of 2015.

Back at school, our noticing revolved around the “cervidae”, mushrooms and birds we saw while we were out hunting at OFNS. Was it a reindeer, a moose or a deer we saw? Many students felt strongly that we had seen reindeer (“renne”). Was the upcoming holiday season influencing our noticing? Our wonderings about “how mushrooms decompose trees” lead to discoveries about the different steps in the life cycle of the mushrooms which sees spores fly off to a new location, send out “hypha” (root-like substance which permeates the dead tree) and make new mushroom’s “pied” (stalk) and “chapeau” (cap). (Science: Understanding Living Things strand Big Idea: “Different kinds of living things behave in different ways”.)

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