by Sonja Lukassen, coordinator Outreach and School-Based Programs, Ottawa Forest and Nature School

“But it looks like they’re just playing…”

These are words I hear regularly. Questions, often sincerely curious, occasionally accusatory, asking about the value of making space for children to do as they choose on the land; inviting them to follow their hearts and to play.

We provide supplies and tools- to support the play. We tell stories and ask questions- to plant seeds of inquiry. We make notes and take photos- to make the learning visible and to help us follow up later in the week, in the month, in the year.

The squirrel family crawling up to their nest

I have conversations with parents, educators, and principals every week. We talk about how offering children choices helps them to be more engaged in their learning. We talk about how having time allows for inquiry to really take root and grow. We talk about how being in nature, focusing on what they choose, supports children who struggle to focus and be still in class, and also supports children who tend to be quiet, watchful, withdrawn.

A collection, in drawings, of “interesting small things” that were found in the schoolyard

 We talk about how most adults whose work involves stewardship, be that in education, conservation or environmentalism, spent hours of their youth getting wet and dirty, playing and exploring, leading their own learning, nurturing their connection to the planet, on the land. We watch children play and are reminded of our own self-guided childhood outdoor adventures. We remember, we smile, and sometimes we sigh wistfully, longing to connect to those formative days on special-to-us land.

I acknowledge that learning can look many different ways, that learning can happen indoors, being still and mostly quiet. I also allow that learning can emerge through child-led exploration and play.

Harvesting leaves  to feed caterpillars and worms

Play can look so many different ways- it can be in groups, or in partners, or all alone. It can be big and loud and fast, or small and quiet and watchful. It can be reliving moments from the past or imagining the future. It can revolve around real human beings, real creatures, imaginary friends, and imaginary beings. It can be splashy and bouncy in a puddle, or it can be concentrated, on tiptoe, on a balance beam. It can be writing a story, writing a recipe, or writing a song.

Making a list of all of the birds they’ve seen

The children in these images were told a story, helped decide on the boundaries of our play zone, and were invited to play. These are but a few of the moments that have emerged in our time together this season.

Their educators play alongside, or stand still nearby, noticing the play. They make note, ask questions, and follow up.

Our one day of land-based play together each week has helped to inform the learning and lessons that flow in and around the classroom the rest of the week, connecting the questions and discoveries to curriculum.

“Identifying bugs and fossils”

Children are not directed to focus on any particular way of spending time, of moving their bodies, of interacting with the outdoor space or each other. Rather, they are invited to listen to a story, to listen to their bodies and brains, to listen to the land and her creatures. They are invited to listen, and to play.

Testing out a new swing design

For some the connection between play and learning is not always obvious. Learning and teaching, to many, means being still indoors, doing what one is told to do, demonstrating understanding of particular lessons.

I acknowledge that this is a way to cover and assess material, that this method of teaching is chosen by many educators at various times for various, valid reasons.

Building bridges by dropping rocks, crossing the bridges, and fishing

I also acknowledge that the more time I spend on the land with children, be that the forest or the schoolyard,  the clearer it becomes to me that children are capable of being equal contributors in guiding their own learning- by offering them time and space, by offering invitations, and by stepping back so that they can play.

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