Finding Forest School in the Schoolyard

By Sonja Lukassen, Lead Educator of Ottawa Forest and Nature School

For many folks, large and small, this is an image of a forest:

A reality for many folks is that this is as wild a space as they can access on a regular basis:

Surrounded by asphalt, not terribly beautiful, a definite play destination, 5 trees max.

I wrote last week about the beauty of being able to sink into the forest with a group, of spending 6 full days visiting the same land and the connection that can come.

That is a lovely, inspiring, effort-filled, attainable dream for many people. I have walked many educators through the where and how of making these regular visits happen and have often been told how much easier it is to continue these visits than was initially expected. Wonderful.

I am aware that sometimes though, for many legitimate, real reasons, it is truly not possible for an educator to bring her students to the forest, away from the schoolyard. They can’t go 6 times, or 3 times, or even once.

I believe that it is always important to keep an eye on the dream of deep, prolonged, regular play in a wild space. There is such immense value in these visits, it is essential to continue to strive to make this a possibility for as many children (and adults) as possible.

In the meantime, though, it is possible to bring the forest school approach- the open-ended, free, risky, outdoor play; the emergent learning and inquiry; the tools that support this play, and even parts of the forest itself, to a schoolyard.

I have the pleasure of supporting some schoolyard play for the next few weeks. This particular group of students are in grade 6. We are meeting together 3 times, for 2 hours each time, on their schoolyard. This week, after introducing ourselves and sharing some hopes for our time together, we headed straight outside. The children ran out onto the yard, saw the additional items I had brought, and were engaged immediately.

The Guidelines that I brought for our play together: When you think of what you want to do, ask yourself “Is it kind?” and “Can I do it safely?” If the answers are both yes, go for it. If not, let’s work together to find a way to do it, whatever “it” is, kindly and safely.

Guidelines added by students: “Show respect.”

That was it. Off they went:

We were on the schoolyard at recess time, so some students asked if they needed to stay with their class or if they could go off to other pursuits. They were told they could choose what felt right. (They all stayed around and kept creating.)

Other children on the yard came over to inspect the play, the tools, the goings-on of these grade sixes. They asked if they could also take part- painting, building, digging, creating. They were welcomed to join, were asked to do what felt right, to please check in with other builders before destroying any existing structures. (Nothing was destroyed.)

When our two hours, which flew by, were up, I asked the children a few questions.  How was this the same or different from what you expected? What is the point in giving a class of grade 6 students the opportunity to play rather than focus on curriculum in class? What supplies do we need for next time? They had definite opinions and ideas in response to each question.

Before departing I had help disassembling all of the structures and creations, gathering all of the tools. We left the yard as we found it: Surrounded by asphalt, not terribly beautiful, a definite play destination, 5 trees max.

It might not be a forest. It is definitely a place where deep, meaningful play can happen, where children work together to solve problems and create special places, where nearby children and adults feel compelled to seek out invitation based on the magic in the air.

We played in a schoolyard together for 2 hours. That’s all we did, and yet it was so much more than that. We are staying connected to the dream of regularly playing and learning, for extended periods, on nearby forested land, and in the meantime we are nurturing our connections to ourselves and each other on the land that we have access to. That feels pretty Forest School to me.

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