By Carrie Komesch, Educator
Over the past year, Forest School Canada and the Ottawa Carleton District School Board have formed a partnership with the intention of providing public school classes with an authentic forest school experience—namely, the opportunity to regularly and repeatedly visit a natural environment, one where students are supported in immersing themselves in free play and the inevitable inquiry-based learning that follows. Working with teachers and administrators at Meadowlands Public School, the intention was to have a kindergarten class and a grade one class (both french immersion) visit our site every Tuesday for the entire year.
Due to to the labour action happening at the start of the school year, we adapted our planned program by bringing forest school to the schoolyard, both literally and philosophically.
In this context, location is a significant variable to change, and no one was certain of how the project would unfold in its new form. However, we were collectively optimistic and excited, and our educators arrived at 9am the first morning with a carload of loose parts to approximate those found at our forest school site—woven baskets, wooden blocks, canvas dropcloths, buckets, shovels, pots and pans and assorted kitchen implements, and twenty or so wooden slabs Sonja fashioned one afternoon using felled trees and a chainsaw.
We provided the students with twine and small discs of similarly cut branches, and used a story to introduce the idea that when they put their tree cookies around their necks and stepped outside, they were not, in fact, entering their everyday schoolyard. Oh no. These tags represented each person’s connection to a special wild place in their memory or imagination, and when we stepped outside, we would be entering…an ancient forest.
We had previously strewn the various loose parts around one area of the yard, and throughout the day, we were able to observe and investigate those elements of play and exploration that emerge seemingly independent of place.
Transporting and mixing water, sand and mud for different purposes using the available containers:
Constructing nests for small animals:
Finding “critters” (a woolly bear caterpillar, in this case, and if I recall correctly, some worms):
Manipulating objects to make structures for communal use, e.g., obstacle courses or special pathways:
Discovering bones (in this case, ones that we had stashed in advance):
…and discovering a legitimate rabbit skull in situ (specifically, in the garden beside the front office!):
Building pretend fires (the raincoat was a coincidence):
And finally, to end the day, some community building and reflection around a real fire!
Initially, it was hard to conceive of how forest school might be possible in the absence of the eponymous forest. However, our experiences with Meadowlands Public School’s yard and community have reinforced that forest school is a philosophy based on cultivating and sustaining an intentional perspective in students and educators. As such, its benefits can be made available to children irrespective of the physical environment in which a program is facilitated. The forest school movement in Canada is constantly exploring how to integrate its foundational tenets with new spaces—how might a program look if located on a beach, or prairie, or even tundra landscape? When we are able to impart the benefits of this educational model in such varied physical environments, why then does it seem so daunting to provide these same opportunities within the confines of an urban or suburban schoolyard?
Further reflection on our evolving Meadowlands project will be coming soon!