Linking the Forest to Self-Regulation

We are honoured to be able to offer insights into the Forest School approach as it is being offered by practitioners all across Canada. This guest post is by Gail Molenaar, an RECE, Certified in the Shanker Method of Self-Regulation and a Forest and Nature School Practitioner based in Ontario.


As the school year ends and another torch is passed, I can’t help but think about all the lessons the forest has taught us. Looking at Forest and Nature School through a self-regulation lens can be unique and innovative. We look at stress through a 5-step model called the Shankur Method, and put on our self-regulation goggles.

  1. Reframe the behaviour.
  2. Recognise the stressors.
  3. Reduce the stress.
  4. Reflect.
  5. Respond. (The Mehrit Centre-

Through this new lens we see what may be the stressors and try to help find ways to deal with them. I am finding that stressors for the students in the indoor class become virtually non-existent in the forest.

What exactly do we see inside the Kindergarten room that could be considered stressors?

  1. Noise– This could be anything, from the HVAC to the P.A system, transition time bells, children playing loudly, music, blocks banging against the hard floor, or the teachers singing a clean up song.
  2. Lighting– The harsh fluorescent lights actually flicker and make a humming sound, and can be excessively bright.
  3. Temperature– Sometimes the lack of air movement with the sun beating on the windows creates a rather high temperature. Along with 27 children, it can get hot.
  4. Crowded– With 27 small bodies vying for 2 teachers attention, it can get overwhelming for both teacher and student. We all require some personal space, which can be difficult to procure in a classroom.
  5. Smell– Bodily functions and small children are a given.  There is no escape when encapsulated in a Kindergarten room!
  6. Transitions and Dictated schedules- Being swept up in play and then forced to clean up to attend to other classes can be disruptive and not very child honouring.
  7. Bright Colours and Visual Overload– In an effort to make classrooms appealing, they are often decorated with brightly coloured bulletin boards and table tops, painted in primary colours, and items stored in bright coloured plastic totes. Our eyes are never sure where to glance and become overwhelmed.

Overall we are creating a sensory storm that may be causing our students more harm than benefit. We can consider calming colours, opening windows, turning off overhead lights and using soft glow bulbs in table lamps. Provide headphones, fidget toys, smell jars, yoga cards and a quiet space to calm.


But what about going out into the forest?

The forest offers hidey holes for quiet reflection. Mother Nature has created the perfect light bulb amongst the trees and she always wears the perfect scent. Sometimes it gets quite hot outside but it’s always significantly cooler under the tree canopy. We are never crowded as we frolic on hills and fallen trees. We climb those same trees and make new discoveries about the flora and fauna and ourselves. Our ears hear so many sounds that soothe us and sometimes rock us to sleep. We see such a variety of green and brown that never overwhelms us but instead offers a familiar colour scheme that makes us feel calm and alert. The forest is the best gym class that was never taught.

Self-Regulation is a paradigm revolution. I see it everywhere I turn and with every move that is made. As educators we tend to be driven by management: management of behaviour and management of time. Every minute of every hour must be filled with something new, exciting, educational and thought provoking. After all without this what would we need teachers for?

We must begin by looking much more closely at what we want to accomplish, where we see the future of education and what our students are missing in their lives. Granted some are missing much more than others, but I believe every public school child would benefit from more time outside in nature. Some are getting more than others, but I feel that collectively, as educators, we are neglecting the lessons that nature can provide and the deep learning that cannot be duplicated inside a classroom. As a Forest and Nature School practitioner, I have noticed that in general children who are not self-regulating in an indoor classroom miraculously can bring themselves to calm, happy and alert within a short amount of time in the forest.

There is no better time than now to be on the lookout for the stressors affecting you and the children in your care, and to go deep into the forest to experience some of the best self-regulating calm.

When you take the time to balance your own well-being, it pays forward to the students under your watch. As Dr. Stuart Shanker might say, “Stay Calm and Self-Reg on.” And I add to the sentiment by taking it into the forest!

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Cindy Green says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Gail.

  • Suzanne Turnbull says:

    Hello, I am an Occupational Therapist. We are hoping to incorporate access to the forest in our new school plan. Do you know of anyone in the Shanker realm who has had the opportunity to design a forested space and/ or use one? And who may be willing to chat with me particularly in regards to maintaining safety . Thank you.

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