Nurturing the Magic in the Schoolyard

By December 16, 2020Uncategorized
By Sonja Lukassen (she/her/hers)

Coordinator and Lead Educator, OCDSB Partnership Program
Ottawa Forest and Nature School, a program of Andrew Fleck Children’s Services


My work over the last few years has mostly been to nurture and support the growth of Forest and Nature School-inspired programs in all kinds of settings and scenarios, and to mentor that work in schools. I talk about Forest and Nature School a lot, and it’s not unusual for educators to express struggle about finding a rich, forest-y location where they can do the work.

The thing about Forest and Nature School is that it’s an approach. It’s a way of working and playing together with children and the land to nurture rich, real, transformative and messy learning. It’s child-centred, interest-led, inquiry-driven, educator-supported, learning and connecting through play on the land (that’s my elevator pitch).

We gather together on the land with children; we provide provocations and invitations to play based on the weather, the location, and expressed interests from previous times together; we hold the space by being present and helping children remember to make kind and safe choices. We trust that children on the land will bounce around until they feel called to focus on something in particular, and that the something will be rich with learning, and what their bodies and brains need in that moment.

pots and pans, a girl behind a tree in the snow

Creating a “feast in the snow”

There is no specific definition of what a group must look, feel and sound like for Forest School to happen, and neither is there a definition of how the land must be. It can be acres of sprawling forested land or a grove of trees beside a parking lot. It can be a wind-swept salty beach, or a ravine between city streets. It can be a meadow filled with wildflowers and cicadas, or a mowed park beside a baseball diamond.

It can be a schoolyard.

children sitting by a chain link fence

Building a “nest for the baby bears”

Through working in Ottawa in partnership with a school board, I’ve had the opportunity to support many educators on their journey to defining what the Forest and Nature School approach looks like and feels like for them. We begin this partnership with 6 sessions on land that has acres, trails, porcupines, owls and trees for miles and miles. We can hear the distant hum of traffic, but we are deep in nature. There are sticks and rocks, puddles and mud. The land quickly and smoothly invites us to sink in and connect to the natural magic that is so easy to see and hear, smell and feel.

The next phase of our partnership in the following school year is for us to go to them. We meet up at school, tell a story, then hike around the schoolyard or to a nearby green space to explore and play.

We’ve found some really beautiful, secret garden-type places to play. One of my favourite tasks before meeting with a group is searching maps and walking the neighbourhood near the school, looking for the land where we will play.

boy on rope swing

Swinging in the forest that is the front yard of the school


Sometimes we need to stay in the schoolyard. The weather forecast might be atrocious, the nearest land might be too far from the washrooms at school, strike action might mean that we can’t leave the yard at all. Even when we can leave the yard, sometimes it has made sense to spend an hour or two based at school, to go in for lunch, washrooms and to warm up, and then to hike out to the land. We strive to be consistent in the rhythm of our Forest School days, while also being flexible.

Many educators need to stay in their schoolyard. While there can be many steps to take in order to feel comfortable in leaving the yard with a class (this blog post addresses some of them), it might feel most right to spend Forest School sessions in the yard.

We cannot always be on acres of land, but we can always be ready to nurture the magic and support the play – two foundational pieces of the Forest School approach.

Here are some ways that we help to transform the schoolyard into a magical place:

Starting with a Story

We always begin a Forest School session with a story. It can be a picture book or the retelling of a story.

We tend to make stories up.

  • It’s a way of connecting the story to the audience and the place where we’ll be (“Brother and Sister were about the same age as all of you, and they lived in a neighbourhood with a school just like this one.”);
  • A way of providing provocations that often inform the play that emerges (“… and after their third deep breath they started to tingle all over, then realized they had turned into furry black squirrels with long furry tails, just like the ones they had seen out the window. They scurried outside to see if they could climb just like those other squirrels could.”); and
  • A way of sneaking in some lessons or guidelines that will help us stay safe and kind as we play (“When they heard Grandpa hooting like an Owl, they knew it was time to make their way back home again.”).

The story can also help us start to see the land where we will play as a magical space, rather than simply a fenced-in field with a couple of trees. I often end the story by saying something like: “I wonder if, while you play today, you will see signs of creatures like Brother and Sister did, or if you will turn into squirrels like they did, or what other kinds of creatures will swirl around you while you play today.”

kids on snow pile shaped like a dragon’s head

Caring for the Snow Dragon “before she hides before the rest of the winter”

“Hiking” Around the Yard

Children are often very excited when it’s time to go out to play. Their energy is high, many tend to be physical, and it’s a bit trickier for some of them to listen to a lot of guidelines and to make smart and safe choices. We have also just sat for a story so their bodies are ready for a switch to being active. We have found that it’s helpful to not just bounce right into play, but to have some focused activity together first. Going for a hike can help to get some jittery sillies out while also settling the energy. Hiking on a trail works, walking on sidewalks to get to Nearby-Nature works, and so does walking around a schoolyard.

Last year we were unable to leave the schoolyard due to strike action, so we did a tour of the schoolyard instead to start our play. Two Kinder classes would each set out in opposite directions. We would notice footprints, snow structures built by older classes, roll up and down the gentle slope, practice coming to the Hoot and the Howl, and try to hide from each other when our paths crossed. We were pleasantly surprised by how much time this could actually take (the children were so engaged), how different it seemed from week to week or depending on which direction we went, and how much the children enjoyed it. It was just the schoolyard, and it was much more than that.

Dead and wet bushes, branches in foreground

Building “nests” in the rain in an overgrown corner of the yard

Handing out “Forest Glasses”

A few years ago I was lined up with 2 Kinder classes on asphalt in a schoolyard, preparing to walk to the back corner of the yard to play. I told them that I was wearing my Forest Glasses and could see the forest all around us. I could see birds and nests, a forest, a cave where a Dragon lived – and so many other wonderful things. I asked if they wanted to try. They said yes! I reached into my pocket and handed out (invisible) glasses to everyone. We all put them on, and looked around. I asked what they saw. There were fairies, unicorns, horses, and crows. There were flowers and trees and grass. Some of these things everyone could see, some were only seen by a few people.

This simple invitation opened up the possibility of being open to the nature around us. These children went on to play in a small, overgrown corner of the yard and they built bridges across lava, climbed mountains, and found many treasures. At the end of our play time I asked if they wanted to hand back their glasses. Some children did. Others decided to keep them until the next week. That was okay with me. I had many pairs 😉

boy crawling on icy hill

The island between the front parking lot and the sidewalk became a Snowy Mountain Range, to climb over and over again.

Playing in zones that are not typically part of recess adventures

When Forest School sessions happen on land where children are used to playing in a certain way, those habits can easily emerge. Having access to a ball leads to soccer, including the climber in the play zone leads to grounders, wandering on a wide grassy field turns into games of tag. These are not bad or undesirable types of play at all, but since they tend to emerge for many children at recess and on weekend visits to neighbourhood parks, when I’m leading a Forest School session I try to guide the play into other areas. We tuck the balls away for later, set the boundaries for our Play Zones away from the climbers, and try to intercept and engage the tag leaders in other types of play before the running in circles begins.

One way to help stir this up is to play in areas that are not part of the recess play yard. This has the added bonus of being an area that will not be affected when the recess bell rings if it makes sense to stay out through recess and beyond for Forest School time. These physical boundary differences can also support guideline differences, if they exist. I’ve known a teacher who played on the side yard with her class for Forest School time, and the children knew that playing with sticks and throwing snowballs was permitted within the Forest School Zone (as long as the play was safe and kind), and that at recess time, with the rest of the school, this play was not okay. I’ve often been happily surprised by what play possibilities exist on this side land, and by how quickly the children sink in.

Playing Alongside the Children

I’ve been with children who are not used to open-ended play. They are presented with a story and some time and space on the land, and they aren’t sure what to do with it. Or children get outside, see the open-space, and want to run! With both of these situations, I insert myself into the play. I gather a few sticks, place them in a stack, then ask nearby children if they know where I can catch some fish to roast over the fire. This might be all it takes to inspire more fire building, fishing, cooking, shelter-building, making soup, opening a restaurant, debating between paying for items with currency or trade, divvying up jobs, and on and on.

Kids drawing on clipboards on a tarp

Creating leaf rubbings, rainbows and recipes together

Providing Guiding Provocations

Another way to scaffold the emergent learning experience on the land is to offer more direct provocations. Rather than simply saying “There are some materials here that you might find helpful as you play,” I might say “I am curious about how Chickadee made her nest in our story this morning. I’d like to try to build one. Would anyone like to try something like that?” This leaves much space for interpretation and creativity and inquiry (What will it be made from? How big should it be? How does a bird actually do that? Can we find anything like that around here? Have you ever seen a nest? Do any other creatures live in nests?) while also providing some structure. This sort of provocation not only helps a child begin to find their way in the play, it often emerges in some form through other play sessions to come.

Bringing out Clipboards

I’ve learned that for some children, it’s helpful to carry some of the familiar along with them while they explore the land. Getting dirty, role-playing outside, touching natural items – these all might be brand new to a child. Having clipboards, paper and markers around can offer scaffolding and independence – a way to connect to a favourite activity from home or class while also processing the experience of being outdoors with some freedom for an extended period of time. We have watched how this tool often slowly drifts out of prominence as a child becomes more familiar and comfortable with the time to play on the land. (A few sessions in, we might deliberately tuck the clipboards away, too. Not so that children cannot have them, but as an opportunity to engage in some other kind of play first.)

girl with drawing of flowers

“I couldn’t find any flowers, so I drew some to take home”

Bringing in Loose Parts

It’s definitely true that Loose Parts are not required for rich learning to emerge through play on the land, and it’s also true that being able to offer them can make sinking in feel smoother for the first few sessions, as well as helping educators feel more comfortable about the openness of it all. There have been times when Loose Parts are central to the play, times when they are mostly ignored by many of the children as they play, and times when we have deliberately left most of them tucked away out of sight, curious to see what emerges without them. Sharing items on the schoolyard is extremely limited, if permitted at all, for many educators right now, so this might not be an option. (This guide has helped some educators I know in their journey with Loose Parts.)

pots and pans in sandbox

Adding Loose Parts to a sandbox and grassy field shifted the play in this yard

Bringing in Natural Materials

While manufactured Loose Parts might not be possible, the land has much to share. Leaves, acorns, twigs, branches, dried grass, puddles, snow and icy patches – these natural materials are almost always central to the play. Winter offers the wonder of snow (a clean slate every day!), and yards with trees have leaves most of the year, but not all schoolyards offer rock piles and enough branches to build a shelter. I’ve brought items into schoolyards (Always gathering in a forest friendly way then returning the items back to the forest when we were done with them). I carried in about 20 6-8 foot branches from the forest, used them for our Forest School sessions, then tucked them away under the dumpsters (as suggested by the custodian) until next week. We’ve carried in stumps for balancing and jumping. I’ve dropped off a bin full of pinecones as a surprise for a grade 1 class, which they excitedly discovered while on a walk in their yard, seeking out groups of 10 items. The schoolyard may not be able to offer these items, but it’s possible to find them elsewhere and bring them in to support the play.

Ending the Time on the Land Together (at the end of the day or before going back inside)

Gathering for a Closing Circle out on the land (yard) can not only help shift energy for the transition to an indoor space, it can also help focus some reflection on the time spent playing, and reinforce that it’s special and of value. The children are reminded that they weren’t “just playing”, but that you’re interested in hearing about what they did. This also helps give you a chance to hear what stands out for them so that you can build on it later, either back in class or the next time you are outside together. Children often listen intently to each other, too (especially after we’ve practiced this a few times) because they are also interested in hearing what play emerged for other children.

Kids sitting on planks of wood in the snow

Handing the Chickadee around to take turns sharing stories of the day

What makes a Forest and Nature School-inspired session magical is being on the land, being open to the interests and needs of the children, and working together with them to connect and play. This can feel easier in certain places and seasons, and more challenging in others. I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from children and the land as we have played in such varied places, including some rather bare-looking schoolyards.

I wish you luck on your journey to connect and learn while playing on the land, wherever that land may be.

goal post hammock

A hammock is wonderful, wherever you hang it!

For more post sharing supports, experiences and inspiration for Taking the Learning Outside, visit the Ottawa Forest and Nature School blog at