kids posing in snow

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

One entire day a week is a lot to hand over to unprogrammed time. Spending 20% of the school week outside, with no real agenda, trusting in child-directed exploration and play, can feel like a lot to ask.

What are the children learning?

It looks like they’re just playing.

What are the plans for the day?

What material are you going to cover?

We are often asked these questions. The answers quite readily present themselves.

I’ve seen a child take time to walk quietly, on her own, at her own pace, near the other children and away from them. She was learning to follow her inner voice, getting to know the land, figuring out where she fit in the group, what felt comfortable and what did not.

I’ve seen boys mine. The chose a location, started digging, and stuck to it for 3 hours. They made plans all week at school about how to support the sides so they wouldn’t cave in, then got right back to it upon returning the next week. I’ve been told they struggle to sit still at school and to focus on requested work. As they play they are nurturing an authentic and potentially lifelong interest in the land, as well as choosing a healthy physical outlet for their constant energy.

I’ve seen girls run the perimeter of the land, searching for bones, fossils, animal prints. They found what they decided was a bird skull, a couple of decomposing deer vertebrae maybe. The fossil harvest was immense- too many to count. They started gathering interesting rocks, hoping to break them open. When we arrived on site with hammers we expected they would be used for construction. This group had other ideas, though, and the hammers quickly became archeological excavation tools.

I’ve seen two children become UN recruiters. They created uniforms, complete with metal detectors, rations, and a frisbee (peacekeepers need to play, too). They let the rest of the group know that they could sign up at the old hotel after lunch, beside the big tree. The richness and depth of the conversations that arose from this play could not have been planned or directed.

I’ve seen groups emerge from massive snowball fights unharmed, and 4-year olds choose to line up to wait for a chance to drill a tap into a maple tree. I’ve watched a group decide on their own where would and would not be safe to explore on an icy day, and watched children roll down a huge hill over and over again after negotiating time into the end of the day to do so.

The learning is not as obvious, perhaps, as some see in the classroom. Aside from safety, there are seldom any particular concepts that we are focused on getting across. We all arrive with ideas, inspired by the land, the weather, previous play, and each other. We meet to share ideas, form a rough plan, and make room for the play to unfold.

The anchors in the forest are time, space, and choice. Time to listen to your heart, and to follow the message that is sent. Time to listen to your gut, and decide whether or not to take on a particular challenge. Time to wait, with anticipation, for the chance to do a job that is calling out to you. Time to soak in the sights and sounds and smells around you, to not only be near nature but to be part of it.

One whole day each week in the forest can feel like a lot of time to take away from other learning environments. Once groups have started spending the time, though, it can suddenly feel like not enough.

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