Our guest blogger, Tricia Edgar, is rooted in the world of Forest School in Vancouver, BC. Tricia is Founder and President of ‘Fresh Air Learning’ [ www.freshairlearning.org]. She is passionate about Environmental Education, Forest School, and permaculture. You can read more on Tricia by visiting her site at triciaedgar.com.
Seeking Patterns: The Invisible Curriculum Of Forest School
“Look! It’s a hamburger!”
They’re not words that you’d expect to hear at forest school, but they’re true. One of the children is sitting on a rock in the little creek, his boots in the water and a bucket full of water by his side. He’s scooping creek water and tossing it into the stream in front of him, experimenting with the shapes that it makes. After a number of hot dog shapes, he’s finally gotten the circle that he wanted: a perfect hamburger.
I love forest school for many reasons. The outdoors is a good place to be in any weather, be it a downpour of rain with glorious puddles or the dappled sunshine of June. The children learn so many things playing outdoors: they understand themselves as explorers, play creatively with natural materials, and develop a deeper appreciation of the fine qualities of mud. But forest school is also about an invisible curriculum. It’s about getting to know a place at a deeper level. For me, forest school’s invisible curriculum has a lot to do with the development of pattern understanding.
What is pattern understanding? It’s about noticing without conscious noticing, until one day the dots connect. For years I loved salmonberries, a local berry that looks a lot like a raspberry. After a number of years, I realized that I didn’t actually like the taste – I liked the fact that the berries ripen in June, because to me they meant that summer was beginning.
You can press children to notice connections, and I confess to doing this with my daughter, asking her probing questions about natural connections until I get a withering stare. But these sorts of pattern understandings also evolve from time spent playing outside, experimenting with nature’s raw materials, and connecting with a place over the seasons.
Animals are adept at recognizing patterns, at this noticing without noticing. A bear knows that juicy grubs often live in logs. Hummingbirds can come back to the same place around the same time every year. Humans are good at recognizing patterns too, but many of the patterns that we’re exposed to are those of human culture. For children and adults who aren’t outdoors very often, it takes time to get used to being in a place that isn’t of human design, and it takes time to understand its patterns.
For children, emerging pattern understanding shows up as watery hamburgers made in a creek, but it also shows up as questions and answers like the following:
- Where can you find the biggest and best maple leaves to make mud sushi?
- What places make the best areas for dams when it rains?
- When do the tastiest berries get ripe, and what do they look like?
- And most importantly for Vancouver kids: where do the best mud puddles form, and how do you get yourself out once you’re in one?
For humans, understanding natural patterns also gives us the opportunity to become savvy designers. One of my other loves is permaculture, a system of ecological design, and one of the principles of permaculture is that “everything gardens”. Humans, other animals, and even plants choose homes that work for them, but they also create them. Learning more about the patterns that support life allows us to create living spaces that support life.
Pattern conscious design can happen at any number of levels, from small household choices to urban design. Recently, the slugs ate most of the lettuce in a new garden I’d installed. I took a pattern conscious approach and realized that I’d had to install the garden at a less-than-ideal time of the year, and I’d used mulch. Because the mulch hasn’t decomposed completely, it’s still a great home for slugs. I also realized that over time, the mulch would decompose, reducing slug numbers. The slugs didn’t seem nearly as interested in my kale, so I stuck with that, leaving the lettuce to the hungry little molluscs. Instead of seeing the slugs as a problem, I tried to understand why they were there in the first place. Understanding the pattern helped me see that a solution would arrive as the mulch decomposed, without me adding any slug bait at all.
Giving children the opportunity to connect with nature is what forest school is all about. Connecting with nature takes many forms, from hands-on play in forests and streams to the development of subtle understandings that might a long time to articulate. Even if they’re never spoken, the patterns that children experience in nature will help shape their understanding of how to act as a part of ecosystems, growing pattern-conscious kids who have a better understanding of ecological design.