The First Five Weeks at Forest School Canada


Oh man, is this post ever overdue. Since I last wrote on this blog, I’ve moved my life to Ottawa, and at Forest School Canada (FSC) we’ve now finished our second week of Fall programs after having run three successful week-long Forest School “Taster Sessions” in August.

 Some highlights and some reflections from our first five weeks:

We made lemons from lemonade (or, art from rain water).

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The very first visual representations and maps of our new site were made by our first students.

In this picture the grey circle is our fire pit, around which are the amphitheatre (black), the shed (red), and the cabin (green). 

In this picture the grey circle is our fire pit, around which are the amphitheatre (black), the shed (red), and the cabin (green). 

We found many bones, and wondered about where they could have come from. Dinosaurs? Deer? ;)

We found "ancient runes" and took precautions against curses. This says, "Go no further!" We didn't risk it!

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Magic potions were concocted, spells cast, and unwitting teachers and playmates were transformed...

Obstacle courses were constructed and tested...

As were spider webs,

and nests,

and castles.

One of the most interesting things that students built (and modified and rebuilt and added to and...) over the course of our first few weeks of programs was the "ultimate play structure". As part of our site development, a pile of small logs had been left to the side of our cabin. At first the kids didn't take much notice of the pile, except to scramble over it and hunt for creatures under it. (Sidenote: there is nothing that brings kids together and out of their shells faster than finding bugs/snails/salamanders/frogs, etc.)

Snails. Kids coming out of shells. Get it?

Snails. Kids coming out of shells. Get it?

But in the second week of August, the kids began to drag the logs out into the flat open space in front of the cabin and arrange them with an obvious sense of purpose. Over the course of an afternoon, the pile in the right side of this photo

became this:

The girls are actually in the "carving studio" part of the "ultimate play structure".

The girls are actually in the "carving studio" part of the "ultimate play structure".

and then this:

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and ultimately this:

DIY teeter-totter!

DIY teeter-totter!

The best thing about the "ultimate play structure" - and this is true of the spider web, the nests, the castle, the potions, the maps, etc. - is that it came - all of those ideas came - directly from the kids. During these first few weeks at FSC, I've been marvelling at how little the kids need from me, both in terms of "stuff" and in terms of input, before they engage in deeply creative play and exploration outside. All they really seem to need from me as teacher/adult is permission. Once they trust that I really mean it when I say they can touch, play, and build with anything they see or find, and that I'm not going to interrupt with the "right" way to do things, they rarely need much more. 

There's lots there to unpack. Why does it matter that the ideas came from the kids? Why do I continue to be surprised at children's resourcefulness and creativity, even though I subscribe to the vision of the child as eminently capable? What's the nature of that "permission" that I feel like I am asked for, that I deal out? 

For this post I think I'll focus on that first question: Why does it matter that the ideas for the way we spend our day at Forest School come from the kids? Child-directedness is at the heart of the FS ethos. Why? When students pursue their own ideas, as opposed to completing externally/arbitrarily assigned tasks, they are more invested in them and so are more motivated to persist in solving the problems that inevitably arise. They also use a wide variety of skills - social, verbal, logical thinking, physical, etc. - in concert with each other and in context.

As an example, during the second week of our summer programs, one student, H., became interested in pushing over a hollowed out stump of a long-dead tree. The stump was taller than he was, and as he pushed and pulled and whacked it with sticks, he caught the attention of a few other students (of course!) who then wandered over. Here H. and the others navigated their first social challenge: the new-comers needed to figure out how to enter the activity and make suggestions successfully. H., had to work out how to receive their interest and advice, and balance relinquishing some control of the situation with giving directions without alienating anyone.  

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Over the next two days (two days!) I watched the kids give (and receive) very complicated, clear directions while they employed, evaluated the effectiveness and safety of, and moved flexibly between various tools and strategies to get the tree down: they used ropes, tying knots and pulling together, they used mallets, they used rocks as saws, they filled part of the hollowed out log (once tipped over) with rocks, they bounced on it, twisted, etc. etc.

They made theories and revised them: "We are pouring water over the base of the stump because that will help it decompose so that when we come back tomorrow it will break apart". They connected the task to prior experiences: "It's like a loose tooth. We just have to keep wiggling it." As a former classroom teacher, I was mentally "checking off" curriculum points that the kids were covering, in an authentic, interrelated way, without having been prompted at all. One student, going in to Grade 1, even drew step by step pictures (accompanying directions for which I then scribed for her) depicting "how to take down a stump".

So when kids are allowed to pursue their own interests, a tremendous amount of learning comes about in a really meaningful, interrelated way, including the ability to sustain interest over long periods of time. But, perhaps even more importantly, when kids are allowed to pursue their own interests, there is a confidence that develops. Sometimes, by not doing or saying anything much at all, I am communicating to my students that I believe their ideas are worthwhile, and that I trust that they are capable of pursuing them independently. 

If the best thing about the "ultimate play structure" was that it came from the kids, the most interesting thing about it (for me) is that it endured through three separate groups of kids, each of whom seemed to just accept its presence in front of the cabin as given, despite the fact that it was in no way permanently fixed there. 

Two members of the second group of kids enjoy the "ultimate play structure".

Two members of the second group of kids enjoy the "ultimate play structure".

That is, until last week, when one student decided to lean the poles against the giant log we have in front of our cabin,

and then add some tarps and rope,

in order to create a "lean-to" shelter for survival, complete with a "kitchen", and an "animal proof door". 

Another full afternoon during which a student sustained interest in his own project, persisted through such challenges as moving heavy logs, and solved such problems as tarps flying away in the wind by using simple materials available (rope) and relying on his own skills (knot-tying). His sense of accomplishment was obvious and infectious! He toured a fellow student and his parents through the shelter, and documented every detail with the camera and voice recorder on his dad's phone.

The evolution of the "ultimate play structure" to "lean-to survival shelter" highlights one of the main differences between my current job and my former one. I previously worked with the same group of children day in and day out over the course of a school year (or two). I now work with different children each week (as I did during our summer programs) or each day (i.e. my Monday group is different from my Tuesday group, but every Monday from now until Christmas will be the same). With this shift I've been mourning the great luxury of time I had with my Kindergarten students to build relationships, community, routine, and to delve deep into inquiry-based learning.

But I've also realized that I now have this great kind of "meta" perspective where I get to see multiple groups of children interact with the same space, and I can slowly gather together the different ways it affects each group. At Kindergarten it would necessarily have been the same kids changing the space - building the ultimate play structure, working through the process of changing it and/or letting it go. But now the Monday kids come back to a potentially very different space than the one they left the previous week, same for the Tuesday kids, and so on, and I get to observe how each group handles that, adapts to it, runs with it, builds on it. I've already been impressed with the flexibility the kids have shown in knowing that their creations may not be the same when they come back, and my curiosity has been piqued about how students interact (or don't!) with what they find on site that had been built by other groups. More on that in a future blog post, I'm sure...