This Week at Forest School: Embracing Deep Snow, Deep Cold, and Risk

Right off the bat this week I learned (again) not to underestimate the determination and sheer physical strength of preschoolers! The snow is just getting deeper for them – it’s even above the knees for some of them now – but when A. noticed the triangular signs on the trees that mark the “Forest Root Trail” behind the cabin, he wouldn’t be deterred from checking out every single one of them!

When we first made and hung those signs back in September or October I had been thinking purely in utilitarian terms: we needed to mark the easiest, most poison-ivy free route to the main trail, it was early in the fall term and the students needed a bit of a directed project to help them connect to the site and to each other. Plus, I thought, kids love to help! They were certainly hooked by the project. They stuck with it for the better part of 3 hours, and were really excited to show their parents at pick up. But as I watched them tour their parents along the trail, running from sign to sign, I realized that, actually, the thrill wasn’t about marking the trail at all – it was about the outdoor art gallery they had inadvertently created, and through which we now travel regularly. The pleasure of seeing their art in the forest hasn’t waned for the artists, and I think it was this same pleasure – discovering the picture on each sign – that propelled A. along the trail on Monday.

The rest of the crew followed close on his heels, and they were able to laugh about the “step, step, crash, step, step, crash” nature of their progress, all the way to the end of the trail and back! What a testament to their good nature and resilience. Along the way we stopped at an ice toast restaurant, S. found a pretty comfortable snow throne, all by accident, and the students helped me collect a big bucket full of birch bark for starting fires, for which I was very grateful!

Collecting birch bark and wood for fires has been a central part of FS since the fall. All of our regular students help – even the tiniest ones – some by gathering “finger-sized” Pine and Cedar branches for kindling, others by cutting “wrist-sized” fuel, and still others by carrying in and stacking logs. These activities, especially as they become more and more routine and banal, can become chores. But in asking myself whether it’s ok for the kids to help with these chores and why, I realized that, even beyond the value of helping out, all the jobs that help maintain the fire are also rituals that help us connect with the seasons and with our site.

In the fall, as we gathered up dead sticks off the forest floor to store up kindling, we raced the coming snow just like the chipmunks and squirrels who all around us we saw stashing acorns and pinecones for the winter, and every day we are grateful for the warmth the dead wood in this forest affords us. Keeping the fire going also teaches us lessons in ecology, species identification, risk management and responsibility, and little O. and I have had quite a few discussions about “heavy” vs. “light”, “narrow” vs. “wide”, “how many more” logs we need, and “how many are left” on the wagon, which makes for lots of opportunities to practice the finer points of counting.

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On Tuesday I learned that different people see different things in the same place, and that that opens up entirely new opportunities for play. In the fall, a fallen log on one side of the path into Forest School became our pirate ship, and a hub of imaginative and gross motor play: there was climbing, jumping, reckoning with heights and slipperiness; there were sharks, treasure, and attacking pirates who were paralyzed with magic spells; there were tools and trial and error used to install a mast and a sail. Almost all of our play for the entire fall term stayed on that one side of the trail.

Then on Tuesday when we were headed back to the ship, E., a new student, discovered a new pirate ship on the other side of the trail: a huge tree that had recently fallen, bringing its whole root system up with it. That fallen tree has been there the entire time we’ve been on the site, and yet it hadn’t caught anyone’s eye until Tuesday. So interesting how that happens.

 So there was the trunk, still with a lot of its branches, pointing up into the air on a 45-degree angle, the top of the root system for climbing up and sliding down, the underside with its dangling roots, and the huge “bear cave” of a hole it left behind. This pirate ship was loaded with potential for rich play, but it was also a whole lot riskier than our other one. I felt myself tense as the kids charged toward it, but then I remembered that I had tools to help manage this risk: the wolf howl we use as a means to stop kids and call them to us, and the common sense of the students themselves.

When I called them over, they came immediately, which I was grateful for, and so I thanked them. Then I explained that I was suddenly feeling really nervous. “What about this ship do you think makes me feel worried?” I asked. Each of them proceeded to name, one by one, the things I had been afraid of: branches in eyes, falling or slipping, bringing debris and other kids down with you, and falling onto other sticks. Then we generated a list of ways we could play safely together on this new ship. We agreed to give each other lots of space in case of slipping and falling and snapping branches, for example, and we agreed to be extra careful about sticks in our faces. Because we had generated these “rules” together, all I needed to do was periodically remind students of them, and that was enough to maintain our safety on the ship.

Including students in the assessment and management of risk is one of the most powerful ways to keep them safe. But I also rely a lot on my intuition, which at this point I can articulate as a combination of keeping my finger on the pulse of the mood of the group – are they calm, focused, engaged, or are they frantic and struggling with each other – and keeping track of the time. I always think of that phrase about how most skiing accidents happen on that “just one last run”. Similarly, I find accidents happen when kids are tired, mentally or physically. For this group, ranging in age from 4 – 7, our limit on this ship was about 20 minutes: that was the point at which the mental effort of giving each other space (i.e. waiting!), the actual physical effort of climbing plus the frustration of frequently slipping and falling, and the social effort of negotiating the imaginative play scenario in which this was all taking place all seemed about to reach the breaking point, so I’d call them off the tree and into the cabin for a change of pace.

The change of pace in this case was an epic game of indoor tag!

The change of pace in this case was an epic game of indoor tag!

Wednesday’s highlight for me was again having preschoolers lead me confidently into the forest, where they climbed on logs, and explored the icy crust that’s now hidden under even more snow. T. probably spent close to an hour (cumulatively – it was pretty chilly so we were in and out quite a bit!) hunting for ice chunks, carefully brushing off the snow, holding them up to the sunlight, (at which P. would “ooooh” and “ahhh”, in between bites of her own ice chunks!) and then marveling at the tinkling sounds the ice pieces made when he broke them. We also wondered about the rounded pieces of ice we could break off logs and stumps – there was something special about them!

I had two favourite parts of Thursday. The first was watching C. draw birds in his sketchbook, carefully considering beak to breast to leg length ratios, as this full-on naturalist creates something of a guidebook. I unfortunately didn't get a picture of this!

Did you get it? Can I have my camera back? Don't get snow on my face! ;)

Did you get it? Can I have my camera back? Don't get snow on my face! ;)

The second was getting “camouflaged” by Z. with cedar branches (“because you’re under a cedar tree so it will be just like someone was shaking the tree and the branches happened to fall”) and snow and ice, all the while discussing whether it was really true that burying oneself in snow is warmer than just laying out on top of the snow (I’m still skeptical about this because I was pretty freezing, but Z. is convinced that you have to be face down in the snow for this to really work – another experiment for another time!). I also loved this moment because every time Z. would carefully arrange the cedar branches over my face and then leave to go get more, A. would mischievously disrupt them in order to tickle me with them. Also I was pretending to eat them. In short, it was a really relaxed, playful moment with two students who I am just really enjoying these days!

Do you see the mischief in this one's eyes?

Do you see the mischief in this one's eyes?

Friday was a really busy, great day as we had both the regular preschool program and a PD Day program running simultaneously! I’ll devote another post to the PD Day group as this post is already getting quite long, but my favourite part of Friday was actually reading some new library books to the preschoolers and having them say, “again, again, again!” each time we finished. These little ones were also such troopers again with the cold, plus they were working really hard at giving each other turns on L.’s sled, even helping to pull each other! Sadly I didn't get a picture of this, either - too cold!

Overall, week 2 of the winter/spring session was a great success! Special thank you to Ginette and Carrie for volunteering with us this week, despite injured elbows and mountains of schoolwork! We are very grateful for your support!