I was asked this week – as I have been asked many times, now – what we do at Forest School. What do we teach and what do the kids learn? Is there a curriculum? This set of questions can be tricky to answer. Or, rather, they can be tricky to answer quickly (and I always feel that pressure) because I want to do them justice. This entire blog is dedicated to answering those questions, after all!
However, this week I responded both in terms of uncovering the Ontario curriculum through play, and in terms of the social and emotional growth – as opposed to academic skill and content mastery – we seek to cultivate in our students. I cited an example of one of our youngest students learning to get up all by himself after falling again and again in the deep snow, how he figured out how to use trees and logs to help him up, how eager he was to then help others when they fell, and how he managed all of this without tears or panic and with a real sense of accomplishment and capability. I also spoke of one of our oldest students who, when asked at the beginning of his time at Forest School, “What would you like to do today? What are you interested in?” would respond, “I don’t know” and retreat into himself, and who went on over the course of a few months to create some of the most complex and ingenious projects and games I’ve ever seen, and ones that invite others to play, too. Capable, determined, persistent, creative, self-assured, social: the development of these character traits, among others, is our “curriculum”.
This weekend I started reading Jay Griffiths’ A Country Called Childhood (elsewhere publish as Kith), and came across this passage that, for me, answers much more poetically – and therefore much more perfectly – what we do, what we learn at Forest School:
“We learned about tides and chance, storms and sun, the vicissitudes of what is lost and found, flotsam and jetsam, castaway luck, islands, sea-songs, rings, riddles and pledges. We learned the sense of a clean slate in the renewal of the tide-smoothed sand. We learned the physical sense of hot, soft sand on scuffed knees, the sharp cuts of seashells, and we learned what it meant to have salt rubbed in a wound. We learned a real and wise fear of swimming hear rocks. No amount of Jacques Cousteau – adore him though we did – would have been a good enough substitute for the lived adventures of that modest little strip of beach, Dumpton Gap. This part of my childhood was, I know now, a passport to the world” (Griffiths, 47).
Replace some of the seaside specifics with those of the forest – a slower sense of time, maybe, in the debris around all around us in various states of decay, and the certainty of renewal in the new life surging up among it; the “vicissitudes” of “chance” and the necessity of death for life in the discovery of deer bones picked clean in a bed of fur and moss; “the sense of a clean slate” in a fresh blanket of snow; what it means to cold as ice – but the idea that the natural world instills learning in us in a real and deep way, and in a way that matters, keep that. That’s what we do at Forest School.