This first week (back) at Forest School was a chilly one, but all of our students and families, both new and returning, met the cold with a sense of adventure, positivity, and creativity. Monday and Tuesday weren't too bad, so we were able to get out on a "crunch walk" with Monday's preschoolers, wondering why it was that sometimes little feet broke through the thick layer of ice that was hiding under the lightest dusting of powdery snow, while other times they could slip along on top (big feet seemed to crunch through with each step!). That walk was full of learning to keep our balance both on top of and after stepping through the ice, and to pick ourselves up when we fell, despite uneven, slippery ground and cumbersome snowsuits! Lessons in gross motor strength and coordination, and persevering through frustration with a sense of humour, for sure!
Before the students arrived on Monday morning, as a way of enticing them to explore the layers of ice and snow, I had begun to build something by sticking big chunks of ice into the snow. The preschoolers were interested in this something - it was a fort, to them - and they added to it and played a bit inside it. But Tuesday's group was even more inspired by it. E. agreed with me when I suggested that the ice chunks looked like teeth, and before long what had been a fort on Monday became on Tuesday the mouth of a "giant daddy snow monster" and soon we were stacking smaller ice chunks in an attempt to make a "baby snow monster", and planning an elaborate chasing game through the forest...
Another highlight of Tuesday (according to almost all of Tuesday's students at our end of day meeting during which we shared our favourite parts of the day) was the "owl and mouse game", a game I learned from a very dear friend of mine back at my previous school. It started when I asked Tuesday's group if they knew what owls eat. “Seeds?” “Grass?” “Leaves?” were some suggestions. “You know what, they might eat that, too,” I said, “but I know for sure that they eat mice and voles.” After explaining what voles are, discussing how mice and voles can either run on top of the snow (without sinking at all!) or make tunnels underneath it, we launched into the game. For the first round, I was the owl, and the kids chose whether to pretend to be a mouse or a vole. Then they had to run (as if they were scurrying on top of the snow) or crawl (as if tunnelling under the snow) from one line of stumps to the cabin, without being caught in my sharp talons! When the mice and voles were running, they could be spotted and potentially caught by the owl, but if they were crawling, they were hidden and so safe. After that first round we realized that running on top of the snow was the fastest and easiest way from point A to point B, but that crawling was the safest option, and that that’s probably the same way mice and voles feel! Also after that first round, almost everyone wanted to be an owl (surprise?!) which opened up another discussion about what would happen if there were mole owls than mice in the world!
I don’t often introduce my own games, particularly ones with such concrete “lessons” attached to them, but I was reminded this week of the fact that it can sometimes take kids (and we’ve noticed this with adults, too, when running workshops) some time to settle into or to sustain free play, especially when they’re new to the site and to each other. I can imagine that this time lag, or that period where it seems like kids are just sort of “spinning” or “not doing anything” might discourage or disconcert some educators who are trying to incorporate more free play or child-directed learning into their practice. But persevere! At this early phase when kids seem to not quite know what to do with the freedom and open-ended-ness, it can be helpful and supportive to lead games and to play with quite intensely. But I’ve found it’s important then to step back and make space for the children to take the lead again so that they don’t become dependent on the adult/educator to stimulate their play, and to step back more and more over time. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised (and then frustrated with myself for being surprised!) by the initiative and creativity and resourcefulness even the youngest children at Forest School begin to show once that initial period of uncertainty or acclimatization has eased.
In fact, Thursday, the coldest day this week, brought a perfect example of a student who, having been coming to Forest School for a few months now, and having taken some time to work through some early unease with the open-ended-ness, used being cooped up in the cabin all day due to the cold as an opportunity to challenge me and another much younger student to a paper airplane tournament. In other words, he was able to respond to a day that could have loomed long and boring ahead of him with creativity, industry, and inclusiveness! We each created multiple planes in “secret ateliers” (the tipi and a blanket fort he made me around the fire, which, incidentally, really increased the heat around the fireplace for which fact I was very grateful!) that were our challengers in different events: distance flying, trick flying (flips, etc.), and “form” (flying in a straight line). Z. trounced me in all but one of the categories (our younger student A. won trick flying!) and wouldn’t take the bait when I suggested a “best launch song” category, and an “artistic merit” category. (Can you guess where my strengths lie, and don’t?!) I happily conceded to his victory, thoroughly impressed with his inventive folding (he never starts with the classic middle fold!). “You’re never going to beat me if you don’t get creative!” he said.
Jumping back to Wednesday, which was also so frigid, three of our newest and tiniest students joined us for the first time and with such a spirit of adventure. They cozied up by the fire to read stories and sing songs, and after a tipi snack picnic and a fireplace snack picnic, some hopping, slithering, and stomping around the cabin, they even asked to go outside! So we bundled up for a five minute outing, but even that little expedition brought lots of learning (the snow now all crunched up and very uneven!) and a little bit of magic – deer tracks, their first time seeing them. L. loved “erasing” them with her own footprints.
On Friday it was a balmy -17, so it felt like we could be out all morning! We started the day by creating piles of fluffy snow and jumping into them off of stumps. More hard physical work for tiny bodies in giant snowsuits! Then the cold, snowy fire pit became a nest for winter birdies. Pretending to be birds has been an enduring theme among our preschoolers at Forest School for a few months now. We’ve made cardboard wings, and built nests inside (with blankets and pillows) and outside (with sticks and leaves). This play has spurred us to read through sections of our wildlife guidebooks, and so we’ve learned a bit more about the specific birds we see around Forest School. I think I could write an entire post about bird play at Forest School. Coming soon, perhaps…
Another highlight of Friday for me was when L., one of our newest and youngest students, led us on a little hike into the woods. I shouldn’t say “little”, actually, because this hike would not have felt little for her or her peer! The snow was up to their knees, and in the forest, where it hadn’t yet been trampled by other kids, it still had that crunchy layer that breaks unpredictably and often creates resistance when trying to move one’s foot out to take the next step. L. fell many times but where she had previously immediately asked for help to get up when she fell, on this adventure she got right up herself! Watching and helping kids discover their innate resilience and resourcefulness, especially at such a young age, is one of my absolute favourite things about this work!
L’s leading us deeper into the woods was also remarkable for me in that I’ve noticed most preschoolers like to stick quite close to the cabin during their first visits to Forest School. As the weeks go on, the radius in which they are comfortable exploring widens, sometimes of their own initiative, sometimes with a little encouragement from me. L. moved far beyond what I would have expected her comfort zone to be, and brought her peer with her, and when she reached her limit, she lay down in the snow for a rest, enjoying the sun that had finally come out and was glinting off the ice-covered trees. “Maybe we should head back to the cabin, now, hey?” I asked, knowing that the journey back was going to be extra challenging for them. “Let’s just stay here a little longer,” she said.
“Let’s just stay here a little longer,” and “You’ll never beat me if you don’t get creative!” Two messages that were key to not just surviving but enjoying the extreme cold this week, and learning the lessons it had to offer. I like to encourage our students at Forest School to thank each other for the day before leaving, so, in that spirit, thanks for the great week, everyone! See you Monday!