Last Week at Forest School: On Getting Out of the Way

The highlight of last week was the “Deer Trap”.  When C. arrived at Forest School on Tuesday morning, he ran to check his “deer trap”: two sticks he had stuck in the snow behind the amphitheatre the previous Tuesday. His enthusiasm was so infectious; all of the students ran to follow him. (They even ran away from taking turns using the bow saw!)

They found no deer in his trap. Some of the kids were confused by this. Some were disappointed, and others had already moved on to making suggestions for improvements to the trap. I watched and listened for a while, holding myself back from comforting the disappointed, from finessing the suggestion making, and from making my own suggestions about why the trap hadn’t worked and how we could improve it. Holding myself back – getting out of the way! – is often hard for me to do, but it’s something I’m currently really focusing on, as it’s one of the primary ways through which we can be truly child-led at Forest School, and promote kids’ problem solving and creativity.

It’s always a delicate balance though, deciding when to intervene or not, and how. The calculus of this particular decision involved wanting to support the kids in persisting with making a trap – there was so much potential there for rich learning – not wanting all of the interpersonal dynamics and emotions arising from the discovery of the deer-less trap to derail the initial interest, and wanting the kids to navigate those social/emotional challenges themselves. So instead of talking – talking the kids through all the feelings and all the possibilities for the trap (and I’m such a talker, this is usually the mode in which I intervene) – I just went and got our big bin full of ropes and tarps, and left it near them, without saying anything.

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For the next hour and a half, eight students, ages 4 through 7, sustained interest in the creation of their traps. They persisted through and helped each other out with difficulties tying knots and untangling ropes with mittens on. They managed their own frustrations and mediated those of others as they shared a limited number of ropes, and tripped on each other’s traps in the deep snow. They laughed it off. Then they tested each other’s traps, tripping on purpose. They asked and answered all of the questions I would have asked, like, “Why are you making the trap?” and “How is it going to work?” Answers: “to catch deer so we can eat them”, and, “the deer will trip on these ropes in the night because they won’t see them”. That second answer actually inspired a whole debate about whether or not deer have special night-vision powers, and prompted many students to bury their ropes in the snow to ensure that the deer wouldn’t see them, special night-vision or not.

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The most impressive thing about all of this, though, was that they did it without me, without adult intervention (beyond my providing the ropes and then getting out of the way). I literally backed away, all the way to the steps of the cabin, where they could see me if they looked for me (they didn’t) and I could see and hear most of what was happening.

Actually, I think they did all of that – the sustaining interest, persisting through difficulties and frustrations, solving problems both logistical and interpersonal, testing, explaining, justifying their thinking – because I got out of the way. I’m noticing that, when I am physically farther away, sometimes even out of sight, students don’t ask me for help, relying instead on their own resources and those of their peers, discovering and nurturing their social and emotional skills: asking for help effectively, helping in return, compromising, self-regulating. In turn, I’m constantly reminded of just how resourceful and trust worthy they are, how little of my help they really need.

So as I back up, as I get out of the way, I see the kids differently, and they’re starting to see themselves differently too, I think. The evidence is in their play. Last Monday our smallest students – 2, 3, and 4 years old – spent most of their morning at Forest School bringing in wood for our fire – entirely of their own accord! - and hauling in a jug of water from the parking lot to our cabin. They used sleds, working together to take turns to pull it, pretending to be workhorses and taking pleasure in their strength. The deer trap became a giant spider web for Wednesday’s students, who then spent the morning protecting me from all manner of threats – giant spiders, tigers, lions, wolves, monsters, etc. – taking pleasure in being brave. On Thursday, I became a sick child who needed a nap after throwing a tantrum because I couldn’t have the marker I wanted. The students are starting to see themselves, starting to take on the roles of caregiver, brave protector, and capable helper.

This starts in play, but it is also now extending to “real life”, to when they are being fully themselves. Just today, students who are only 2.5 years old were helping to comfort each other when they were sad, and helping each other get up when they fell down in deep snow. Older students are helping younger students get dressed. I often hear students of all ages encouraging and complimenting each other – all without my prompting.

Emotionally sensitive, socially adept, outward-looking students – this is just one of the benefits created when I back up and get out of the way. And I just thought they were making a deer trap!