Last week a few of us were playing down behind the amphitheatre (you know, fixing the deer trap, improving the roof of the fort, climbing trees, escaping from monsters) when J. ambled down, suddenly stopped short, looked around, and exclaimed: “What are we even doing here?”
Well, funny you should ask, J., (and I did burst out laughing) because I’m often wondering the same thing. Really this entire blog is an attempt to explore and illustrate the answer to that question in terms of what the kids learn and what I teach. But I’ve recently uncovered another layer of what it is (that I think) we do at Forest School. This discovery has coloured and shaped the way I’ve experienced the last few weeks, and the decisions I’ve made as an educator.
In A Country Called Childhood (a book I’ve talked about before, but bear with me!) Jay Griffiths argues that children today are alienated from their natural surroundings, from their nest, their kith (the title of the book elsewhere, notably). She suggests that this alienation is at the heart of much of the anxiety and mental health issues in our Western culture, and indeed there is a growing body of research around the mental health benefits of connecting with the natural world.
But even more interesting to me is Griffiths’ contention that this alienation is the result of both the privatization – the fencing in – of the commons, land that formerly belonged to/was accessible by everyone, and the simultaneous fencing in of childhood through, among many things, the privatization of play and of the imagination itself (i.e. toys and games are, for the most part, consumed/purchased as opposed to invented by children), adult surveillance (in the name of safety), and rigid scheduling and over-programming (usually in adult-directed activities). She writes:
“The ideology of the Enclosures was driven by some of the less likeable attitudes of the Enlightenment: a loathing of wilderness, a will to control nature, a love of hierarchies and subordination. Children suffered from these ideologies and childhood was to be enclosed as surely as land. This is not only a matter of shutting children off the land but also a matter of enclosing the playful spirit of childhood and…further, subjecting it to domination, harsh discipline, and punishment…” (22).
I’ve thought a lot (and written here) before about adult surveillance (supervision) of children and perceptions of risk, and about helping children to become producers as opposed to consumers of their play culture. But since reading A Country Called Childhood I can’t stop thinking about this idea that we fence children in, we control them, by enclosing their time and their space. This is the new lens through which I’m seeing what we do at Forest School: every time I allow – no, allow is not the right word! - every time I get out of the way so that a student can choose their own activity, their own playmate, their own solution to a problem whether social or practical; every time I get out of the way for a child to decide when they’ll eat, whether they’ll wear their coat or not (hallelujah spring!), the boundaries are pushed back, and space and time are carved out for these kids to have their own space, their own time.
And so my next inevitable question: Why does this matter? Why should kids have their own space and time? What’s at stake there? Here again Griffiths articulates the answer that until now I’ve only had a feeling about. She writes,
“…this is about far more than merely living in a culture where people are ready to sue at the drop of a hat. This is about insidiously demanding that children must always seek permission for the most trivial of actions, that they must obey the commands of others at every turn. Children today are not being beaten into obedience but being eroded into it. The risk-averse society creates a docility and a loss of autonomy which has a horrible political shadow. A populace malleable. Commandable. Obedient” (66).
Seen through this lens, J., what we’re even doing here is decidedly political. We’re eking out a space and time for you to climb trees, to figure out for yourself how high you feel safe to go, and to sit in them for as long as you want, watching, daydreaming, shouting, asking questions. We’re eking out a space and time for you to get hungry or thirsty or cold, to figure out what to do about it, and how to get down. We’re eking out a space and time for you to know yourself as resourceful, capable, and connected to the natural world, so that you can make decisions not according to arbitrary authority, but according to your respect for yourself, and the web of people and places to which you are connected and in which you are rooted: your kin and your kith.
We're fighting tyranny, J., and also dragons. Run!