We found a dead bird at Forest School today. Well, actually, N. found the dead bird and brought it to me in her hands. I yelped a little (“Where did you find that?!?”) and then leaped for the soap and water. Once we’d scrubbed and dried our hands, we carefully transferred the bird to a bucket. As we did, N. asserted: “If we put water on it then it will come back alive right away.”
Questions and assumptions about life and death arise and reveal themselves all the time at Forest School. I wrote about one such time here, about how O.’s question, “What does dead mean?” so loaded with potential for deep thinking and inquiry learning, made me roar (internally) with excitement and the desire to pounce all over it.
N’s assertion today that putting water on the dead bird would bring it back to life again was another such moment. (And, actually, reminded me of how O’s question about death also led him to water, and how a group of students this past summer wondered whether water would make a stump decompose faster, and how another group of students just this Monday wondered whether water might make a fallen tree they wanted to climb on stronger for that purpose…it seems like kids have a really profound intuition about the connection between water and life!)
It’s finally spring! After such a cold winter, these last few weeks at Forest School have felt like an exhalation – a sigh of relief – and a celebration of freedom! All of the kids, from 2.5 to 12, now free of snow and snowsuits, and with months of experience at Forest School under their belts, are noticeably more confident exploring the forest, and man are they quicker on their feet!
I always wish for spring to come faster. I tend to fixate on the challenges of winter and wish them all away in eagerness for the gifts of spring. But, really, each season has its own (sometimes surprising) set of pros and cons, its particular hazards and risks. And each change of season really profoundly changes our program at Forest School, how we experience it, what we do during it, and the rules we follow to stay safe.
Last week a few of us we 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.
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.
Over the last few of weeks at Forest School we have been visited by a pack of wolves, a “nice dinosaur”, a pair of tiger brothers, countless doggies and horsies, a mountain lion cub, and numerous fearsome pirates.
In fact, a couple of Thursdays ago, a raccoon family consisting of two daughters (A. and B.) and their mother (yours truly) were paddling along between Cuba and Bon Echo Campground (I mean, as you do), stopping every now and again for groceries (strawberries, broccoli, cake), when they were overtaken by Dan Diamond (Z.), captain of the pirate ship The Black Diamond, who commandeered them into a journey (back?) to the Caribbean. Now, Capt’n Diamond was, in fact, a bear, and a very surly bear, due to the fact that he should have been hibernating. As a result, he was so tired that he often fell asleep midsentence, which made things quite dangerous for the raccoons, and he had to be plied and placated with grilled cheese sandwiches and energy drinks – both with extra honey.
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”.
Just before the holidays, a small group of us headed down the “Forest Root Trail” behind the cabin. There wasn’t much snow yet, just a thin layer, yet we kept sinking and tripping the way one does in deeper, icy snow. Almost where the Forest Root Trail meets the main trail, after one more trip and fall, we finally took a closer look at the ground to see just what was going on. What we found were amazing ice crystals, like the stalactites or stalagmites that grow in caves. The crystals had grown between the ground and the leaves, raising the leaf layer up in an icy crust – that’s what we kept sinking through and then stumbling over.
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!
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!
There’s a children’s book called “Salt Hands” by Jane Chelsea Aragon. It’s about a little girl who wakes up in the middle of the night and looks out her window to see a deer standing by a pear tree in the moonlight. The little girl creeps downstairs, pours some salt into her hands, and then goes outside where she kneels quietly and waits for the deer to approach her. It is a beautiful book, told from the perspective of the child in short, simple sentences. It perfectly evokes that excited, hold-your-breath, whispered magic of seeing a wild animal.
This morning at Forest School, we had our own “Salt Hands” experience. A buck wandered very close by our cabin where C., our student teacher, and O., a three-year-old student, were reading stories on the porch. I’m going to try here to describe the experience like Aragon does, from the perspective of O., who sat in stillness and silence for nearly half an hour watching the deer.