Student-led, Outdoor Learning with Forest School

The children are hiding under the shrubs, tucked away under the early spring leaves that are just beginning to unfurl, creating a mist of light green. They’re obscured from view by a multitude of branches, and I can hear them whispering. Then, they’re quiet. Minutes pass, and I check to see if they are still there. The two boys are sitting ever so quietly, looking out into the forest.

Later, when they emerge, I ask, “What were you doing in there?”

“Listening,” they say. “We heard a sound and we wanted to know what it was.”

I love forest school. Where else can you find two four-year-olds hiding in the forest listening for almost an hour?

Five years ago, I helped create Fresh Air Learning, a forest and farm education program for preschool and now elementary school children. The program is inspired by the ethics of free play and exploration that form the foundation of forest school programs around the world.

What does forest school look like? That really depends on the day. Some days the preschoolers may be stomping in mud puddles and creating sushi from maple leaves and mud. At other times, they get involved in tracking small animals, munching on edible plants, or creating shelters for themselves or for imaginary forest creatures.

One of forest school’s foundations is child-led learning. At forest school, the teacher plays the role of a facilitator, watching the children to see where their interests lie and bringing in materials and resources to support those emerging interests. When children ask for the answer, the teacher will ask questions that help the children discover the answer for themselves. Teaching happens through stories, exploration, questioning, and real life experience and experimentation. Sometimes this method of teaching is called invisible school, because forest school contributes to a child’s foundational understanding of the world, but it doesn’t always do so in an obvious way. For the most part, there’s no recitation of times tables, but children may need to multiply by four to collect sticks for the log cabin they’re building for the forest fairies.

Forest school also connects children deeply to a local place. Instead of being a field trip, nature is the children’s primary classroom. As a long time outdoor educator who’s been with many groups of children on field trips, I find the excitement of a field trip to be both enchanting and exhausting. The children who spend time getting to know a place week after week really settle into that place. They get to know it as a play space and a learning space, and they bond with it. They see it in the different seasons, and they notice how it changes. Every outdoor classroom is completely unique, and at forest school the children have an opportunity to relax into that place.

Our last foundation, and the one that I feel is most important of all, is that we give children time and space to play and connect with a place. You know that rush, rush, rush feeling that’s often in the background of our everyday existence? There’s never enough time, right? When I am with the forest school children, that feeling goes away. In the forest, there is time and space to get to know a place and the other people, animals, and plants who live there.

Forest school is not the only way to teach or learn, but it’s one that we’ve lost from a lot of contemporary culture. Groups of carefree children heading off to play in the woods, fields, or a vacant lot in the city seem like a relic of the past. Today, parents are realizing that this kind of free exploration is exactly what’s missing from their child’s life, and in this era of busy schedules they’re making time for their children to have these sweet, slow moments in the forest.

Photo by Sarah Jamieson, Fresh Air Learning

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