Ironically our journey into a forest school began with a ping on the computer.
What’s a forest school? I wondered.
I’ll bite. At the time the kids were two and four. We were spending much of our time in the forest. It was where we went to breathe, calm down and enjoy the magic of green. We were attending a fantastic preschool that did all of its activities outside for as long as the kids could bear it – generally at least half of the day – in rain, sleet, snow and the occasional sun. But my eldest was heading into all-day Kindergarten the following September and I was worried.
How would a boy who is used to having the freedom to be outside to run, jump, build, rest and climb most of his day transition into a classroom?
A notification came up on Facebook – a teacher friend had posted a link to a forest school that was growing in our neighbourhood. I explored the page. Hmmmmm. Then I fell down the rabbit hole. There is vast amounts of research on the benefits of outdoor play and in particular forest schools particularly in the UK and Scandinavia where they are more common. I was already onboard with free-play outside – so it was a little bit like preaching to the choir – but this idea of school outside was new.
Immediately threw our boys names on the waitlist and dove into more research.
Experts on Forest School
One organization defines forest school as:
- It is a learning process
- It is long-term
- It has high staffing ratios working with small groups of children/young people/families
- It takes place in the outdoors, particularly wooded environments
- It takes place on a weekly basis with the same learners attending the whole process
- It involves an understanding of how children learn and supports them to build confidence, resilience, independence and creativity
- Its roots are planted firmly in our best understanding of the theory of how children learn, its practice puts the learner at the heart of their learning experience.
- From this fundamental platform, Forest School offers children and young people the opportunity, over repeated visits, to engage with the rich natural diversity of the woodland environment to help build confidence, sensitivity, resilience and curiosity.
What it looks like day to day for us: two facilitators (and a parent helper, depending on the age of the children) guide a group of 10 children – fully prepared for the weather – to experience the outdoors through play and child-led learning.
One study found outdoor play has a positive effect on children’s social development, motor skill development, attention, and activity level. It also can provide children with experiences in naturalistic landscapes which could impact their morals, values and actions. Another report concluded that children, especially, acquire knowledge experientially, through play, experimentation, exploration and discovery. Research shows us that many of the fundamental tasks that children must achieve, such as, exploring, risk-taking, fine and gross motor development and the absorption of vast amounts of basic knowledge, can be most effectively learned through outdoor play.
There is lots of research out there. I could go on but how this has affected our family is a better story.
Off the waitlist – into the forest
Four years ago I got an email – our name was drawn for the registration lottery to join Fresh Air Learning the following September. I felt this was like the golden ticket – Kindergarten for TFS seemed a lot less daunting if I could take him out of school two days a week to spend the afternoon outside. I know I could have done this myself – I have that right as a parent. However, while I knew he would get some benefits of being outside with me, I felt being with trained facilitators and other children would be far more beneficial. New to elementary school I approached his future kindergarten teacher and his principal to inform them of my decision. I was met with two very different responses.
The administrator emphasized the vast amounts of school time he would missing and the long-term detrimental impact this would have on his education and social growth within the school. His future teacher thoughtfully asked to know more about the program. I explained the concept and principles of this particular program and she was astounded and pleased one of her students would have such an opportunity.
Fresh Air Learning
So it started. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would pick up TFS from school and drop him in the forest. Almost as an afterthought I registered three-year-old LBB in a one-day-a-week morning program – this was probably the best decision I have ever made for him given his social development challenges. Just how important I didn’t realize until I reflected years later.
I can’t articulate how this program has benefited my children. For three years (K-gr. 2 and preschool-K) we have been venturing off to learn in the forest. The facilitators, the trees, the mud and the space have guided my small people from shy to confident and from raging to encouraging.
More than anything forest school is fun. Where else do adults encourage kids to run endlessly, coat themselves entirely in mud or make them pause to listen to the forest? They learn about things like plants and seasons, erosion and weather, insects and animals. Moreover through play they conquer intangibles like compromise, creativity and social development.
And it’s all play.
What I hear about is how XX made the most amazing sculpture. Or ZZ invented a really awesome restaurant. Or “Mom – you wouldn’t believe how dirty I got! I have been washed off and still look at me.”
One report shows that children in forest schools were adept at policing themselves and were more likely to learn from the environment around them if permitted to play without too much adult interference.
Through sun, snow – this year so much snow, and the endless, endless rain of the BC’s west coast, I see joy, learning and growth. But oh the joy. This is what I want for my kids’ childhoods: Joy. Dirt. Growth.
I have two very different children.
In many ways I don’t think TFS would have survived public education without this weekly escape. His quiet introverted, dreamy nature doesn’t always thrive in a busy, rigid, noisy classroom. His classroom teachers think of him as bright, but very shy. They think he hangs back and watches from the sidelines. His forest school facilitators see him as creative and driven, confident with his abilities and wanting to push boundaries of creative play. They see him growing and thriving as a leader as he settles into being one of the oldest in his class. He is empathetic and inclusive – especially with the younger students.
LBB has been going to forest school
since he was three. At three (and four and part of five) he was a challenging child. He had trouble with impulse control, he was quick to anger and to be frustrated. LBB has a heightened fight or flight sense when startled or scared – and he almost always choose fight. He was (is) completely internally motivated so getting him onside was hard.
We have be so lucky that LBB has had the same facilitator for three years (her partner facilitators have changed and have also been great). I think she has been instrumental in guiding LBB’s development. The environment partnered with her personality has been a winning combination.
There is a magic in the forest and it has the blessing of space. If there is one child having a difficult moment there is usually time and space to allow the child to work through it. The facilitator’s seemingly infinite patience and willingness to see a child’s goodness and potential has made her an important ally to LBB. He knows he is cared for, safe and heard. In a traditional classroom or preschool there simply doesn’t seem to be the time, space and flexibility for a child like him to grow. And grow he has. LBB is thriving.
Three years in, his facilitator is LBB’s person. He saves up things to talk to her about, he never wants to be far away and he knows when he is struggling there is support for him.
This year is TFS last year at Fresh Air. He has aged out of this program. We have found another one that he will attend all-day once a month as some respite from public school. We are also adding Scouts to his schedule for next year.
And as we tackle his last class next week I am mourning the loss for him. Beyond our family adventures the forest, Fresh Air Learning has been a critical escape for him. – a break from confines of ‘regular school.’ I know he has the foundation to thrive, I am ready to help him do that in other ways.
I also get wrapped up in realizing LBB only has one more year at Fresh Air Learning – that gets me emotional. We have one more year to revel in it and we will. Mud and all!