From Fear to Freedom: Risk and Learning in a Forest School (Voices)
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Thoughts on the Article | Amanda Brancombe, Voices Executive Editor
As an outdoor educator and “nature elder,” Heather Taylor tells a story, “Trout,” that stretched her personal views of what it means to allow children to have the freedom to make their own choices as they study nature. She uses this story to simultaneously explore her questions about children’s choices, her fears of children’s freedom, and the children’s excitement about fishing, building their own fire for a barbeque, and cooking their lunch over the fire. She raises questions like “Could I step back and allow the children to discover and choose their own interests?” and “Why do I regularly experience a sense of fear as my students do something new or out of character for themselves?”
Taylor finds support in a five-step cycle of inquiry that guided her in observing and documenting the children’s interests, explorations, and learning. She reflects on her struggles with and solutions for gathering data in an outdoor setting. She also explains how her daily data gathering (e.g., photos, videos, daily notes) provided her with information that she shaped for the children’s families and her coworkers. As a result of her own self-study of her fears, Taylor had a better understanding of and confidence in children’s abilities to make wise choices.
Taylor’s teacher research study and her questioning of her own fears about children’s choices are valuable starting points for discussions about issues of safety, children’s independence and freedom, choice, and licensure requirements that occur as results of working in a forest school.
“Uncertain times require personal responsibility, independence of thought, self-initiative, self-assertion, flexibility, creativity, imagination, and willingness to take risks.”
—Peter Gray (2013)
It took me quite a long time to learn that nature itself is the curriculum. On a windy day, children at the forest school where I taught for three years felt and experienced what wind meant: ruffled hair, lightweight items blowing away, and cold hands when it’s wet. During my 16 years of teaching young children, my background in biology has served me well as I progressed from the indoors, to a garden, and finally to a forest school. Eleven of those years have been solely outdoors. When a hummingbird flies nearby or a dead rat is found, the children come running, shouting, “Teacher Heather!” They know I will share in their sense of wonder, and answer their questions honestly, and provide tidbits of information for those who show interest, helping them gain knowledge and a source of comparison for future experiences.
In my role as an outdoor educator, I view myself as an elder—one who shares trust and a sense of wonder with the children. Nature elders are adults willing to foster children’s interests, and they may be called on to show the way for others who have strong emotional reactions when confronted with the unfamiliar, such as finding snails in an urban environment (Jayewardene 2013). The elders are often individuals who can help others learn to mitigate risk through knowledge of the environment and the ability to distinguish risks from hazards (Jayewardene 2013; MacEachren 2013).
Children come to the nature elders and seek to share in their excitement and wonder. Some consider the relationship between the adults and children one of the most important aspects of forest schools (Maynard 2007), which places a high value on incorporating a true respect for the child and developing relationships based on mutual trust (Warden 2010; Forest School Canada 2014). Children’s freedom to move about their environments is rooted in the physical, economic, and sociocultural worlds in which their families reside (Kyttä 2004; Louv 2008). As an outdoor educator, I strive to support children’s freedom and the ways in which nature serves as an innate teacher—even when that means overcoming my fears and accepting some risks.
My experiences with nature
I came to this work with interests in nature, biology, and outdoor recreation. Growing up in California in the 1970s, I spent the largest part of my free time outside the house. My childhood friends and I were frequently in our yards, running or biking through the streets and on the levees, or going to local parks, swimming pools, and open school yards. In our public school, there was plenty of free time during recess and lunch; we were left to our own devices, able to play however we wished on the playgrounds, in the fields, or under the trees. My budding skills as a natural scientist were developed by collecting insects, fish, polliwogs, and rocks; climbing trees; digging in dirt; sliding down hills; and splashing in waterways, with what felt like all the time in the world. A rusty coffee can was a place to store random treasures on my bedroom shelf. My family embraced the sciences and I was allowed to keep small animals for a week before returning them to their natural homes.
My love for outdoor play continued into my teens. At age 13, my family moved to a California state park where my mother had gotten a job. My sister and I could play in the walnut orchard behind our house. We often rerouted the small creek, walked our dogs wherever we liked, and rode our BMX bikes all throughout the park on weekdays when park visitation was low. I ran on trails throughout northern California as a member of my high school’s cross country team. This is all to say that my sister, friends, and I felt a sense of freedom throughout our childhoods. Adult attention was largely absent and we were trusted to be safe and to come home when we noticed that it was dark enough out that cars were turning on their headlights.
I consider myself fortunate to have enjoyed a childhood quite similar to those of pioneering scientists and natural historians. Harry Greene (2013), John Muir (1913), and Jane Goodall (2014) are among those who have written about how they spent their childhoods with all the land and time before them, without constant adult supervision. Time and space to explore, freedom to make choices and mistakes, space to become enthralled and scared alike, with focused and rigorous activity. This connected them with life, cycles, and seasons, and created pathways to become naturalists and teachers.
At my junior college I became a lab aide for the Biology Department, where I spent my days cleaning glassware, gathering materials for the professors, preparing sterile petri plates, caring for animals (as diverse as rats, crayfish, and newts), and even caring for the department’s cadavers over school breaks. When I went on to study at the University of California, Davis, I cared for the herpetology laboratory’s teaching animals, including a gopher snake and a baby box turtle. There was a large Mexican musk turtle (Staurotypus triporcatus) that lived in a long aquarium. I was charged with his care and noticed that he would use his body and eyes to follow me back and forth from across the room on his assigned feeding days, tracking my motions until he consumed the third of three thawed mice. I also worked to extract DNA samples from the professor’s frozen tissue collection for a research project on turtle evolution (Shaffer 1997).
For a few years after receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology, I worked at the University of California, Berkeley. I continued my work as a biological lab assistant and did everything necessary for their Biology 1A labs: caring for local cold-water invertebrates like sea anemones and sea stars, purchasing specimens as diverse as amoebas and rats, and fertilizing sea urchin ova for student observation. On the chemistry side, I mixed reagents for experiments such as running DNA gels and staining cheek cells. Later, I took on positions that were more administrative, but I found they were too far removed from what I considered to be dirty, fun, and rewarding work.
Teaching became my second career. I taught in a private preschool classroom and continued my education. In my teaching role at Duck’s Nest Preschool, there was an emphasis on providing a beautiful environment, because it was recognized that the environment was also a teacher. Early in my tenure there, I attended a workshop where I first learned about forest kindergartens from Robin Moore (2008). He talked about a forest school at a public park in Munich where children played in the snow all day.
While I enjoyed introducing scientific subjects to the preschoolers and bringing natural materials and animals into the classroom, I began to seek other opportunities. I became the Duck’s Nest Preschool garden teacher when the school took over a vacant lot on the next block. Each of the school’s five classrooms would visit the garden once a week. I initially set up specific lessons for the children that I thought were important for them to learn, such as exploring earthworm anatomy and using magnifying glasses.
My current work as a forest school teacher is conducted in busy, urban environments where parents are fearful of leaving children alone. I have a strong desire to allow children to tap into experiences similar to those I benefitted from as a child. I strive to find a balance between fostering their personal paths of experimentation and learning, while also being the adult charged with their upbringing when they’re away from their families.
Around the time I was beginning the garden program, Richard Louv (2008) wrote Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, lamenting the loss of the childhood freedom that I and others had experienced and the current lack of a connection to nature. A wider audience began to remember what things had been like for them, and they, too, felt the loss of free time and nature play on behalf of modern children. At some point, adults had lost their confidence, feeling as though children needed to be closely watched, kept in structured activities, and not allowed to be bored or have the run of public spaces (Kyttä 2004; Louv 2008). For example, while working as a garden teacher, I was exposed to a sense of fear from some parents and visitors in the school garden. After some concerns about climbing height, for instance, the teachers became climbing monitors. Capable children were denied their desires, and lesser abled children did not have such lofty heights to aspire to. The sense of disappointment for children and teachers alike was palpable.
Spaces for outdoor education are inherently riskier than traditional classrooms. Teachers carry charged cell phones (with families’ contact information), emergency plans, and first aid kids to enhance safety. We come to know that “as children experience more risky activities and terrain, they learn to determine for themselves whether something feels safe or not, rather than look externally to adults to decide this for them” (Forest School in Canada 2014, 40). I agree with Bernard Spiegal (2017) that
Children . . . want and need to take risks. They do this “naturally” in the sense that, left to their own devices, they seek out and create encounters that carry degrees of risk or uncertainty. This process of risk-taking necessarily entails exploration, discovery, and learning—about oneself, one’s capabilities, and the wider world. To take a risk is to assert one’s autonomy and power of agency. It is to learn by doing that actions have consequences. It is an aspect of moral education. Play and risk-taking are creative acts. (n.p.)
As I gained experience, the science curriculum I’d developed floated away and I set up areas similar to those found in a classroom—reading, art, and music, along with a tool table. Far later, I came to realize that these typical classroom areas—these things—were distracting the children from what was really important: nature connection and social interaction. I came to believe that children were not in need of being taught in traditional curricular areas; they needed to learn with their whole selves. This was a far different set of values and experiences than those taught in the child development classes I’d taken. Soon enough, I removed the curriculum-based areas of the outdoor classroom; eventually, I left this original educational setting to teach at a forest school.
In the forest school, I was able to put more effort into trusting the environment as a teacher. In the beginning, I came to school each day with an idea or project in mind, such as making leaf necklaces or finding out how many petals are on the flowers. I quickly discovered that the children were not interested in these activities. I kept the ideas in mind in case a quick redirection in play was necessary, but I never used them. It became apparent that my own curricular ideas were not better than what the children had in mind. Following the children’s lead helped me develop the ways of teaching I was coming to discover on my own: the environment and the children themselves do the educating. A branch breaking off a tree; muddy hillsides to climb; blackberries warmed by the sun, ready to pick and eat; a favorite toy or book a child wants to share—all represent examples of the curriculum that was ever-changing, unplanned, and ultimately meaningful. I was a facilitator.
This new job and these new methods were a risk in my career. I realized that various levels of fear, small and large feelings, existed within all of us. To be a successful forest school educator I would need to learn to address those feelings. Methods I used included deep breathing, moving in closer, reflecting (with the group, colleagues, or just myself), and writing.
My investigations into outdoor schools and inquiry
My past work has often informed my present endeavors. Having been taught, in biology courses and laboratories, to keep lab notebooks and other records, I decided early in my teaching career that I wanted to document what the children and I were doing. Data collection has been a valuable tool throughout the years. When I taught indoors, I kept a series of binders that included examples of children’s artwork, classroom displays, and note cards with children’s quotes on them. This became more difficult when I began working outdoors, as the practical methods of storing things on tidy shelves or in cabinets disappeared, as did wall display space. Wind, rain, and soil made it difficult or impossible to keep examples of classroom work—but I still wanted to continue keeping records of my work and to communicate my efforts. I experimented with maintaining a secure blog about the class but found that few families would click through to read it.
In recent years, I discovered that outdoor data collection could be practical and effective when I took and edited daily notes, photographs, videos, and reflections; by the end of each week, I had formed a solid story that represented the time my students and I spent together. These stories made it easy to email documentation of each week’s activities to children’s families and to my colleagues. I saved the photographs and videos that I did not include in the documentation on a hard drive. I also printed the emails and any responses and kept them in a binder for easy reference. To be reflective and intentional in my teaching, I reviewed these items as the programs were still in progress, again at the end of the program, and later whenever I wanted to see how much my teaching methods and physical spaces had changed over time. These photographs, emails, and binders are the records that comprise my history as a teacher. They document my work and tell the stories of what was important at that time, in that place, and with those people.
As I conducted the research for this project, I worked at a forest school serving an ethnically and financially diverse community in the San Francisco Bay Area. The forest school offered several programs: a mixed-age preschool and kindergarten, a weekly program for families, and summer camps for children ages 3 to 9.
In this article, I discuss data I collected over two weeks of camp in 2017. My groups of four to six children were ages 5 through 8; each group attended camp for one week, from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. With the exception of morning meeting, snack, and lunch, the bulk of the days were spent as free play.
My project was guided by a set of questions focused on nature education, fear, and freedom that have guided my teaching and inquiry over the last few years: Could I step back and allow the children to discover and choose their own interests? Would the children form cohesive groups that worked together? Would the children choose adventures that might seem dangerous? Why do I regularly experience a sense of fear as my students do something new or out of character? Could I push through my feelings and perceptions of fear as well as those of others?
As a framework for my investigation, I adopted an established five-step cycle of inquiry (Broderick & Hong 2011). During each week of summer camp, I worked my way through the cycle as an internal reflective process, finding that it helped me to review my documentation and to see new possibilities for the children’s activities.
The first step is recording observations of the children. I followed my usual methods of documenting individual and group play by taking photographs (and occasional videos) with my smartphone daily in addition to taking notes (with pen and paper and on my smartphone). I then edited these observations and incorporated them into weekly emails. To support my note taking, I designed my weekly roster to include space for writing each day’s highlights, which I shared with families.
The second step in the cycle of inquiry is developing potential avenues for inquiry in my child-directed approach. I did this by reflecting on my photographs, videos, and notes, and by writing about each day’s activities. For me, the photographs were especially helpful; they indicated possible directions our group’s inquiry process could have taken. For example, further research could have incorporated ideas about how children interact with natural features, such as by bouncing on fallen trees, setting up their own quiet time, creating assemblages of natural objects and other items, finding animals, or creating body art.
This daily review facilitated the planning of research questions, which is the third step of the cycle of inquiry. Writing research questions guided me as I considered different directions for the children’s activities. I did not determine the children’s activities, but reflecting on their interests helped me better respond to them as the activities unfolded.
As each week went on, I began the fourth step of the cycle, which is planning interventions to extend children’s thinking. Based on the children’s interests, conversations, and questions, I thought of some ideas to share and selected books to read aloud to foster discussions in our class’s morning meetings.
The fifth and final step in the inquiry cycle is setting up and facilitating play. This consisted of the children and I planning ideas for possible activities as themes emerged and solidified. The children in my groups were very much involved in this entire process; they readily presented their own ideas when they arrived at camp each day and during our morning meetings.
As an outdoor educator, I strive to support children’s freedom—even when that means overcoming my fears.
To deepen my analysis of my data, I read books written by naturalists, such as Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art (Greene 2013), Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants (Goodall & Hudson 2014), and The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (Muir 1913). I also read the works of scientists and journalists, such as Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Gray 2013) and Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Louv 2008). I was able to communicate with some of these authors via email and social media. Their suggestions helped me gain focus for my research as well as encouragement for the type of work that I do.
When I began teaching outdoors, I found few references to use in terms of history of the profession and methodology. I developed my practices of teaching and documentation largely through years of trial and error—doing what made sense and felt right to me. The literature review I conducted into outdoor education models and methods of inquiry for this study helped me to examine my practices in a wider context. For this article, I chose to take a narrative approach in describing and reflecting on my data. In particular, I highlight two stories, “Barnyard Animals” and “Trout,” after providing an overview of how each week’s camp unfolded.
Moving beyond fear and gaining assurance
Forest schools differ from traditional schools primarily in that they are taught in part or entirely outdoors. The programs at the school where I taught and conducted my research were entirely outdoors, with classes occurring rain or shine. Fritz (2016) notes that outdoor educators take on roles more similar to what in the British Isles is referred to as playworkers. The shift is from the teacher directing children’s learning to helping guide children’s inquires. Furthermore, the “products” of education are different. More traditional schools offer proof of education via schoolwork and various projects, whereas forest schools offer authentic experiences that are often immeasurable by testing standards. Educators intervene when necessary, but often allow children to work out their experiences—whether they are pure fun or complicated interpersonal challenges—for themselves. Outdoor educators use their expertise and judgment to “assess the overall safety of the site and the risk management required for specific activities, which can change from day to day, in collaboration with the children they work with” (Forest School Canada 2014, 17.)
Boundaries and child agency
Establishing boundaries for emotional and physical health and safety helped provide support, build trust, and develop relationships. I accomplished this in a variety of ways. First, at Monday’s morning meeting I would establish that the group would sit in a circle, eating and meeting at the same time. By doing so, I could quickly assess each child’s ability to follow instructions, self-help skills, ability to focus, level of independence, and comfort with being outdoors and with new people. Second, we walked the borders of our site within the park, showing where the bathrooms were and pointing out poisonous plants. Children who had attended camp before led this walk, with the teachers coming along to make sure all the important points were covered. Third, the first day was always spent on site, getting to know the children by talking with them and their families, finding out about their interests, and watching to see if they were willing to try new things without prompting. Through a variety of activities, the children had many opportunities to establish interpersonal relationships and learn more about what types of activities were available at our camp’s home base. At the same time, my colleagues and I evaluated their abilities by informally observing cognitive, affective, and psychomotor traits (Bloom 1956). I also evaluated whether I thought there would be any behavioral, physical, or emotional problems that would prevent our groups from safely traveling to other areas of the park.
Over the following days we regularly made excursions to other sites. Like other forest schools and nature kindergartens, we arrived at our plans through democratic processes (Warden 2010). We talked about our plans at morning meetings and the groups would vote on whether to stay at our site or hike to a favorite place or new location. Our developing knowledge of one another led me to think the children could do some special activities, particularly on the camp’s Friday sessions to celebrate the end of our time together.
I spent time getting to know the children individually and as a group. I asked questions and looked with curiosity upon whatever the children may have brought with them, such as toys or books. I listened to the children’s and their families’ stories. I synthesized these stories and interests, shared ideas, and often the groups began to act cohesively all on their own. Once we got to know each another more, learned boundaries and expectations, and developed a sense of trust during those first hours of camp, children were soon able to act more independently. The children were free to participate as much as they wanted, getting as much out of each activity as they desired. Some children wanted to try things that made others experience different levels of fear (as explained in the following stories). This was especially noticeable when I observed from afar their verbal or physical expressions of nervousness. Children received encouragement from their peers and myself and were offered opportunities to gain courage and skills.
In the first story, “Barnyard Animals,” I present a series of events that caused me worry as I practiced giving up control of my group’s activities within a large public space. I wondered how I could move past my feelings of unease. In the second story, “Trout,” the group of students took on a cooking project involving fire. I had a desire for the children to do what they wanted, but also needed to find ways to mitigate risks of bodily injury. Both adventures involved children’s decision making and planning, built upon child-led conversations that had started earlier in the week, and were unusual for groups of young children. At various times the children, families, and myself felt a sense of fear as we watched more confident members of our group push boundaries; subsequently, we pushed our own boundaries outward. “Barnyard Animals” and “Trout” are examples of these adventures.
“Barnyard Animals”: A story of independence
Our camps were within a vast, popular urban park that was familiar to many local children. One particular group of children adored animals, often collecting banana slugs in a deep canyon, bringing them out to crawl in obstacle courses they created, then putting them back where they were found when they were done. They expressed interest in hiking to see the farm animals they knew were nearby. Often their families were arriving later in the morning, so after the children planned all week, the families all arrived early for the hike on Friday at the children’s bidding. They figured that an early start to the day would allow them to maximize their time at the farm.
We started out so early that it wasn’t even snack time until we were well on our way on the trail. The children first led the way across the street, down a trail past the blackberry bushes, and across to a favorite climbing tree, which they had named Mr. Nobody. Since I was the only one familiar with the next part of the trail, I guided them further along and across a parking lot. The children began to get tired, hungry, and thirsty, so we decided to stop at a quiet, shady place that appealed to us all for a break to climb, drink water, and eat snacks.
At that point we were close enough to the farm for surroundings to look familiar to the children again (since several of the campers had visited before with their families), so the group then led the way to the farm animals. School buses were arriving and the parking lot was filling up; I began to feel nervous about the number of people coming to the park. The rest of our camp time together had been peaceful overall, and I was unsure about how we might get mixed up within large groups of people. I verbalized this sense of apprehension and stated that we should probably stick together. The children shared their thoughts and we decided together that once we arrived at the farm area, we would find a meeting place in case any of us became separated.
This little farm area in the park is a small plot of land less than one acre in size. Most of the children in the school buses appeared to be headed toward various lawn areas, picnic sites, and to a nature center just across a small lawn from the farm. This whole area is well staffed by park rangers. At the farm where our visit was focused, there is a small barn where a few animals live that can be touched and fed over a divider. Just behind the barn is a gentle, fenced slope where goats and sheep live. There are also some shade trees, a restroom, and a few benches.
Once we got situated, we found that designating a meeting place at the little farm area was very easy to do, as there was an unused bench area off to the side. As the children were becoming hot and thirsty again, we all took our backpacks off and drank some water. I suggested to the children that it seemed like a safe place out of other people’s way and that we could leave our belongings and find one another if we became separated. They all agreed. As it turned out, the children arriving in school buses did not come to the farm area; it was primarily occupied by many families that day.
While most of the children were excited to see the cows and wander inside the barn, Leah became very fearful and agitated at the thought of having to pass by the cows; she couldn’t pry herself away from the bench. I nervously wondered whether I could leave her on the bench alone and whether she would be okay, as I wanted to go inside the barn to see the animals too. I thought other families and caregivers present might question her or me. I decided that verbalizing our plan could help mitigate these worries, so I explained that I was going to go inside the barn and that I would come back to check on her. When I peeked through the doors, I saw she was sitting, looking around, and did not appear upset. On the other side of the barn I could watch her from above the fences as I also watched the group near me. Everyone was doing whatever they needed to do to feel comfortable.
My group was ready to move along to see the goats. Violet and Desi came with me to check on Leah while Erik went on ahead. I explained to her that he wanted to see the goats, that he was around the corner, and that I wouldn’t be able to see her from there. I encouraged her to come see the goats with us and she agreed.
The children who had come back with me wanted to stay in the shade for a while. I pondered whether they would be okay too, and whether other people might question the children being left without an adult caregiver within view. The children had big smiles on their faces; I think they wanted to try being by themselves also. As with Leah before, I explained where I would be. As Leah and I were about to round the corner, Violet and Desi noticed me look back at them: “Teacher Heather, we’re going to the bathroom!,” they said. I gave them a thumbs up, trusting that all would be fine even though I felt hesitant about them going to the bathroom on their own. Leah and I went back up the hill. She remained close by my side as we observed families feeding the goats. After a time, I told that group that I was going to check on the other two children. When I peered around the corner, I noticed that they were quietly sitting next to their backpacks, looking content. I left them to their solitude without their knowing that I had looked after them.
When Erik expressed an interest in moving further up the hill to see the sheep, I told him that I’d let Violet and Desi know, thinking they may want to join him. Leah began looking nervous again; I could tell she was torn between wanting to see the sheep and wanting to stay by my side. I told her I would send the other girls up and that she should go on ahead. To my surprise and delight, she did! I was sure it was the work we had done to establish relationships with one another that helped her along. She had come to trust me and to become friends with Erik. This was a big move for her and her confidence. I went and told the other children about the sheep and we walked up the hill together. Once there, I explained that I’d go back down the hill, out of sight, to be by the backpacks—wanting other farm visitors to know that the backpacks were, indeed, attended.
I left the children up the hill and practiced deep breathing when I felt nervous. My normal role as the nature elder was less in need on this day, with this group. When I looked, I saw that the children were having fun watching the sheep. The next time I checked, I noticed they were talking with a family, so I decided to go nearer. One of the children in my group and the family’s child were thrilled that they were not only wearing the same mismatched socks, but that they had even worn them on the same feet! All was well.
Once I confirmed that everyone was all smiles, I decided to try leaving them alone again, with this family we had just met knowing about it. I gave the children my smartphone so they could take their own photos. I told them that I was going to set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes, and asked if they would be able to take turns with the camera until I got back from checking at the bench again. They agreed and I went down the hill, around the corner. I later saw them giggling in the pathway. When the 10 minutes had passed, they ran down to me, giggling and laughing, wild with tales from their adventure. Their story: they wanted to take pictures and then a video, which they accidentally made into a “slo-mo.” When they watched the video, they thought there was a cow mooing in the background, but it was Erik saying, “I’m dying!” so slowly! They loved their time alone, getting to do their own thing. I think we all felt proud of their newly gained independence.
On our hike back, we stopped for lunch at another shady location. The family who had interacted with us at the farm found us and struck up a conversation. The mother said I seemed relaxed and that the children had more freedom than others. She stated that she wanted the same thing for her own daughter. I was relieved that she sought us out and that her opinion of our group and activities was so positive.
“Trout”: A story of active learning and communal risk taking
One week, my group of campers happened to be enamored with fish. Nate, a 6-year-old who had attended the forest school camp last summer, had recently been visiting family on the East Coast and had caught an eel. He remembered seeing a sign last summer by the creek in our park with a picture of a trout on it. Early in the week, spurred on by Nate’s enthusiasm, the group decided to take a fishing trip, hoping we could catch a fish to cook and eat.
In preparation for our excursion, many in the group experimented with fire making in a barbeque pit at our site. I had recently purchased a fire steel (a tool that is used for starting fires and requires some strength and effort). A number of the children were able to make sparks; they also contributed by gathering tinder, kindling, and piles of wood. Anyone who engaged in working with the fire steel did so only at the barbeque pit; I also had the children take off their hats and jackets, as I was initially fearful the items might ignite. As we all worked to learn how to use the fire steel, the children regulated themselves in terms of taking turns and giving space to whoever was trying to start a fire. I wanted to see if they would persist in using the tool even though it was difficult. While most of us were only able to make a brief spark, two children did get a small flame to appear (no one was able to start a lasting fire). I felt comfortable moving farther away once I saw just how difficult the fire steel was to use and how the group kept themselves safe by giving each other plenty of room and behaving calmly.
The next day, Kev (an 8-year-old) brought one match from home, which his grandmother had given him. This was his third summer in camp with me, and I knew him and his grandmother well. Because we all had established a relationship of trust, his grandmother told him to keep the match in his pocket until we were ready to use it. Indeed, he did.
At the morning meeting, I showed the children a copy of The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada (Laws 2007) and provided time for the children to look at it for themselves. The children reviewed illustrations and became sure we would be fishing for rainbow trout. The children had lively discussions as they planned going to the creek, fishing, returning to our campsite, cooking, and figuring out how to divide a trout so that everyone could have some. Then we set off on our excursion.
The site we hiked to is a resource protection area; those at the creek need to be very careful to remain quiet, stay on the rocks, and avoid disturbing any mud. If visitors are careless—either accidentally or intentionally—they have to move away from the protection area. Nate brought his homemade fishing pole, which consisted of a bamboo pole, string, and a Lego tied to the end. Everyone took turns using it. The children also fished by holding sticks carefully over the water, cupping their hands together in the water to catch fish, or by using their hats as nets. When it was his turn to use Nate’s fishing pole, Kev improved his chances of catching a fish by connecting a blackberry bramble to the Lego to use as a hook, attaching a worm for bait.
As the elder of the group, I practiced encouragement in achieving our goal of catching fish. When everyone was quiet and peaceful, trout appeared—dozens of small fry (juvenile fish) about 1 1/2 inches long, swam by. Amazing! I wondered aloud whether if we caught one, we would be able to divide it to eat. Leah noted, “Larger ones have more meat.”
As the children told stories of what they had done at camp, the sense of joy was palpable.
After more than an hour, without trout in hand, it was time to head to a picnic site to eat lunch and pick blackberries. Afterward, we returned to our normal gathering site. As it neared time for families to pick up their children, Kev expressed an interest in starting a fire with his match. Based on our relationship built over three summers, his trustworthy nature, and his previous experience with campfires, I knew he could safely succeed in building a fire. The children gathered their collection of tinder, kindling, and dead branches while Kev set it all up carefully in the fire pit (as designated areas are the only safe places to have fires). We all rejoiced as Kev was able to get a fire going with that one match. When we were done, we doused the flames with excessive amounts of water from the bathroom, making sure we did not leave remains that even just felt warm to the touch since our area is susceptible to wildfires. The water source would also have been available as first aid to relieve burns to the skin, if that had been necessary. Everyone decided to barbeque the next day.
Fire starting and barbequing proved fascinating enough that all the children talked about the activities with their families. Nate asked his father to pack him a chicken skewer for the next day, which he kept on ice. Kev’s grandmother provided him with a packet of matches and everyone who felt ready had opportunities to try lighting them. Those who had been scared initially observed for longer before trying, while others decided not to try at all and instead contributed by gathering dead brush to keep the fire going. Because of his prior experiences in camp and with his family, only Kev was successful at sustaining a lasting flame. We contributed the chicken skewer and other food from our lunches to the barbeque. Since fire is so hot, everyone innately knew how close they could get to the fire while still feeling safe and how long of a stick to use to place items on the grill (or who to ask to do it for them). A happy surprise was learning how delicious barbequed fruit is! An apple tasted just like apple pie, and peaches were even better.
The children decided to end the week with a celebratory barbeque potluck, which was entirely planned and prepared by the children. They had been doing such a great job of communicating with their families that I decided not to interfere by sharing the plans myself. Compared with other groups of campers, my job as an elder was less in demand with this group.
Having told his grandmother about our plans, Kev asked to arrive early for our week-ending festivities in order to get the fire started. Everyone had asked their families to help them prepare food to bring to camp. Our meal included a trout, hot dogs and sausages, and all the sides and fixings. With Kev taking on the role of group leader and organizer, the children cooked all the food to perfection! My only contribution was putting foil down on the grill since the fish started to break apart. Kev even removed the fish’s bones when it was done and plucked the meat off the skeleton, placing the tasty chunks on a platter so everyone could access them more easily.
Nate tried the fish’s eyeballs, which had turned white. Kev said that he regularly eats fish heads, including the eyeballs, and thought they were good. In this case, though, Nate’s face turned from delight to disgust as he tasted and felt the new texture in his mouth. Despite this, he hung in and ate both of the eyeballs, reporting on the sensations to his curious friends, since none of the rest of us had eaten them before.
As the children excitedly told stories of what they had done at camp that week and shared leftover food with their families at the end of the day, the sense of joy and freedom was palpable in their voices and on their faces.
Looking to the future
“This past week, he’d wake up ready to go out the door, excited about what he’s going to do at Forest School. He is a totally different kid being in an outdoor environment and given the chance to explore on his own.”
—D. Nguyen (Personal communication from a camper’s parent, July 16, 2017)
After these experiences, I finally felt fully confident in moving away from planned curriculum and embraced the opportunity and discovery that child-directed learning provides. During those weeks I could not have planned richer activities than the ones the children initiated. I applaud the children’s creativity and openness, and appreciate their families’ support and encouragement.
These intentional, child-directed teaching methods led me to truly understand one aspect of teaching outdoors that cannot be overstated: the necessity for the teacher to have absolute agency in planning and curriculum (Lytle 2012). Educators need to have enough awareness, knowledge, and flexibility for what’s needed at any given moment. Being dedicated to working toward what’s best for everyone in the group is a common thread for outdoor educators (MacEachren 2013). In terms of children’s development, there are many reports of forest schools’ physical benefits (Fjørtoft 2001). However, more long-term, peer-reviewed research into the social and emotional impacts of these schools is needed.
At the beginning of my research, I wondered what the individual and groups of children would be interested in, whether they would form social groupings, and if they would choose to be involved in activities that had potential for danger. I verbalized my worries and worked to build relationships with the children so that we could learn to trust one another. In conducting this work with feelings of fear, both my own and my students’, we boosted our courage in trying new things and practiced activities that made us feel uncomfortable. I gained confidence in both my own skills and believing in the skills of the children I was teaching. I am more sure now that children often know what is best for themselves and may look for a system of support from friends and educators, their nature elders. In the end, these activities were celebrated by all of us, including families and strangers alike, which further justified these types of explorations. By documenting and reflecting upon these processes and on my own growth, I have been able to learn more about myself. I feel like I can move forward as an equal partner with children.
I delved into an inquiry-based approach to facing my fears when teaching because I was curious about how I could work through my strong feelings and those of others in an open, unstructured environment. When I provided the children with ample physical and emotional spaces, they led me along with them to memorable, independent experiences. By reviewing the literature, I discovered that my work was far more connected to others than I realized, and I learned that other forest schools and their pedagogies aligned with my own practices (Warden 2010; Forest School Canada 2014; Fritz 2016). I now feel more connected to my classes and to the wider community. I would like my stories to be inspirational to others in finding ways to offer more decision making and risky opportunities for those in their care, to trust that the right kinds of learning are taking place, to feel encouraged to tackle similar challenges and feelings, and in conducting research.
I will continue to ask my students to share their interests and encourage them to reach past their current abilities. Sustaining my reflective processes in conjunction with my newfound inquiry and research methods will help keep my teaching active, current, and thoughtful. I plan on adopting new inquiry research avenues for each school year.
I had been so worried about letting children make more decisions and become more independent. I was able to acknowledge my fears, verbalize them to the children, and move forward with this project. Children exhibiting similar feelings were able to try new things too. It is my hope that all children can have similar adventures—that they can be trusted to lead and discover further away from direct adult supervision. The resulting expressions on the children’s and their families’ faces, as they recognize when new skills are being tried, learned, and embodied is nothing short of magical. It’s the feeling of freedom.
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Photographs: courtesy of the author
Heather B. Taylor, NREMT, founded Outside School as a 100 percent outdoor education program for children ages 5 to 18, in the East Bay, California. She also founded an outdoor education resource website: www.teachoutside.org.