When I found out that I got the job and was moving to Rousseau School, one thing that I was very excited about was the forest attached to the school, and the opportunity to explore this forest with the students. Jocelyn Schmidt, a Kindergarten educator in York Region, blogged about forest learning over a year ago now, and since reading her post, I’ve been intrigued about what might be possible. Then I started working with a wonderful team of Kindergarten educators that love regular visits to the forest, and see all of the incredible learning that can come out of this special place.
We didn’t go to the forest right away, as first we got students comfortable in the immediate school environment, but by the middle of September, we made our first trek there. While I was really excited to go, I was also scared. Our students climbed everything, particularly a big fallen tree just on the edge of the school property. On one hand, I loved the safe risks that the students took as they climbed, but on the other hand, I was terrified that they would fall down. I couldn’t pull myself away from the tree, and I constantly reminded students to “be careful.” As I blogged about recently, I’ve become more comfortable with this climbing, and I see how careful and safe the students are as they climb. I still stayed close to the tree, but responded differently to requests for help, and it was amazing to see what happened.
Slowly the forest is changing me, and yesterday, I realized just how much. At the end of the day yesterday, we headed out to the forest, and a few minutes later, the other Kindergarten class joined us. While I started by standing over next to the fallen tree, pretty quickly I witnessed one student supporting another one that was scared. She encouraged her throughout the descent to the ground, and I realized that the children really do have the support of each other.
It was around this time, that I heard a chant of “heave ho” coming from the opening of the forest. I looked over to see a group of students carrying a large log over to the middle of the hill. Now I was intrigued and I had to go over to investigate. While I continued to keep a close eye on the fallen tree, I realized that other educators were watching this area too, and the children were also keeping a close watch and supportive eye on each other. What I saw and heard during my new investigation continued to capture my interest and my heart, and I think is best conveyed through the photographs and videos below.
Never before have I been so sad for the day to end. I can’t wait to go back to the forest and see what happens next. I realized just how magical the forest can be.
- In the forest, 66 Kindergarten students never seems like too many. There is space for all of them to explore and purpose behind the many different explorations. And for those students that really need a quiet area alone, there is more than enough room for that too.
- In the forest, new leaders arise. One of the quietest followers in the classroom was one of the most vocal leaders during yesterday’s investigation. This makes me wonder how we can bring a little more of the forest back inside.
- In the forest, everyone is happy. Maybe it’s the fresh air and exercise. Maybe it’s the amazing discoveries. Maybe it’s something else entirely. All I know is that yesterday afternoon, I was walking with one child over to the forest. She was really tired, recovering from a cold, and eager to go home. All she wanted was her mom. But then we got there, and everything changed. She climbed the fallen tree. She collected sticks for the campfire. She went to find treasures inside the forest opening. On the way back to school, she couldn’t stop talking about the triangular rock that she found, and she just wanted to stay at school to find more. The forest has incredible healing powers.
- In the forest, there are never any problems. Students support each other. They all find activities that interest them. They interact with some different people than they do in the classroom. They’re even patient as they climb tree and wait their turn to share discoveries. It again makes me wonder how we can bring that “forest feeling” back inside.
- In the forest, collaboration happens authentically. Students that sometimes find it difficult to work with one or two other students in the classroom, seem to connect with many more students among the trees. Maybe it’s because there’s a bigger interest that draws them together (e.g., the campfire). It’s truly incredible to watch them build off of each other’s ideas and support each other as they work and learn together.
- In the forest, it’s quiet. Yes, there can still be noise, but it never seems too loud, and there are always lots of areas of quiet too. I know that the quiet makes me feel calmer, and in a smaller space with many students, it can be hard to find that silence. Maybe sometimes we all need it.
- In the forest, there’s always kindness. Students utter words such as, “Are you okay? Can I help you? Remember, you can do it!” They support each other in ways that go beyond even what we see in the classroom. The forest melts my heart every single time we go!
I came from a school that didn’t have a forest, and didn’t necessarily have a safe outdoor space to explore in the same way. This year’s “forest learning” makes me realize the value of this space, and the need for a real outdoor learning environment beyond an area to ride bikes and climb playground equipment. There’s something to be said for students just being equipped with a stick, a rock, trees, and some grass. So what about the schools where this isn’t possible? I wonder about trips to outdoor conservation areas. I wonder about exploring areas in the community. I wonder about links with other schools that have what we have at Rousseau. What are your “forest learning” experiences? How can we provide more students with the amazing learning that happens among the trees? We all deserve some forest time!
What an amazing experience for the kids and for the teachers. I am always so envious of teachers with forests near their school, but am reminding myself that nature is all around us and kids need to connect to the environment around them. Those students will develop such a love for the place, which I hope continues into their adult years.
Thanks for the comment, Liane! I think that your point about nature is so important. We need to give students opportunities to connect with nature, regardless of what that “nature” may look like. The learning that they do in this outdoor environment is incredible! I love to hear about different people’s experiences.
There is a school in Ottawa that I occasionally teach at that has a conservation area right behind the school. They have leveraged that in impressive ways. All the classes go there on a weekly basis to see what they can find and learn. Much of their learning connects back to their experiences there. The school has really adopted the area and the students have become ambassadors for the environment and that area in particular. Check out http://www.themudlakeproject.ca/blog.
This sounds amazing, Melanie! Thank you so much for sharing this project. I’m going to check it out now. What have you noticed about the student learning based on your experiences there? I think that this outdoor learning time is worth leveraging in all grades — not just Kindergarten.
The students love it! They are very proud of the things that they have learned and discovered there and of the work that they have done to conserve the area. When they have guests into the school (like a poetry author there to do a workshop), they always talk about the things that they saw and learned, and they use their findings in their writing and math and science projects. They have been taught how to approach that time respectfully and quietly, and in the few times that I have been privileged enough to go out there with them, the students have been extremely well behaved and quiet in the hopes that this will help them see more animals. Nature is always changing so there are always new things to see and experience. Definitely worth leveraging at all ages and for a variety of purposes (although I can admit some bias as a past camp counsellor and teacher who would happily spend a lot of time outdoors if it could work out that way).
Thank you so much for sharing these experiences, Melanie! I think that your last comment is a very important one. Learning in an “outdoor classroom” is really emphasized in Kindergarten. I’d love to see it continue in future grades. I think this is happening in some places, but not everywhere. I wonder what links older students would make to this outdoor learning environment.