Blog, Forest School

Top Tips for Play-Based Learning in Nature

The best advice I got from a seasoned Forest School educator was to continually ask myself: what is the reason behind what I’m doing or saying? This is a pivotal question for teaching in general, as it forces us to reflect on our role as teachers. Learning when to step in and when to take a back seat is the essence of teaching, whether inside or outside of the classroom, and I know this will take time and experience to develop! However, I did learn a few key tips for facilitating play-based learning in nature during my time at Forest School…

  1. Assess the risk: there are many potential risks associated with Forest School, and a successful outdoor learning plan needs to include a daily risk assessment. Potential risks or hazards could include: access to site; boundaries; other people; animals; canopy, shrub, field and ground layers; structures; weather conditions; group issues and activities; etc. You can find several sample risk assessment templates here. For a more general discussion of embracing risk, check out this blog post from a Forest School in New Brunswick. I found that the most important factor was to ensure that all adults and children on site are aware of the risks and the controls that are in place to mitigate them.
  2. Three pairs of socks: there is no bad weather, only bad gear! It is not only crucial to make sure that you have the appropriate gear to keep yourself warm and dry, you will also need to be cognizant of the type of gear that your students have access to for playing outdoors. For example, at Forest School in April we had many students that arrived in the morning with full-piece rain suits, waterproof boots and two spare sets of clothing. This level of preparedness may not necessarily be the case for your group of students, so make sure you consider and stay prepared for the moment when the weather (inevitably) turns on you. Hint: plastic bags in boots will become a go-to strategy during soggy spring conditions!
  3. Follow your students’ interests: As teachers, we often feel the tugging need to direct, to probe, or to guide our students towards certain learning objectives that we feel are important or valuable. However, the kids we are working with may or may not agree! Rather than dictating a task or proposing an activity, see what happens when you take a step back and let your students discover the forest around them: the rocks, the moss, the trees, the bark, the sounds, the sights, the creatures… there is a LOT to discover, and you will probably embark on a learning experience that you never could have planned!
  4. Get lost: another category of risk when it comes to outdoor play is the danger of children getting lost. Whether through hide and seek or venturing into unknown territory, playing where students can get temporarily “lost” is an important component of outdoor risky play. It allows them to experience thrilling feelings of risk and danger associated with exploration, which is a major part of children’s play. Check out this article for an interesting evolutionary perspective on risky play as an important part of child development.
  5. Reflect, reflect, reflect: reflection was a key strategy that was particularly useful when working with public school students to consolidate the learning that occurred during their time in the forest. “Sit spots” were one tool that we used for this type of reflection. As you might guess, this quite simply requires students to find a forested spot to sit for an extended period of time and observe their immediate and distant surroundings. We started with 8 minutes in our sit spots, but more experienced forest school participants could no doubt stay engaged for longer. We had a circle to share the things we saw, felt, heard, and felt during sit spots. Students could also use a Forest School Journal to communicate their reflections through writing or drawing. And finally, one of my favourite projects was when the students collaboratively created a map of our forest school site on a large piece of cloth. It’s not quite finished, but see below for a picture of the map in progress!

At the end of the day, our children and students are capable of more than we sometimes allow them to show us- you’d be amazed at what happens when there is a little freedom for them to explore, imagine and create!

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