Blog, Forest School

Ottawa Forest & Nature School

For my final three-week placement in the Teacher Education program, I had the opportunity to work with the teachers and students at Forest and Nature School in Ottawa’s Greenbelt. This program is offered through the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada, which supports educators in developing play-based learning in nature as part of their practice, and also builds a youth nature leadership program. The Ottawa Forest and Nature School is located on NCC land (currently leased by the Wesley Clover Foundation) and was established in 2014 as an early childhood education option that connects students with nature.

This location offers various programs, including:

  • Half-Day Forest Preschool: for children aged 2.5 to 4, this program offers an early opportunity for kids to wonder, question and experience the marvels of the forest. Students improve their strength, coordination and self-confidence, and definitely develop grit as they adventure through the woods in all weather conditions.
  • Full Day Forest School: the full day program is for students aged 4-12 and allows for a deeper exploration into the mysteries of the paths, rocks, trees, and creatures at Forest School.
  • Parent and Child Nature Mornings: this is a two-hour drop-in option for parents and caregivers to connect with their children, the outdoors, and other like-minded parents and educators. It is an awesome opportunity for families to get a feel for Forest School, and many take advantage of these mornings as a fun way to get outside on a weekly basis!
  • OCDSB Partnership: the Ottawa Forest and Nature School has a partnership with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) to support public school students in discovering play-based learning outdoors once weekly for 6 consecutive weeks. Some of these school groups complete their 6-week experience at the Forest School site, while other Forest School staff travel to schools and bring a class to a nearby-nature location.
  • PD Days, Summer Camps: while I did not participate in these program offerings, the Forest School does offer programming for OCDSB PD Days for children aged 4 to 10 years old. You can also register your child for a week-long summer day camp at Forest School, although the wait list is already full for this summer!

While I got to experience many of these programs during my placement at Ottawa Forest School, every day was different and I feel like I only got a taste of everything that this type of learning has to offer! I would be keen to experience similar programming during other seasons (e.g. winter) in order to learn how to handle other challenges and mitigate risks. For example, some students had to really push themselves to deal with the wet, muddy conditions of spring- I would be interested to see how they would respond to a similar day outside in the dead of winter, when there is snow on the ground and frost on your eyelashes. Having said that, I felt so fortunate to be able to engage with the inspiring educators at Forest School and observe their philosophy of education in practice. It was a unique and thought-provoking experience that will influence my future practice as a teacher.

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!