Stories from my personal journey learning about and delivering Nature-rooted programs across three different countries
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I've been thinking about why it's such challenge for me to explain what Forest School "is" to people who are not familiar with it. One of my conclusions is that some things are easily "seeable" and some things aren't. For example, it's easy to see that a group partaking in Forest School is outdoors, probably getting dirty, maybe lighting fires, building shelters, and using knives to whittle sticks. These things are the activities: the playing in mud, firelighting, shelter building, and using tools. We can see those things are happening. But other things are happening too that aren't so easy to see. Those things are: the reasons behind why the activities are presented to the group in the first place, the subtle but powerful interactions between and amongst the facilitators and participants, and the impact all those things are having on all involved. Those are the almost invisible forces at play, what I'm calling a "mindset," that can really require a trained and practiced eye to notice!
I did not come into this world or the fields of education/outdoor education with a Forest School type mindset. So I felt very confused when I first observed a Forest School session. I could see the group were taking part in a lot of fun outdoor activities and engaging in free play, but I didn't really understand why. I only had a very superficial understanding of the program's purpose. After observing for a bit, I probably would have felt confident that I could have facilitated a similar set of activities for a different group of participants. But I realize now that it would have been an entirely different experience because I would have been delivering the activities without a mindset. A mindset was what I was missing.
I was really lucky to be able to assist with a Forest School program for a couple of years and eventually undergo Forest School Practitioner training. These experiences over time were what helped me to start to develop a mindset. Now, a mindset is a difficult thing to explain because, well, it's in the mind... It's abstract rather than concrete and rather ambiguous. However, I'll make my best effort to explain what the development of a Forest School mindset did for me:
- It changed the way I think about learning
- It changed how I communicate with others
- It changed how I deal with behavioral challenges
- It enabled me to really dig into the concept of empathy and its powerful impact on relationship building
- It changed how I think about outdoor space and to better recognize it as a place with its own lifeforms and rhythm, to be respected and cared for, and not just used as a resource
- It helped me to reconceive the notion of "danger" and feel confident and comfortable in the presence of risk
- It helped me to reconceive the notion of "play" and recognize its importance in human development and wellbeing
- And, what I consider most significant, it helped me to build the muscle of observation, allowing me to notice value in things I hadn't before
Now, I also learned a lot of fantastic practical skills. I learned how to use tools like knives, saws, and billhooks and how to tie really useful knots that help me to build structures and create imaginative crafts. I learned how to light a fire and cook fun and exciting campfire recipes. I also learned how to facilitate group games and use storytelling to inspire learning and creativity. These practical skills and activities are incredibly useful to the work I do now. I need these things to set up and run programs for the groups I work with. But if I'd only learned the practical skills and activities without learning the softer skills that helped me to form a different mindset, I would not be able to deliver the same programs I'm able to deliver now.
That's why I view Forest School as a mindset as well as a set of activities. It blends pedagogy and practical skills together. It's a mix of things that you can easily "see" along with things that might take some time, training, and observational "muscle building" to see and value too. I think these are the qualities that make Forest School both so special and so dang hard to explain!