Stories from my personal journey learning about and delivering Nature-rooted programs across three different countries
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It's pouring with rain. There's an 8 year old child in front of you attempting to use a fire striker to light a piece of cotton wool. He had used the strikers for the first time just a few minutes ago and, though he had struggled with the striking movement, he was able to light the cotton wool within a minute or two.
He had felt happy and good about himself just moments before. Now he is trying again.
But it's been 20 minutes and the cotton wool isn't lighting. We've tried lots of adjustments already (using different sized strikers, altering how to strike them and hold them, using a different piece of cotton wool), but it isn't working. I can also see that his small hands are just plain tired and the sparks are getting weaker and weaker.
There are three other children in the vicinity who are doing it successfully. That happy child is no longer feeling happy. He's feeling discouraged. To deal with this feeling he throws the strikers on the floor and sits on a log with his chin resting on his hands. What would you do next?
Here are some of the things I tried...
Attempt one: I said, “It's raining today and it's really difficult to do firelighting in the rain.” Then a boy a few feet away lit his cotton wool with no trouble...
Attempt two: I asked, “How do your hands feel, are they tired?” No response...
Attempt three: I sat next to him quietly. I picked up the fire strikers to have a look and noticed that they were wet. I tried to strike them myself and struggled to get sparks. He mumbled under his breath, “I can't do it.” I said, “I'm struggling too and it feels really frustrating. I think they are a bit wet. Should we try drying them off to see if that helps?”
He said, “Yes”, so we wiped them down. I struck them again and they worked much better. He asked to try again.
He continued his attempts and was making better sparks this time, but the wool still wasn't lighting. Eventually the other children went off to find something else to do, but he stayed behind to continue trying.
There was a big part of me that really wanted to help him light that cotton wool. I didn't like seeing him so frustrated and desperately wanted him to light it so I could see him happy again, like how he was at the start of the story. Part of me thought, by not stepping in am I harming his self-esteem because he's not achieving what he's set out to do? But I stopped myself. I didn't step in and I just observed.
He started to experiment with ways of striking and found if he struck from underneath the striker rather than on top this seemed to work better for him. Despite this, he still couldn't get the cotton wool to light. His frustration overwhelmed him again and he threw the strikers to the ground a second time.
I stopped myself from saying anything and just sat near him so he knew I was there if he needed me and waited to see what he would do. He didn't say anything. He just rested his head on one hand looking very sorry for himself, but with the other hand he began to run his finger up and down the side of a log. This seemed to calm him and after a few moments he picked up the strikers and started to try again.
Eventually it was time to go and we had to pack everything away before he got the chance to light that cotton wool a second time. By not finding a way to help him light the cotton wool before the end of the session, did I hinder his development of self-esteem? Was I too hands off?
Should I have said more? Quite possibly! I'm sure there are others who would have dealt with this situation better than I did. However, Louise Porter (2003) offers a valuable perspective for situations like this one:
“Accept mistakes. Children will become discouraged if we expect them to get things right every time or to 'do their best' always. When we point out their errors, they might learn that making mistakes is wrong, when instead if they are not making mistakes, that means they already knew how to do a task. This is not called learning: it is practising. So, when children have not been as successful as you or they would have hoped, it is still important to comment on what they did achieve” (pg 50).
Therefore, it is important to recognise that self-esteem isn't developed solely by achieving things you feel proud of. Part of developing a healthy self-esteem is learning how to deal with disappointment, how to recover from those feelings, and how to be resilient.
You can't learn these skills if you achieve something easily every time. You must fail. And you could say the boy in this story did 'fail' at firelighting.
But he also succeeded at many things too. He succeeded at self-calming when he felt upset by sitting quietly and focusing on something else for a while (like running his finger up and down a log) until he was ready to come back to it. He succeeded at problem-solving by noticing when things didn't work, trying to find out why and then coming up with ways to potentially resolve it. He also succeeded at being persistent. Despite feeling discouraged, he still came back to try again several times!
Additionally, there will be the opportunity for him to learn how time can help too. When we struggle with something and feel frustrated sometimes it's best to leave it for a while and come back to it later. This could be just a few minutes or it could be longer, like days or weeks.
The benefit of Forest School taking place regularly over time is that he'll be back again next week. He'll have the opportunity to try firelighting again. And if he does, perhaps it will be next time that he will succeed at lighting that cotton wool...
Porter L (2003) Young Children's Behaviour 2nd Edition, Paul Chapman Publishing, London.