"I'm going to build a dam!" a six year old named Carter said. And off he went to the stream where he started to move rocks from the stream bed, puzzle-piecing them together to form a small wall across the width of the water's path.
The project soon gathered interest and support from a few other children and Carter became a kind of project manager as he shared his vision with others and directed them on where the rocks should be moved to. As the wall of rocks got higher and higher Carter excitedly shouted, "Look the water is getting deeper! It's up to my ankles!", referring to the water that was starting to pool behind the rocks.
Meanwhile several other children were exploring the stream nearby searching for creatures like salamanders and frogs. They too noticed that the dam was starting to have an impact on the movement of water in the stream. One eight year old girl expressed concern about it.
She said, "I'm worried that if the dam gets too high then the water will stop flowing and everything down stream will dry up!"
Another six year old boy who'd been searching for salamanders chimed in, "Yeah and then the salamanders won't be able to survive!"
I was standing nearby listening intently, deeply interested in how this conversation would unfold. None of the children had considered the impacts of building a dam before starting the project. But as they experienced first hand how its construction was actually altering the flow of the stream they had come to realize that building it could significantly change the landscape and affect the plants and animals who lived there.
I wondered how Carter would respond to these deeply thoughtful concerns. This is what he said...
"I don't care, it's my dam!!"
The discussion that followed then took me by complete surprise as several children responded to Carter and debated the risks, benefits, and ethics associated with building a dam:
"It's not your dam, Mother Nature gave the rocks to you."
"And we’re also destroying habitats for salamanders!"
"But we’re building new habitats with these rocks."
"Do you not care about nature?!"
I debated with myself about whether to step in at this point before a riot broke out... maybe I shouldn't have, but I did. I said, "It sounds like some people are worried about how the dam will impact the plants and animals that live in the stream. Has anyone ever been to a real dam before?"
Some of the children had, some of them hadn't, and a discussion ensued about dams. I shared about how some people try to reduce the negative impacts dams can have on wildlife by building side channels to allow some water to still flow or ladders to enable fish and other creatures to continue to make their way up stream.
Suddenly, Carter shouts, "I have an idea! Let's build a channel in the side so water can still go downstream."
The other children contributed more thoughts as they start to put the idea into action:
"And animals can get across!"
"And snakes can sun on that rock!"
When they'd finished, Carter called me over to show me the tunnel-like structure that allowed the water to continue to flow downstream. He reached his hand through it to show me how it worked. The other children were satisfied that the stream would not dry up and the plants and animals were safe - riot averted!
The whole experience was deeply fascinating as well as challenging for me. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on Forest School as a pedagogy, thinking more deeply about its purposes, aims, hopes and dreams. This is something I've discussed previously in the blog "What is Forest School for? A purpose viewed through many lenses..."
I think this particular story about the building of a dam highlights a "purpose" of Forest School viewed through the lens of inspiring environmental awareness and future stewardship of the earth. The children have come to know the stream on our Forest School site as a habitat. They've learned about, interacted with, and come to care about other living things in the area. The experience of the dam demonstrated for them that we as humans have an impact on the places we encounter, as we influence and alter our surroundings, and it inspired them to take action to reduce those impacts.
And I guess what surprised me the most was that the situation was initiated by the children. I always do my best to consider the ecological impacts of programs at all times and am sure to complete and adhere to ecological impact assessments. I also try to communicate these intentions to the groups I work with too, such as through storytelling (see the "Learning with Storytelling" blog post). But this was the first time I think I've experienced children more deeply and passionately considering their own impact without instigation from an adult...
It's given me a lot to think about and, if anything, left me with more questions than answers about Forest School as a pedagogy in relation to sustainability... including the challenges inherent in the dominant Western perspective about humans as separate from nature and nature as a tool and resource for us to use (which is aptly demonstrated by the comment of the child and title of this blog post: "Mother Nature gave the rocks to you"). It reminded me of a few interesting articles related to these topics that I've come across recently which some of you may find interesting too:
Alcock, S., & Ritchie, J.. (2018). Early childhood education in the outdoors in Aotearoa New Zealand. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21, 77-88. (View summary)
Clayton, S., Colléony, A., Conversy, P., Maclouf, E., Martin, L., Torres, A. - C., et al.. (2016). Transformation of experience: Toward a new relationship with nature. Conservation Letters. (View summary)
Elliott, S., & Young, T.. (2016). Nature by default in early childhood education for sustainability. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 32(1), 57–64. (View summary)
Have any experiences or thoughts related to engaging learners with sustainability at Forest School? Please feel free to share in a comment below or get in touch with a private message here!