This is a blog written by Yuuki Blakeney, ゆ(Yu) う(U) き(Ki), a forest school leader, researcher and parent in the school. Here she captures some of the learnings and benefits that she witnesses for one group of 3rd class children over the summer term.
It was a warm summery day on the first day of the 3rd class’s forest school. As soon as the children arrived at the meeting point, we could see their excitement and enthusiasm from the sparkle in their eyes.
The meeting point was an open field so we could make the most of this gorgeous season. We enjoyed seeing the seasonal flowers, such as dandelions, daisies and cowslips which are more likely to be found in sunny open fields than in our base camp within the woods. The forest is very busy in this season – the trees changing day by day with their new green leaves growing, the birds singing loudly and raising their chicks high in the trees. Some migrating birds are returning from the South too. Bees are getting busy visiting flowers and more insects are coming out from the ground.
Normally, children are allowed to explore the meeting point when they arrive until everyone gathers. So in the beginning, we went around to check the boundary together. It is very important to set a clear boundary in Forest School for children to safely explore within.
Even though forest school gives children a lot of freedom, there are certain rules that they need to follow in order to avoid serious accidents. We call them the Golden Rules (Keep yourself safe and happy, keep each other safe and happy and keep nature safe and happy) and we remind ourselves every time before starting forest school. In this way, children learn how to act responsibly and respectfully in the natural environment.
Sharing skills like grass whistling with each other
The children in this class had participated in forest school when they were in senior infants and in second class, so that they already seemed to have a good sense of nature. They found a larch tree with new fresh green needles, and first they wanted to know what kind of tree it was. The teacher didn’t tell the name straight away, and let the children observe the tree first. The children noticed the cones on the tree, and asked “Are they acorns?” Then the teacher explained “Acorns are only for oak trees, and pine cones are only for pine trees. But you can call them cones. This is a larch tree.”
The next thing the children did was to touch the needles gently and say “Oh wow it is so soft!”.
Nibbling the larch needles like a deer
Then another child asked “Can we eat the needles?” (It is hard to imagine that many other children look at a tree and try to eat its needles!) The teacher first reminded them that “Remember, never eat things from the forest unless adults say it is OK.”, and then, “Yes, you can eat larch needles”. Then the children tasted the fresh larch needles and shared their experience; A child said “It tastes like lemon!” Another child also smelled it and said “It smells like a christmas tree.” In this way, the children got to know the larch tree.
The next tree they noticed was a hawthorn, and with this tree, some of them already knew the name from previous Forest School sessions. They remembered the tree because they observed, touched, smelled and tasted it – some of them even remembered that it had a bitter taste.
During Forest school, children are encouraged to use their senses to get to know places and natural objects, and their knowledge about nature accumulates with their senses and their memories. Also, this fun way of getting to know the trees and plants seemed to encourage their curiosity about new trees and unknown plants.
After walking the boundary of the meeting point, we made a circle, remembered the golden rules and introduced ourselves with animal names and movements.
Then it was time to move to our basecamp. On the way, we stopped at cherry blossom trees, and picked some flowers and leaves for today’s nature tea. The assistant was from Japan, and the teacher realised that it could be a nice cultural experience for the children. Cherry trees are culturally significant in Japan, as they bloom all at once and scatter in an instant. People in Japan see it as a symbol of the beauty and fragility of life, and make the most of the moment by having picnics, parties, drinking, singing and dancing under the cherry blossom. So of course, that we did. The children and adults enjoyed making noises, singing and dancing under the cherry blossom trees.
Also, on the way to the basecamp, we picked up some dandelion flowers. In forest school, usually children are not encouraged to pick up the living plants, but the teacher told them that if there were abundant species in Ireland and here, they can pick up only a few. The children kept finding interesting places and things, and finally arrived at their basecamp.
At the basecamp, we first conducted a site risk assessment, which involved the children in naming any risks and how they might keep themselves and each other safe. The children looked at the sites, and shared their opinions. From their previous forest School experiences, they were aware of most of the potential risks such as getting branches in eyes, gorse thorns, falling because of uneven ground, getting hurt by sharp objects like broken glass etc. The teacher also made sure the children understood the potential danger of climbing trees, by asking them how to check if it was safe to climb, and how high they could climb (They have to check if the branch is alive and strong enough, and they can go to the height where they can reach by their hands).
A core principle of forest school is to learn to take appropriate risks. In supporting the children to be aware of hazards and risks and how to approach them in a safer way they learn to build confidence and keep themselves safe.
If we don’t give children space to learn to take appropriate risks all through their childhood they will be much more likely to take inappropriate risks in later years.
We confirmed our boundary by walking around it together, and then it was time for free play. As soon as we started the period of free play, everyone dashed away to do whatever they wanted to do. This age group (9-10 year old) of children seemed to play in groups more than the younger age group (6-7 year old), and more verbal communication was observed within the group, and they seemed to use more cognitive functions during their play.
For example, a group of children was digging a hole. Some of the children in the younger age group (6-7 year old) also loved digging holes, but they seemed to purly enjoy the action itself, which eventually led to the findings of living roots and dead trees turning to soil. However, the children in this age group (9-10 year old) had a purpose for digging. They wanted to find out why some parts of the ground under pine trees were so soft. They were digging the ground gently so that they wouldn’t harm living roots, and they found out that the roots were acting like hammocks to avoid the soil hardness. The assistant encouraged them to look at the soil more carefully, and they found that the soil was made of decayed pine needles, which were providing their organic matter to the tree as well as protecting the roots.
Also this group of children were trying to find “ground trolls”, and they were looking for the signs of their existence. For example, the ground trolls turn into rocks when they are dead, and they build their huts. They explained that there were signs everywhere in this basecamp, so they tried finding the signs and communicating with the trolls by giving presents. The imaginary world in this age group seemed much more in detail compared to that of the younger age group, the contents were more complicated like a story, and importantly it was shared between friends.
Forest school allows children to escape into their imaginary world. The world they created together might be based on games, books or movies, but they use their full imaginations and physical actions – they run around, shout, discuss the characters, create new story lines, and use natural objects such as stones, sticks, corns as key items for the story. Having free time in nature with their friends seems like something they need in their everyday life, and forest school seems to play an important role for them to enjoy most of their childhood.
Another group of children was working on making a hut. It was the same hut that the younger children also liked building. However, this time, the construction work was more strategic. First of all, they had a clear aim for the construction work, which was to build a “Green Tea Cafe”. So, they took all the branches away, and tried to build from the beginning. They called it a “Renovation”. They lined up the branches on the ground, and discussed which were the suitable branches for the foundation of the building. One of the children was struggling and frustrated because it was difficult to make the structure as he wanted, so he asked the assistant and the teacher for help. But the teacher said “I think it is much more fun to figure it out by yourself, but I can listen if you want to talk things through.” So he started to think again.
Another group of children loved climbing trees and challenging themselves. A child climbed quite high (up to the height she was allowed), and called her friend to look at her. She managed to come down safely, although it was tricky and she had thought carefully about the safest way to come down. She must be so used to climbing trees with her own trial and error from their previous forest school, so she was confident as well as sensible. Her friend was watching her, and wanted to go up next. So she asked “How did you do?” and the first child told her friend how to safely climb the tree. It was great to see the children teach each other.
In forest school, we constantly encounter new life and death. It could be trees, plants, insects, and other animals, and the children are able to learn life and death in a gentle way as well as interdependence and the circle of life in the natural world. This week, a child found a dead bird. It was lying at the bottom of the tree, in relatively undisturbed form, as if it was sleeping. Everyone gathered including the teacher. One of the children instantly started to dig a hole to make a grave. They discussed whether it was ok to touch dead animals but decided it could be infected, so they used sticks to move its body into the hole very gently. It was still soft, so the teacher said it would probably have died very recently. Some of the children discussed how it was dead. One child thought it had bumped into a tree and fallen; another child thought some other animal had attacked him.
One of the children said “We shouldn’t bury him because the foxes will eat him anyway.” And the teacher said “That’s okay too, it is a part of life.” We make a grave to respect its death. The children eventually scattered away to go back to what they were doing, and some of the children continued decorating the grave and giving a ceremony.
Then it was time for lunch break. We always gather in a circle during lunch break, because this gives us a sense of unity by sharing our experience of eating lunch together in nature. The teacher told a dandelion story, and gave a dandelion to the circle to make a wish that they want to come true during forest school. Their wishes were “I want to find out the mystery of ground trolls”, “I want climate change to stop”, “I want to have fun with friends”, “I want to climb high in trees”, “I want to have a new school bag for forest school”, and “I want to finish building the Green Tea Cafe”.
Then we had a Cherry Blossom Tea Ceremony. The children learnt that the Japanese traditional Tea ceremony is the art of serving, receiving and drinking green tea. It developed in the 16th Century when the society was divided by hierarchies, but inside of a tiny Tea Ceremony room, everyone was equal and they could also be apart from real life. The door is small so that guests have to bow to come in (bowing is an important gesture to show respect). So we bowed, and each of the children were given tea one by one. They admired the smell of the tea and then we shared what we are grateful for and drank the tea.
After this, we played a quick Eagle Eye game, and it was time for the sit spot. Sit spot is an important element in forest school which gives children a moment to be in nature. Before the sit spot, we gathered in a circle and the teacher asked the children to share what they can see, hear, feel and smell and send them to the quiet spaces and stay still for a few minutes. We shared what we found in the circle after that, and left the basecamp.
There was so much happening in only two and half hours. Because of the previous forest school experience when they were younger, they already seem to have an attachment with nature and with the place, and they have receptive antennas to what they can take in from forest school – their senses are awakened, their mind in motion, curiosity drawn out, constantly trying to find something new or different to do, which they always do. Because of the experience they had when they were younger, they don’t miss the opportunities that present themselves to learn from nature, from friends, and from surrounding adults.