LearnBranching Out: Parents and Educators Embrace Outdoor School

Branching Out: Parents and Educators Embrace Outdoor School

by Tricia Edgar

It’s morning in the forest, and as the group sits to listen to a story, a glorious interruption occurs. A heron glides over us and sits on a tree, alternately watching both us and the pond. We wonder if it is listening to the story too.

It’s just before snack time, and the mud puddle café is busier than ever. The children sit around a puddle collecting mud and wrapping it in leaves. “Sushi!” they exclaim, handing one to the teacher.

It’s pouring rain at the end of the day, and a group of children walks up a forest path, proudly carrying a stick that is much longer than any one of them. As they walk, we make up a song about carrying the stick, and occasionally the group erupts into laughter at the silliness of the lyrics.

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These are typical scenes from class time at a forest school in Metro Vancouver. In the last decade, the forest school approach to outdoor learning has been adopted by many families, childcares, preschools, and outdoor programs across the country.

At forest school, children connect to nature and with each other through play. They explore nature at their own pace, whether that’s running through a park or sitting in the grass watching a worm. Adults provide social support, and materials to inspire children, and encourage learning by asking questions rather than moving through a specific curriculum.

In today’s uncertain world, forest school is not just physically healthy – it also promotes mental health. Children who play outdoors experience joy and connection and build their confidence and resilience. They return home wet, muddy, tired, and most of all, happy.

If you’re an educator or a parent, how can you incorporate outdoor school into your learning plans?

Go on walking adventures every day, no matter what the weather. Find something to enjoy about the weather – if it’s a rainy day, that’s perfect for jumping in puddles.
Get to know the land and connect to the stories of the land you are on, including the Indigenous histories of that land. Who was connected to that place before you?

Focus on local nature experiences. Whether you’re tending to the snails that live in your window box or walking to a local field, connecting to nature on a regular basis where you are will provide your child with the strongest connection to the land.

Enjoy the process. Let your children take you where they want to go. Instead of focusing on a hike, enjoy exploring whatever your children would like to investigate in that moment.

Related: 5 Engaging Activities To Keep Kids Busy At Home

Honour children’s desires to run, jump, and climb, checking in with them about how their body and mind are feeling. Ask them: what’s your plan? As we support our children in these small decisions, it helps them develop a deeper trust in their own judgment.

Listen to what each place can teach you. Watch the puddles form during the rainy months, and jump in them. Notice how the flowers in front of a house that you walk past are host to many bees. Finding joy and gratitude in these small moments can turn your day around.

My years as a forest school parent and facilitator have given me confidence in the immeasurable wonder, curiosity, empathy and resilience of children. Watching them form relationships with the land and each other is a joy every day.

Local resources for outdoor learning:

The Outdoor Playbook, developed by a UBC-based team of design professionals, provides guidance for parents, teachers, and administrators seeking to create outdoor play and learning spaces for children.

The Child and Nature Alliance of Canada supports educators who are seeking to expand their forest school practice.

Spreading Our Branches is a Facebook group for forest school educators in Metro Vancouver and beyond.

The Free Forest School Movement supports parents and educators to incorporate this learning into homes, communities, and classrooms.

Tricia Edgar is the Program Director of Fresh Air Learning, a forest school in Metro Vancouver. Visit them at www.freshairlearning.org. She is honoured to live and work on the traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples.

For more back-to-school stories, tips, and resources, check out our latest issue, online now.

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