Sharing the Joy of Learning in an Outdoor Classroom

Friday, 24 June 2016

A Reflection on Preserving the Culture of Childhood by
Fostering the Freedoms Necessary for Play

By: Diana Fedora Tucci; Forest School Practitioner, Founder TFNS.  When I think back to my own childhood experience around play in nature I remember the acres upon acres of untouched natural surroundings made up of lush woodlands, a craggy, winding creek, steep, muddy embankments, scented wildflower meadows, rocky places, sky-high grasslands, and dusty, dirt pathways that stretched out just beyond my back door.  It's hard to believe that my home was located in Toronto but it was and the sort of play that unfolded there was one of very little parental guidance or supervision and very much child-led.  Adventurous to say the least, we (mainly myself, my three sisters, and neighbourhood friends) routinely left the house when it was light outside and returned home by 5:00 pm for dinner when our moms called out for us from our back doors.

My mom made a habit of embracing our community of friends around our nature playtime as she regularly enrolled us in summer camps, we played at local parks and swam and picnicked at various beaches.  Picnics actually became a great gathering time for our friends and family.  They marked a break from play and a communal sharing of food around a table in the outdoors.  We had a grape vine pergola in our backyard under which we ate starting from the moment it was warm enough in the season.  My dad also built a treehouse in one of the huge weeping willows in our backyard from which many adventures began.  Climbing trees became one of our favourite things to do. During wintertime, my parents flooded the land just outside our backyard at the foot of the woodland, creating a skating rink for our whole neighbourhood to enjoy.  I remember skating on it long after everyone went indoors to sit by the warmth of our wood burning fireplace to drink my mom's famous hot chocolate with marshmallows.  My mom embraced an entire neighbourhood of children into our home life.  One thing that I remember very clearly is that my parents made a habit of taking us out on weekends for nature and culture play outings to explore other communities and cultures.  This included visits to High Park, China Town, Little Italy, Harbourfront, Kensington Market, visits to the Toronto beaches, and so forth.  We became playful explorers of the city on weekends and the places we visited always offered us time to connect with nature in some way even if just through its local park as well as discovering the diverse cultures of the peoples that inhabit our city especially through customs and food.    

In addition to this, my father was an avid nature enthusiast who believed in the power of the natural world to teach all.  He made a ritual out of taking myself and my three sisters into nature on a regular yet non-scheduled basis to play, imagine, discover, wonder, explore, and learn.  My father had a deep respect for the natural world and his intent for us was that through play, with him as a partner in our adventure, we would come to learn all that nature had to teach.  The key difference here from all the other forms of play that I experienced throughout my childhood being my father's the whole-hearted trust in nature as a teacher and how he bestowed a sense of reverence on the time that we spent playing and exploring together.  The natural woodland behind our home called us to play and we came to know it experientially in, with, and through its perpetual cycles of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, and years.

I lived in the same home until my late twenties and then purchased it in my thirties when my family moved away after my father's passing.  To say that I was rooted in place is no understatement.  I lived and played amongst the wilds of nature until my early teens when a throughway was built in the woodland behind my home, uprooting and changing my entire world.  It was a pivotal moment for me because I remained there in that place and experienced nature being there one minute and then gone the next.  Moving elsewhere to another location that had little or no nature spaces around it would have been one thing but witnessing nature's vehement removal after knowing it for so many years weighed heavily on my spirit and taught me the value of play for my playground, as I knew it, was no longer there.

After the throughway was completed, my relationship to nature shifted.  The need for nature connection was always present for me but I began including camping, biking, skiing, hiking, and swimming into my life as a different sort of way to connect to the natural world through play.  

This is the story that comes to mind when I think back to my childhood and my experiences around play in nature.  A varied culture of play evolved through routines, habits, rituals, and sport.  We were invited to play and called to play and play emerged and unfolded and evolved naturally in our community surroundings with the adults weaving in and out of our experiences.  Play is manifold.  It is not one dimensional.  I did not want to reflect on the 'WHAT' of play (what occurred during our play adventures), I wanted to look at the 'HOW' of play.  I could write a book on what we did  during our playtime, but that's another story.

But nature play is slowly slipping away.  It is a loss of a language of childhood and a loss of the wisdom of knowing your land, yourself, others and all things experientially in all ways.  The natural world no longer holds the attention of the dominant culture in our society and there is a very obvious shift in the level of security that is felt within the overarching and fixed embrace of nature.  Navigated by test scores, commerce, economy, consumerism, and the media children are no longer afforded the freedoms that are necessary in order to preserve a culture of childhood that is shaped by the repeated opportunities to be guided by the seasons and the encounters and milestones that unfold in real, authentic exchanges between child and earth in play.

In her book, Rest Play Grow, Deborah Macnamara, PHD states,"The type of play young children need is often that which is done on their own without parents or peers or playmates.  A young child needs to have time to become immersed in their own world for the purpose of expression or exploration."

 I have been very inspired by the idea of rest and its importance for the manifestation of true freedom in play to occur.  It's not just about offering children free, unhurried, and unscheduled time to play.  That sort of play can unfold in a variety of  settings including parent and child playtime.  True freedom in play goes much deeper than that and it is for this reason that I feel so strongly about offering my summer Forest School series, Into the Forest with Diana.  To register please go to Tinder Forest School program offerings page.  I will be blogging as we go along so do pop back in here to see what we are up to.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Rituals (PART 1):

Place Making, Play, the Local Forest, and the Lure of Exploration

By: Diana Fedora Tucci; Forest School Practitioner, Founder TFNS.  It wasn't too long ago that I initiated the child, parent, and educator forest play encounters in our local nature spaces.  Leading into it, my intent was to leverage the community to gather in nature to meet, play, explore, and learn.  But, it has grown into something much deeper than that to a sort of ritual that bids a community to partake in the cadence of nature's ever-changing ebb and flow as it progresses through the hours, days, months, and seasons that shape each year.  We send out open invitations to parents, educators, and children to come and be inspired through child-led, experiential play in nature that follows the seasons and welcomes the serendipitous moments found in time and place.  We get a glimpse into the possibilities for change around access to nature for play and learning and for the enduring connections and networks being formed through the repeated pilgrimages that we make to these patches of nearby nature.  The relationships that we form with all of the participants are reciprocal as we support each other as educators or parents or through our playful interactions with the children.  This is not a workshop or a drop-off program or a play date or a parent play group.  It is a collective of all of these things.  What really gets me excited about our forest play encounters is that they are not a one-off experience but rather that they kindle a culture of inclusion, reciprocity, mindful presence, and first hand experience that slowly unfurls and then reshapes our current perspectives on learning, play, and nature and the merit of learning through play in nature.  

"A year indoors is a journey along a paper calendar; a year in outer nature is the accomplishment of a tremendous ritual.  To share in it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimages of the sun, and something of that natural sense of him (the sun) and feeling for him which made even the most primitive people mark the summer limits of his advance and the last December ebb of his decline."                                                                                                                                                                          Henry Beston, The Outermost House

Years back, I learned the value of place making and how it is intrinsically linked to the embodiment of all things learned.  As I think back and if my memory serves me correctly, we were reading the book, Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor.  On our initial forays into the forest we went on a rock hunt to find a special rock for our presence stones basket, an inaugural ritual that I use as a commencement to all of my sessions and that continues throughout each and every session.  Each child finds their special stone and then places it in the presence basket each day upon arrival and then removes it upon departure.  The presence stones acts as a tangible symbol that honours each child's presence in Forest School.  The children found so many special rock that they began using them as markers on the land to mark their favourite play places.  They called them Remembering Rocks and told me that they used them to remember where these special places are and for their fiends to find.  We began exploring and learning about Inuksuit and creating them into stacked rock structures that help point the way for friends to find was something that proved very exciting for the children and really gripped their attention.  Counting, balancing, pointing the way, working out the direction, the steps to the location, landmarks... the landscape itself became a three dimensional map as the children found their way to knowing it by creating fantastical pathways into the forest.  The children became willing explorers in a new and fascinating world of our local forest found just mere steps from their home.  

 It seems to me that one can think of mapmaking as a fundamental human activity, if not the fundamental human activity... Learning consists of looking at something new and beginning to see paths into it.  You construct a map or a series of maps, each one an approximation and probably wrong in many details, but each one helping you to go further into the territory... We all have hundreds, thousands of maps each of which represents a way we have learned to look at a part of the world... There are music maps, language maps, maps of social relations, maps of the physical environment... What they have in common is that all of them are models in our minds of what we think the world looks like and we can consult them to help predict what the world is going to be like, what the consequences of our actions are likely to be.  
 Tony Kallett (1995), Homo Cartographicus

Mapping using Remembering Rocks, the loose parts of the natural world that were randomly found in the forest, became a sort of game that the children engaged in with joy.  Remembering Rocks evolved from the children as a way to map their play and share with each other their findings.  The provocation that I presented as the educator was the stories of the Inukshuk as I invited the children to look at their remembering rocks in a different way.  How high could they stack the rocks, how many could they use, what was the 'just right' point of balance, what direction would they point the way towards, how much farther did they have to go?  With the introduction of meaning, directional points, numeracy, balance, shape, and structure the children's Remembering Rocks along with their ideas began to take shape as visible, standing structures on the landscape.  There was no shortage of creativity or creative thinking here.  This provocation acted as a magical lure to the insatiable wonders that led the children to these new found places in the forest.  Over time, the forest became their place but it was not off limits to others as these mapped places welcomed newcomers to find them.

We do a disservice to children when we jump in too quickly at a prematurely abstract level in map reading and mapmaking.  It's important to have children begin mapmaking the way they begin drawing; maps and drawings are representations of things that are emotionally important to children.  In the beginning, children's maps represent their references of beauty, secrecy, adventure, and comfort.
 David Sobel, Mapmaking with Children

Child-led play leads the way to deep and meaningful learning.

* Please follow along for part 2 to find out how the Remembering Rocks inspired us to play, look, and think more deeply about mapping special places and how technology can be creatively used to make meaningful connections to learning.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What Ever Happened to Play?
Our Imagine Forest Chapter's forest play encounters 

What are your fondest memories of childhood?  We were all once children but somehow we have forgotten the importance of nature connection and non-scheduled, outdoor play in nearby nature.  So, what has happened to play? 

You don't need to tell your boss or book off time.  You don't need to schedule an itinerary and rent equipment or register for a program.  You don't need to tell the school that you won't be there or make sure that you reservation matches your flight or your bus ride or you car pooling arrangements.  You don't need to call and make sure everyone is 'in' or tell the kids to hurry up because we are leaving and we have to get there... NOW!!  You don't need to go to the gas station to fill up your tank in order to drive here.   And, above all, there are no registration forms as we honour the will of the child in that true free play begins with a non-scheduled family environment.  You don't need to do all of those things because nature is right outside your door, just a few steps away.  All you have to do is ask your kids if they want to join in with their neighbourhood friends on a Forest Play Encounter and then open your front door and walk on over for a few hours of Forest Play.  Yes, nature is waiting to welcome you in our stunning community woodland.  Calling all moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, aunties and uncles, nannies and care givers, neighbourhood friends and educators to come on over to our local forest.  Our Imagine Chapter invites you to join us in our community, nearby-nature, monthly, forest play encounters to experience how play in a nature setting incites wonder, sparks imagination and challenges your mind.  Please stay tuned for our upcoming Season's Tidings...

In the mean time, here is a glimpse into our IMAGINE FOREST CHAPTER's play encounters:

Our body of work since this summer

#seeyouintheforest #changeisintheair



Monday, 26 October 2015

The Nature of Learning Through Creative Play

The sort of creative play and learning that unfolds in a Forest School setting is truly magical.  It is pure, child-led imagination and ingenuity that manifests itself in outdoor environments that are visited and re-visited on a regular basis by the same group of children.  Children literally build their own worlds and play and learn from their experiences in nature as it changes from season to season and year to year.  But Forest School ethos includes the fundamental element of time that is so central to its nature and so vital to what makes it effective.  Overtime, as the child becomes familial with their surroundings, group, and environment they receive, from them, direct feedback to their engagement.  The child's hand, heart and mind engage with tools, technology, environment (natural environment and friends) and within that engagement they make, test, tinker, try, play, negotiate, and create things form their imagination over and over and over again with the key ingredient of time. In that space they learn about quest, how to become independent and creative thinkers, how to work in groups, what works and what needs more work, how to self-correct, what talents the kids in their group posses and much more.  The learning that happens is exponential, multilayered, deep and meaningful.  So, how do we lean into learning outdoors if we are working as an educator or parent that is bound by time?

Leaning into Learning Outdoors and the Maker Space

The opposite of play is not work.

In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown states, Though we have been taught that play and work are each the other's enemy, what I have found is that neither one can thrive without the other... The quality that work and play have in common is creativity.  In both we are building our worlds, creating new relationships, neural connections, objects.  Even demolition or sand castle smashing is a kind of creativity, since they clear the landscape, opening the way for new building.  At their best, play and work, when integrated, make sense of our world and ourselves... Play is called recreation because it makes us new again, it re-creates us and our world. (p 126)  

Part of Forest School ethos includes the maker space.  Our Global Cardboard Challenge 2015, originally inspired by Caine's Arcade, took place in our stunning community forest and we invited children of all ages to participate.  Building Worlds: From Bark to Box and Back came together through the collective contributions of local businesses, Tinder Tinder Forest Nature School, ThinkinEd, Imagination Foundation, and Makedo and was looked at  through an environmental lens.  How do we foster an ethic of care for the environment?  We started off with the nature of place and the idea of returning the product back to its original state.  Creating in nature around the trees with cardboard and paper products.  We always provide inspiration books but one in particular to note was Once Upon a Memory.  Through our provocation we asked the question does the box remember that it once was a tree?

 Follow that Box:  We made a specific point of using boxes that have already served their purpose and after using them in our forest encounter we then loaded them on our truck and drove them to the recycling centre to be re-used again.

Thinking Outside the Box

Learning in the outdoors does not mean taking the contents and learning materials from your classroom into the outdoor environment.  It means learning in, with, and through the natural space that you play, discover, explore and learn in everyday.  It is for this reason that the only materials that we provided for our cardboard challenge were cardboard, paper, and clay and the tools to create and make.  The rest was from the natural surroundings that we played and explored in.  On our adventure walk children gathered, explored, played, and wondered about their surroundings.  As they experienced the phenology of place they selected their favourite found nature treasures....

Our Adventure Walk Treasures: Of their own choice, the children connected to the parts of trees.  Take a close look at the contents of their treasure boxes.

Tools, Tools, and More Tools:

 Learning to trust the Child as they Become Inspired by the Phenology of Place

The role of the teacher is no longer as the predominant dispenser of knowledge but as the partner in learning through play.  Remembering Tagore's Vision:  Children have their active sub-conscious mind which, like a tree, has the power to gather its food  from the surroundings atmosphere.

Jay Griffiths refers to Tagore's writings in her book Kith,  Nature was part of the below-ground curriculum: what children absorb from their surroundings without overt instruction.  Nature was part of the above-ground curriculum, as, down to the finest insect, nothing in nature was undeserving of a child's attention.

I have often said that story is the catalyst for learning through creative play.  Story is often how children connect to their world.  In the case of Caine's Arcade, Caine was inspired to create his arcade from a small, plastic, dollar store basket ball net that he had been given.  The entire arcade was formed around this tiny net.  His was a story of arcade games.  For us, even though we offered books and the videos of Caine's Arcade and the Adventure of a Cardboard Box as inspiration, we believed that the children in our forest encounter should find their own inspiration in order to fully experience how connected learning happens in outdoor environments for themselves.  Simply reproducing Caine's games may not have been relevant to us or to the children and setting up activity stations did not sit well with us because we did not want to give instructions for predetermined outcomes.  The only step-by-step instructions that were given were for skill building as in with tool use.  All the materials were open-ended, children gathered their own nature treasures on their jaunt through the woods, and the convivial maker spaces was setup as creative zones in order to respect the child's freedom of choice and creative journey but still keeping all the creative zones in close proximity in order for conviviality to be welcomed into what they were doing.  Children were introduced to tools one by one or in small groups as the exploration went along or as needed.  In planning for this we were not planning for outcomes but we were planning for how best to support the child's creative journey so that they did not build a pre-determined product but their imaginations were being welcomed, supported and the convivial maker spaces allowed for shared discourse and shared experiences.  In his writings Tagore wrote:  The object of education is 'freedom of mind, freedom of heart, and freedom of will.'

So, why is there a clay ladybug as the photo header for our Global Cardboard Challenge 2015, Building Worlds: From Bark to Box and Back?  

How Phenology and the Nature of Learning Happens Though Play

In order for story to happen there needs to be a main character.  Meet Lily, Leeschia, and Spot as nature leads the way to learning through creative play.  The weather on the day of our cardboard challenge was relatively warm with the sun shining bright and a slight breeze in the air.  This weather combination made it perfect for ladybugs to peak out of their hiding spots and come flying out for whatever rationing of food was still left in nature.  On our adventure walk we were visited by many ladybugs, they were everywhere but only three made it into our story.   

Here is what the children created with the cardboard, paper, clay and found nature treasures... and how they chose to incorporate and include their ladybugs in their story. 




Here is what the children created in our 2015 Global Cardboard Challenge
Building Worlds: From Bark to Box and Back