Sharing the Joy of Learning in an Outdoor Classroom

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Emergent Learning, Heuristic Play, and Schemas 

 Leveraging the Natural Environment to Support Children's Interests

By: Diana Fedora Tucci. Forest School Practitioner, Founder TFNS.  Ritual Greetings:  The act of walking into the forest with children at greeting time is processional in nature.  By walking  alongside or in close proximity to one another and chatting as we go along we become increasingly aware of each other's presence through our movements in steps and breath and pace.  Every step makes us ever more present in place and a sort of rhythmic walking begins to take shape as our adaptive sensibilities align themselves parallel to our surroundings.  Our forest adventures do not begin because we say, "Go!" instead, we wait for the moment when nature welcomes us into its home.  On this day, a striking Ebony Jeweling Damselfly fluttered across our path and then from leaf to leaf to leaf seemingly toying with the idea of landing on one of our outstretched finger tips.  A playful welcome and a truly magical sighting, indeed!

Morning Rituals:  Editing time through the rhythm of rituals

Photo credit to the Flickr link above

A Bit on Emergent Learning and the idea of Order, and Chaos

In 2010 Sugata Mitra gave a  TED talk on Child-Driven Education.  Although his system of learning, which he calls The School in the Cloud, consists primarily of children gaining information via searches on the web by way of computers what resonates with me are his ideas around the changing role of the teacher. More over, he describes these child-driven learning environments as emergent where order emerges from chaos.  I came across this idea once again while reading Alexandra Horowitz's book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.  In her book Horowitz describes emergent behaviour by looking at it through the lens of the awe-inspiring starling murmurations.  She asks the questions how do these murmurations begin, who cues them to start, is there a leader in the group, how do the starlings fly in such a large group without colliding, how do they adapt and synchronize their movements, and why do these murmurations occur in the first place?  Are they a form of predator evasion, are they communicating something, or are these murmurations purposeless?  She proposes that this behaviour may occur for the sheer sake of play.  Take a moment to watch this starling murmuration.

In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown states, "I have long resisted giving an absolute definition of play because it is so varied."  (p.15)  As I delve deeper into Forest school ethos I often find myself in a state of flux between what my fixed ideas are around what play should look like in a Forest School setting and what actually manifests itself as play in the present moment.  I place myself on a transitional edge when I allow play to rest as it exists.  By doing so, I open myself up to a new type of freedom that allows me to see play as a fluid state that is shaped, evolves, and emerges through the relation of the child in accordance to his environment.
In his book, Stuart Brown outlines the properties of play as:

Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
Inherent attraction
Freedom from time
Diminished consciousness of self
Improvisational potential
Continuation desire    (p. 17)

Emergent Learning: What, So What, Now What

Heuristic Play: Exploring the Layers of a Tree
Exploring the properties of materials through the loose parts (and not-so-loose parts) of the natural environment.

The Layers of a Tree
Child notices beautiful wavy patterns on inner tree bark
Child notices lichen smattered bark on fallen tree

Milestone:  Child peels bark with knife 

 Child peels bark for new use as a building material
Child finds ant colony under peeled bark

 Expanded interest in cracking sound of peeling
Completed 'small world' creature habitat 
Child notices mallet is contains bark on it

So What: 
Mallet Making Session:  Scaffolding the child's urge to transform materials
The child explores the physical as well as the living properties of objects in the environment, namely tree bark.  Encounters and milestones evolve into playful creative play interactions which further evolve into a small worlds building project. The child observes original forms of materials and beings a process of mutation, and modification, peeling, repurposing, breaking, cutting, slicing...

-trees and tree bark in particular in it's living and decaying states
-discovers that tree bark consists of layers
-the patterns on the phloem layer
-the cracking sound it makes when peeling it
-the creatures that live within it's layers
-the lichen that grows on it (food for the child's snail)
-bark as a material for building
-the child then notices that his building tool (the mallet he is using) is made from a tree and that the mallet head includes bark on it
-the child starts peeling the bark on the mallet and finally asks if he can make a mallet of his own on our next Forest School session

Supporting a 'YES' environment my answer is: Yes!

Now What:
A Continuance of Learning:  Supporting a Transformational Schema
smashing, pulverizing, chiselling 
The child continues to play and encounter the environment outside of our Forest School sessions.  He finds to rocks and begins pulverizing them by smashing one against the other.  He wonders which one is being pulverized?  He brings the rocks and the pulverized material to Forest School on our next session and uses a chisel and brush to further investigate and experiment.


The Reggio Children book Children, Art, Artists: The Expressive Languages of Children, the Artistic Language of Alberto Burri

Let's see where the child takes this and how the learning evolves...


Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Embracing Uncertainty in Forest School Programming

Narrating Play through Interactions, Encounters, and Milestones 

By: Diana Fedora Tucci; Forest School Practitioner; Founder: TFNS.  Making our way into the forest on our very first summer, Forest School adventure the child and I were a little nervous about the unknown elements that would ultimately shape our day.  At Forest School there are no predetermined schedules so each session begins with a strong dose of trust.  We placed our trust in nature to guide us and to embrace us in its presence, to move us to playfully engage with it, and to reveal itself in order for us to learn.  We both made a mental and physical shift away from our comfort zones of predicability to ones of being open to receive whatever transpires between nature and child in the moment of play in place.  

Play as Ritual: A ceremonial welcome blessing from the forest itself
We began our day by venturing right into the forest and our 'greeting circle' consisted of us just walking and chatting as we went along.  I  really love this way of greeting because it is active and an experiential way for children to participate as they encounter nature in the moment.  Each Forest School session begins by embarking on a forest adventure and what better way to start off than this?  Our greeting circle didn't take very long, though, because within just a few metres from the second turn on the path we spotted this...

A Curtain Wall of Mist Rising to the Sky from the Cool Forest Floor to an Opening in the Canopy Above

It never ceases to amaze me how the forest just opens up to these magical moments that are presented to you if you just learn to look for them.  Nature called us to play and we accepted.  On cue, we playfully stepped through the mist of the (pretend) forest gates into the magical world of the forest and beyond; a ceremonial welcome blessing from the forest itself!

Narrating Play Through Interactions, Encounters, Milestones:
From then on we were official adventurers of the unknown forest that lay before us.  We began narrating our play through interactions, encounters, and milestones and what emerged to shaped our day was truly magical.

Through many encounters with the flora and fauna in the forest we learn that we are but a small fish in a big pond and we begin the process of subtly adjusting our behaviour in parallel to those around us.  By making space for 'others' we begin the process of adaptation.

Milestones or bumps in the road or intersections are moments when nature reaches out to us and calls us to look it in the eye.  It can come in the form of rocks, bark, plant matter, fungi, earth, or living creatures.  In shared attention we create what are the beginnings of a sort of conversation; noticing, wondering, considering the 'others' through playful connections.

Using a loupe to look closely and see if these galls are actually baby snails.  Checking to see if we can spot the swirls on the snail shell.

Creature companions: Placing one of our found land snails on a stick and carying it with us as we explore.

Snails need food so the child finds some lichen, smattered on tree bark and removes it from the fallen log.

Breaking Ground: Interactions with nature, loose parts, tools, community & child-directed play.  Play is an outflow of energy from the child.  After countless encountering with diverse creatures in the forest (those that appear in the photos above as well as those that got away), the child created a bond with the land snail as a travelling companion.  He selected a travelling stick for his snail and watched as the snail carefully clung to it.  He would check on the snail as we went along on our adventure through the forest to see if it was still there and to observe what it was up to.  The child became very aware of and connected to this 'other' presence that had joined in on our adventure.  Sometimes, the snail would poke its head out and the child would stop and observe making careful motions so as not to scare it back in its shell.   The child wondered if the snail was hungry and provided food for it in the form of lichen and began creating a forest shelter for all creatures.

The child found a stick and selected a mallet from the tool supply and started by making a hole in the mud, an act that I later found out through his mother that he was doing at school.  I really loved this connection of continuance and building on competencies from school to forest.  There was a long, long stretch of purposeful play and when the child finished, a habitat appeared.

But the most interesting part of our adventure that day was the on-passing community members that were hiking in the forest, many of which went round and round the trail, witnessing the evolution of emergent learning and engaging through encouragement and amazement with the child as they passed us observing the child building the structure and chatting with him about it with words of encouragement and wonder!  The child asked me, "Do you know those people?"  He wondered how they could be so jovial and open.  Surely, I must know them.  When I told him I did not know them he was pretty surprised but it was so lovely to see.  How often do we interact with our community?  In the forest, it seemed that walls were removed and boundaries dissolved.

"Creativity can't be bottled like a summer firefly.  Flashes of insight wouldn't be flashes of insight if they could be manufactured on an assembly line."

                                                                                                 Nonsense: The power of not knowing, p.202

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.