Monday, 17 August 2015

Seeing the World Through the Child's Eyes:

The Surprise of Child-led Learning Environments

Reflecting on Practice

Will is the life force for children and without its energy something vital in them dies.  What sap is to the paint, will is to the human being.  Will is vitality, the iridescent juice which makes one's spirit shine.   Will urges the child to it's blood-and-silver path.... Will tensions the wings, lifts the flight feathers into the storm to generate its own power in the unsteady sky and to wait, hovering, holding a moment of betweenness, after flight and before pitch, between horizon and air, between in-breath and out-breath, to decide in its own moment to swoop or to soar.  It is will that makes the eagles flight radiant; in the wildness is its integrity for only when it is self-willed can it be true to itself.  Will animates, intoxicates, energizes; will is the rebel and angel mesmerized by earth and air; it improvises, riffing where it lists.   

Without self-will, children's well-being may be affected.  Without wildness, they can go crazy. Bury it though you many, wildness will explode out of the earth and out of the child.  Suppressed wildness (and repressed will) take their revenge later in self-destructive madness, drugged oblivion or self-harm.

Kindled in earth, of a kind with all animals, kin to kittens, cubs and chicks, children are not aliens to wildness but akin to it, wild at the raw core.  

Chapter 8 (The Will of the Wild), Jay Griffiths, Kith

Something happened to me this past week that made me stop and think more deeply about child-led learning environments and how, at their very core, is the will of the child.  While viewing a spider at work on it's freshly caught prey I was about to start sharing what I was seeing before me.  Then, I was stopped in my tracks with the realization that what appeared before me as so obviously occurring was the complete opposite of what the children saw happening.  By embracing children's hunches, wonders, interests, questions, ideas, and thoughts as intrinsic elements essential in guiding learning we  help to support and foster a culture of learning that is process driven rather than outcome driven.  I have worked with children in both traditional and nontraditional learning environments in diverse settings and have witnessed the magic that unfolds when children pursue knowledge of their own will, when their will is honoured as the learning unfolds, and where the learning culture is supported by an ethos that embraces experiential, inquiry-based, emergent, play and place-based learning.  And it's not just the learning process that is magical.  I have seen the child's encounters with their environments change to ones of respect, empathy, wonder, and an open-heartedness that is quite humbling to witness.  I have learned that when children make deep and meaningful connections to their environment through these means the learning that happens is long-lasting.

All of this also brings to mind  Carol Dweck's growth mindset theory and her ideas around praising the process rather than praising the end result in order to teach kids a love of learning that then helps them to embrace unknown challenges.  The idea of "not yet" opens the doors to possibilities for unfolding growth, modification, expansion, adaptation, and transformation.  An idea that truly changed how talent was previously considered as a fixed point.  What I deeply resonate with, though, is her idea that whatever is there, whatever presents itself in the present moment as the child encounters his or her environment that is the raw material that we have to work with.  This is my favourite take away, my aha, that meeting the child wherever they are at is the starting point in the learning process.

Bearing that in mind, please view these #EverydayNature encounters with a spider.  It's a series of three clips and the final clip records what the children think is happening.  What shocked me and consequently caused me to stop recording is my own realization that what I think is happening may not be the same as what children think is happening.  When I think of the child-led learning environment and the idea that we begin with whatever presents itself in the present moment and to honour the child's process in learning I have been wondering how this encounter could have unfolded differently and how to support future learning around this observation?




What: What did the child observe? The child observed a spider killing its prey. 

So What:  What were the child's hunches, wonders, thoughts, ideas, questions, and interests?
The child thought the spider was swatting its baby in a swatting cloth.  The children said, "It's a baby."

Now What:  How can the child's learning process be supported? 
In progress.....

Below, you will find a lovely game that we played which demonstrates how we fostered a culture of learning that values a process driven learning model.   This inspiration came from our daily observations in nature.  

Learning In and Through Nature

Inspired by spiders:
How Spiders Inspired Us to Value a Process Driven Learning Model

We began noticing that spiders spin their web as traps for their prey.  We observed insects that were caught in the spider's sticky silk on its web.  We also observed that the location of a spiders web help determine how many insects the spiders caught.  Location, location, location!  So, we asked the question:  Who is the smartest spider in the forest? Which spider was smart enough to find the best location for snagging the most insects?  

We observed that when the location was not right a spider would pack it's bags and leave its location in order to spin another web somewhere else.  Its talent for finding the best locations to hang its trap was not fixed.  The spider could improve its learning through process, experience, and trial and error.  We tried to find where the new locations were.  Where did that spider move to?  We discussed whether or not we thought that the new location was the best location?  Was the spider learning through a process driven learning model?  Could the children's own learning process be reflected in the spider's learning process?   

As our observations continued, we noticed that spider webs were suspended within an outlying structure as we followed the spider's silk to trees and branches.  So, when had an idea!!  Why not build our own outlying structure and then move it around to areas where we thought would be the 'best location' for a spider?  

Here is our spider observatory...

We asked ourselves three questions:

1.  Will the spider spin its web in the location we have set out for it?


2.  Will it snag it's prey?


3.  Will it pack it's bags and leave?

Building Our Structure:

The Spider Observatory

We felted these spiders because our observatory became a risk hazard as it was not clearly visible in it's natural surroundings and the children would trip over it time and time again.  We fastened them to the observatory frame which then became more clearly delineated in our forest environment.  The children just loved these felted spiders and the tripping hazard was diverted!

Felted spiders 

Here's to the surprise of child-led learning environments and meeting the child where they are at! 

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Child and the Nature of the Changing Seasons


"When we understand learning we will then be able to understand teaching." (Drummond 2003)

I recently have been thinking quite a bit about how the role of the teacher has been changing and what it means to 'teach'.  There are many different theories to draw from but what comes to mind was the not so distant 2015 Annual CUE Conference talk given by Sugata Mitra where he spoke about The Future Of Learning and child-driven education and described his Self Organized Learning Environments that he created in The School in the Cloud.  Although his School in the Cloud has very little to do with learning in and through nature, it does consider whether the child learns best within an environment that is supported by a framework of minimal teaching.  What has resonated with me about his concepts around learning and teaching is how young children are able to teach themselves while, at the same time, transcending the boundaries of a foreign language (the language of computing as well as the english language) to achieve understanding?


Nature has its own language that flows within the rhythm of the changing seasons. Tuning your frequency to the phenology of place on a daily basis awakens your senses towards a deeper understanding of that language.  I like to refer to this daily practice of noticing as the process of LEANING into nature.  It is a process that is filled with play and discovery and has to do with vast and diverse encounters in the natural world over the span of the seasons.  It's a magical approach to learning that takes place as one immerses themselves in play on a regular basis in an outdoor learning environment that embraces a pedagogical framework of experiential, place-based, play-based, emergent, and inquiry-based learning that is child-led. But, how does this approach to learning unfold?


Honing your skill in the daily practice of playfully noticing and making discoveries in nature can transform the way you meet the child as they encounter nature through play.  Honouring their process in learning can mean the difference between whether or not they stay engaged in and learn to value that process rather than just the outcomes of learning.  They also begin to view themselves as valued contributors to a community of learners.


Change is in the air and is evident as the learning landscapes found in meadows, woodlands, creeks, prairie grasses, mountains, shorelines, tundra, natural playgrounds, and outdoor classrooms begin to transform themselves.  In our neck-of-the-woods, we are approaching the autumnal season and, with it, comes some very distinctly marked changes that, when noted, can act as the impetus to excite imagination, provoke interest, inspire wonders, and ushers our creative thoughts to concoct the most fabulous hunches. Noticing the rhythm of the changing seasons serves to strengthen our innate connection (biophilia) to the phenology of place.  Biophilia: According to the theory of the biologist E. O. Wilson, is an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world.  It is this theory that inspires me on a daily basis and the reason why I so deeply resonate with the ethos of Forest and Nature School.


My biggest surprise and ah ha moment working with children in both traditional and nontraditional learning environments is the realization that we, as educators, cannot predetermine how a child will consider the vast host of elements that they encounter through play in nature. What may seem evident to an educator will most likely be viewed and considered in a completely different manner by a child.  I try and understand the language of nature but keep myself open to how children will interact with it, what their ideas, thoughts, questions, wonders and hunches will be.  For me, this is how child-led learning becomes emergent.  We can predict and plan for what they may encounter in nature ahead of time and then scaffold learning according to how the child leads us.

Among the many things that we can predict and plan for in the coming autumnal season some include encounters with leaves of different colours, fallen leaves that cover the earth, the movement of wind and rain, a change of temperature, the visible structures of trees and other shrubs, fungi, animals preparing for hibernation, cultural celebrations, halloween, birds migrating, clouds in the sky.... and the list goes on.


I have come across this game many times and I'm sure you will have as well.  It is a perfect game to play with children as the summer months change into autumn.  Many people will have played it in their own special way but it goes something like this...  Chose a bunch of paint samples and then go and try to match those colours in nature.  Most people just talk about what they have found and the game ends there but I challenge you make it a little more interesting.  Choose one colour, let's say orange, and have the children find anything and everything that is orange and exists in nature.  Observe where it's growing, share hunches about how it got there, what is it doing, what will happen next.  Have a basket of stones that are completely different to any others found in your natural setting (black river rocks or hang a conifer cone from a branch above it or make a small stick structure to mark the spot) and place them wherever you find something orange.  Do not remove the found orange element from its found spot.  Then, visit that spot over and over again to see what changes occur.  Make observations by asking yourself the questions WHAT, SO WHAT, and NOW WHAT.

What:  What did the child observe?
So what:  What did the child say, wonder, have a hunch about, consider, imagine, express?
Now what:  How can that their ideas and wonders be supported?

Hues of Orange Paint Chips


The tiny felted wool cups as seen below reflect tiny fungi found growing on the bark of a tree.  In making them and using them as cups to collect tiny wonders in the child begins a relationship with place by wanting to know what the fungus is called, where it was found, what time of year that the fruiting body is visible, what is its relationship to other creatures, and what it needs in order to live.

Felted wool cup fungus 

Scutellinia Scutellata (the scarlet elf cap or eyelash pixie cup) fungus found growing on wood

Hope you begin honing your skill of noticing and start using it in the coming autumnal months! 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Honouring the Will of the Child:
Re-imagining the Role of the Sit Spot

Not Every Story is Written In Words: Using a plum bob or conifer cone to mark children's interests 

Have you ever observed a child transfixed on the goings-on of an anthill?  

What did you do?  

Oftentimes, we ignore a child's interests during their play time, rushing them on to some other place or event or we base learning around the teacher's interests rather than the child's.  In doing so, what the child notices and is interested in is forgotten in a flash as quickly as it occurred.  I am not suggesting that we stop at every anthill viewing but rather to become ever more mindful of the child's quest to learn by making discoveries based on their own interests.  To honour those moments as meaningful and worthwhile keeps the quest element alive in childhood as it is an integral part of a child's drive towards unearthing new discoveries and their willingness to engage in new experiences with an amenable heart.  Jay Griffiths describes the questing mind of the child in her book Kith or the North American version A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World as,

     The questing mind must be quick to sign, signals and clues, running with, flickering with, lit with wit until paths of the mind work like paths of the land-they lead, they join up things of significance, they lay down patterns, they invite, they hold memory... The quest is the absolute opposite of enclosed childhood. ( p.266 Kith)

The quest is like tinder for fire, it ignites the spark that keeps learning alive.  When we honour the child's will in the moment of their sparked interest it is as though we are extending a fine filament, as fine as spider's silk, drawing the child to delve deeper into leaning.  It is not the environment that is prepared.  The environment exists at it is and the child makes discoveries within that environment based on their interests.

So, what do we "do" when a child sees an anthill and why is an anthill so important?

String a plum bob, plum-line, plummet, or conifer cone on a branch to mark the child's interest.

By honouring the will of the child we mark their interests as valuable instead of trivial, unimportant, petty or insignificant.  This salient moment can shape the way children view themselves as confident and capable learners.  Use a plum bob or conifer cone and string it from a branch or create a twig structure to suspend it from and hang it above the child's point of interest (the anthill, in this case).

A major component of Forest School ethos includes the idea of getting out of the child's way.  The child's interest in the anthill signifies the moment the child realizes that other lives exist other than their own, a very exciting revelation.  The theory theory, also known as Theory of Mind comes into play as the child begins to think about others thoughts, feelings, emotions, and intentions as separate from their own.  It's a sort of mind reading that develops overtime beginning as soon as age three, and the ability to recognize other minds is something that is absent in some autistic children or children under the age of three.  Animals act as pathways to thought and most children are naturally drawn to them.  Gail F. Melson speaks about children, animals and Theory of Mind in her book,  Why the Wild Things Are.

Understanding animal minds and feelings is not just an intellectual exercise in deciphering a radically different subjectivity.  The sensitivity with which children can do this is basic to there humane regard for animals.  Attunement to animal bodies and minds speaks to how well children can feel with and for animals and their environments.       (p.94)

This moment (realizing that there are other minds living out their own story) has been coined by John Koenig in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as Sonder: The Realization that Everyone has a Story.  

Not Every Story is Written in Words-How Learning Unfolds

 Learning at FS is joyful and playful.  It unfolds in an experiential manner and connects children to the land through stories that are shared, experienced and created.  The story of the ants in the anthill is experienced by the child and the other children in the class, if they are so inclined, as a shared moment through the use of the sit spot.  I mark the the point of interest with a plum bob also called a plummet, or a plum line, or I just use a conifer cone.  I tie a line to the plum bob or cone and hang it from a tree branch or the children  build a stick structure that supports the suspended cone in the absence of a tree.

Re-imagining the role of the sit spot or magic spot, the children are invited to choose one of these special spaces when we make time for sit spots and to revisit them often as the seasons change.

I invite the children to sit around the anthill and become artful observers in the lives of others.  To consider the lives of others, to imagine what is happening and what will come, what they need and are doing.  I invite them to sketch in their nature journals, to build around the site as they see fit, they doodle, paint, create structures, and watch as the little anthill changes when it rains, and when it is sunny, and as the seasons unfold.  The children create, imagines, play, and learn from this special place as they visit and re-visit it as it evolves through the changing seasons.

Exploring Special Spaces Outdoors:

 This is a project where we explored the reimagined sit spot with pill bugs or potato bugs.  We found them living under rocks and overtime, the children built a rock town for them.

Exploring Special Spaces Indoors:
I was honoured to participate as an educator in residence and a member of the York Region Nature Collaborative in the ThinkinEd March break event called The Art Of Play.  All of the materials used to create are non-consumable and recyclable.  Children participating in these wonderful events enter a community of learners that are consumer conscious and do not take away made crafts.  As in the atelier of Reggio Emilia, children are presented with beautiful materials to choose from and explore.   Reimagining the role of the sit spot, we began indoors in a backward sense with a single plum bob suspended over a round, green dot.  We watched this solitary green dot evolve into many magical and special places created from the imagination of children.  Children nurtured these special places by adding tiny creatures, pathways, plant life, rivers and streams, and fairy homes.

The child nurtures a special place:

As seen above, it can be an anthill, fungi, blooming buds, lichen, mossy trunk, mini habitat, tree roots from felled trees, sprouting plant life...  The child will lead you to their interest and the learning will stem from there.

How does the space change over time?
How does the changing weather affect this space (if outdoors)?
How does place impart meaning to the child?
How does the child view their own story unfolding?
How does the child view the story of the creatures in this space unfold?
How is place affected by both stories?
How are the story of the child, their classmates, and the story of the ants entwined?
As they children build empathy for the space and it's inhabitants how do the children impart meaning to it?  Do they add to it without disturbing it?
Does the space change? Expand? Connect to other special places?
Is a new space developing?

Establishing A Community of Learners:

I would like to establish a place where we can share our experiences, ideas and learn together as a community of practitioners. If you are a practitioner in a nature-based school or preschool or if you are a teacher that is incorporating nature based programming into your classroom curriculum, or if you are a homeschooling parent incorporating nature-based programming with your children you are invited to share your blog post with this new community of learners.  If you have written a blog on sit 

spots, please email me your blogpost link with a photo that will represent your blog and I will link your blog posting to this site with the goal of having a virtual meeting place for sharing ideas that stem from place-based, play-based, environmental inquiry, experiential learning in nature.  All you have to do is join this blog and then send me your email at snch.natureclubs@gmail.com 

Monday, 23 February 2015

A Reflection on Materials in Place and Time:
The Secret Life of Rocks

Forest School is a magical place where children are given time and space to play and imagine, where the learning is child-led and the will of the child is honoured.  The model for learning consists of repeated emersion in a woodland setting where the use of tools and learned skills foster autonomy.  The learning model is in no way linear and ever element of the learning process that takes place in a Forest School setting unfolds overtime, transcending seasons in an environment that is convivial, reciprocal, and filled with free-play and discovery.  

Fostering a participatory culture of learning where ideas are easily manifested, shared, and allowed to develop is an integral element present in Forest School ethos.  It has been said that three elements are necessary for a participatory culture to emerge, those being:  a low floor, a high ceiling, and wide walls.  The learning environment (the materials) must be easily accessible, there should be lots of room for growth where one idea is added on to another in order to allow for development, and you must be open to diversity of expression and diverse pathways to learning.  Well, Forest School has neither floors, ceilings, or walls but contain all of these essential criteria.  Dare I say, the sky's the limit in a Forest School setting?!!  

Materials in Place and Time

Diana Fedora Tucci www.dianafedoratucci.blogspot.com
This face rock was found by the children and they used it as a place marker for a woodland hopscotch game.

The child's connection to the land deepens over time as they immerse themselves upon repeated visits to lush forest settings.  The materials that appear before the child are endless and the possibilities for learning lie beyond the boundaries of any predetermined curriculum as the child's imagination and will to learn is boundless.  This giraffe rock, named so because of it's distinctive markings, became this child's pet rock and spent the day with her at Forest School each and every day.  At the end of each day she would find a special spot on the forest floor for her rock to stay and wait for her the very next morning.
Diana Fedora Tucci  www.dianafedoratucci.blogspot.com
"This is my giraffe rock.  It's my pet." age 3
Playing With Patterns
The patterns on this rock inspired the children to use a type of typography whereby they began classifying different rocks in their collections into grouping of the striated ones, the speckled ones, and so forth noticing the different patterns that mineral deposits form on rocks at they are formed.  This method of reading the world through symbols expanded into imaginative play sessions using rocks, and many wonders and hunches about how rocks are formed, how they get their distinctive patterns, and especially how different patterned rocks end up side by side on the land.  They found baby rocks, mommy rocks, and big daddy rock, eventually calling them pebbles, rocks, and boulders. They chatted about which rocks were still babies and which ones still need to grow, which ones had cracks in them, which ones broke and why.  Many stories were spun and they became the subject of their creative play which was amazing to witness how this material in the context of the land imbued meaning to the child the then permeated their imagination during playtime.

Playing with Cracks in Rocks
The children's interest in rocks developed even further when they found a rock almost split in two and deduced that one rock can form into two rocks.  We chatted about how water can get into the tiny fissures and then freeze and expand in the wintertime essentially splitting the rock eventually into two.  This rock became their fissure 'mascot' rock as they connected to it because it had a distinctive "mouth" crack on it.  The children referred to it as the faceless face rock.  The children became increasingly confident in their exploration of this material in the context of the land as they noticed ever crack in every rock and the fissures about to break a rock in two.  Pirates slid down broken rock faces, ship mates jumped over splitting cracks and even warned each other of potential danger of stepping on rock surfaces that were just about to snap off.  Every crack and fissure spoke to the child. Big or little, they noticed them, jumped over them, ran their fingers along them, and even lay patterned rocks over their length (as seen below).
Diana Fedora Tucci www.dianafedoratucci.blogspot.com
The Faceless Face Rock
patterned rocks on rock cracks

Expanded Learning
As time went by the children began finding different markings on a variety of other natural materials such as tree bark, leaves, stems, plant material, feathers, snail shells and so forth..... These materials were never presented to the children, they were never part of a lesson, nor did I coax the conversation out of them at any point.  These observations were made by the children of their own free will on hikes into nature and during play.  The children shared hunches and spun stories about how the marking got there.

The Story Inherent in the Material:  Every Mark Tells A Story
My role as a Forest School Practitioner came into play when I provided this group of children with a story.  I often tell this one.  I ask the children to compare the surface of their own skin to the surface of the rocks, tree bark, snail shell, leaf and so forth.  Locate a marking such as a scrape and share the story of how that marking got there.  I had a small burn mark on my arm that I got when I reached into a hot oven to remove the pizza tray.  I fell off my bike and scraped my leg.  Relating the idea of markings to the child's own life drew a fine line of connectedness between what they saw on the materials in the natural surrounding of place and then personalized it by reflecting on themselves.  

Searching For Story:  The Secret Life of Rocks

Me: "What is this you are doing?"
Children:  "It's our smushing station."  (smushing not smashing)
Me:  "What happens at the smushing station?"
Children: "The rocks line up and then we smush them."
Me: "Why?"
Children:  "We want to see what's in their guts."
Materials inherently carry meaning.  The children smush the rocks and then talk about markings found within, the story within the rock. 

It has been said that the true test of whether someone has learned something occurs when they take the knowledge given to them and use it in a new way.  In this sense, moving away from a copy and paste learning mode to embodying knowledge and using it to formulate and draw new conclusions.  The knowledge that is gained exists within the materials in the context of place and time.  Here the children are making meaning from direct experiences in a playful and tinkering sort of way.  But, this is by no means a mindless or trivial act as it demonstrates creative thinking at its best.  I'm currently reading, Distributed Creativity:  Thinking Outside the Box of the Creative Individual.  The premise of this book deals with the creative actions of many distributed between people, objects, and place and how the outcome of that collaboration is greater than the sum of the creative individual.  In their collaboration, through the free exchange of ideas and inspirations they become active participants in forging new paths to learning, paths that interest them greatly.  When they contribute their thoughts and ideas they shift from being passive consumers of information (being given information, memorizing it, regurgitating it as a measure of intelligence), to active participants who see that their thoughts and ideas affect change on the world, be it only in a small ways.  Through each tiny step real, independent, forward thinking begins to emerge.  Children make a shift from being the AUDIENCE to becoming CREATORS in their own learning process.  They move from someone who follows instructions and fulfills expectations to someone who has gained a new lens on how to think creatively.  The child' relationship with their environment then changes dramatically.