Ever since March 2020, my dream life has been rich, I tell you, rich. I have always enjoyed the concoctions my sleeping brain creates, but this season has been extra-special. Here is a smattering of some themes:
The overriding emotions in the dreams were anxiety, fear of the unknown, worrying about making mistakes, not feeling equipped, not ready for change.
Each month since March we have wondered, “Will next season be the one when we re-start programs? Will this be over by then? Will we be ready?” And in the meantime, two whole seasons - spring and summer - have come and mostly gone.
We are now gearing up for fall, and I feel empowered. I have watched my oldest daughter work at a YMCA day camp this summer - and have seen the practices that they put in place. I have seen teenagers rise to the occasion, learn new protocols, adapt, and lead groups of children. I am confident that there are ways forward for our forest school programs in this COVID-19 era.
In June, we started drafting our “COVID-19 Guidelines and Emerging Practices” document, and I’ve actually enjoyed thinking through the various aspects of our program and coming up with workable solutions. My worries have been replaced with action, and I think I’ll need to just keep moving - one foot in front of the other - slowly continuing to take small, workable steps. I’ve come a long way from what I thought from March on, which could be summarized like this:
March: “This will all be over soon, I know it. Our spring programs will start in April, no problem.”
April: “What??? There is no part of our programs we could do in a distanced way. We are ALL ABOUT being close! Making connections! I am not sure how to run our programs without being close.”
May: I visited Huron Natural Area and cried. Especially about the fairy shrimp in the vernal pool. I’m used to observing them with a group of children. Maybe, going forward, we will just have sit spots and a game of Eagle Eye for the entire time we meet with groups - spread out, far apart. There could be worse things… but what about band aids? What about boots? What would we do if a child needs closeness - for putting on a bandaid, or for taking off soaking wet boots and socks, or comfort, or to remember they belong to a group?
June: We will break the “bubble” for band aids, boots and belonging. We will have small cohorts (like we always do), and we will keep distance when it is natural to do so, while still having fun and running a great inquiry-based, child-led program. We will use lots of hand sanitizer! We will create a list of games that can be played in a distanced kind of way. We will spread out our circle. Stretch ourselves a bit...
July: This feels doable. I’ve read through the province’s recommendations for day camps, the details for City of Kitchener-run day camps, Ontario childcare policies, and Canada Outdoor Summit Emerging Practices for Outdoor Led Programs. All of it is feeding a draft of our own COVID-19 Guidelines and Emerging Practices. It will be a mix of common sense, good hygiene and best emerging practices related to COVID-19.
August: I feel ready to welcome back families and children. We do not operate in a risk-free setting - ever. This will take a bit of courage, and I want that to spill over to the families and children. I have weighed risks and benefits and come up with strategies to mitigate the risks involved with gathering during a pandemic.
Yes, I’m very excited about all that the fall will bring. And I still have dreams of coughing foxes.
It all started with a mandatory sit spot in mid-March - just one week into physical distancing. We hiked back to the bush at my childhood farm. When we reached the sugar shack ruins, I rang the singing bowl three times. A beginning, an offering.
We set out, each in our own direction, then settled in.
My children were far from me, but I could see that they’d sunk into quiet. Even the dogs planted their bums, looking around, sniffing the air, aware, still.
Inhale, exhale. Thoughts expand, thoughts cease.
I needed this forest quiet - a respite from my frenetic thought life and from city life where I was starting to feel watched, passing faces on sidewalks that looked scared, unsure, tentative.
Minutes flew past and after half an hour I reluctantly rang the bowl.
They bubbled questions to me on the walk back:
Our bush times have continued over the past weeks. In mid-March, I thought we were looking at a stretch of three weeks together, and it seemed like we needed some activities that would take us out of our heads. Our forest times have done that for us.
Since then, they have evolved to include other activities too: journalling, whittling, photography, building a fairy house. We’re experimenting with following our intuition - asking ourselves “what does my mind and body need/want to do in the forest today?” and then going from there.
A re-fresh and a re-set, freeing our minds to rest.
Sometimes my play begins with a prompt - a tiny invitation to play. The other day it came in the form of scarlet elf cap fungus.
As soon as I started spotting those brilliant red bowls, so bright and cheery on a forest floor of rusty brown leaves, I knew it was time to build a fairy house. How could I not?
I’m trying to listen to that quiet, intuitive voice inside of me lately and just run with ideas - especially when they involve a creative response to what is happening in the world right now. Because I think the world needs more fairy houses right now. Probably always will.
I scoured the ground for details and beauty: abandoned snail shells, turkey tail fungus, feathery moss, tiny maple keys, Y-shaped sticks, a bark roof.
The following week I returned to that same spot, and added a welcome sign and cottage banner. And then I waited…
Then I passed on the scarlet elf cap invitation to my children and nieces and nephews.
One made a fairy house in her backyard with a welcome sign that said “FARES,” and featured painted with glow-in-the-dark paint so the fairies could find their way in the dark. She also added a pool and a slide.
Two made a house around a stump in my parents’ bush, adding mossy slides, autumn seeds, rock steps and elaborate entryways with fabulous features like feathers, fungus, and ferns.
Another two made a fairy house in the forest by their garden, finding old gourds from last year’s compost heap and using them as inspiration. Their mom showed them how they could hammer nails and balance small sticks to make a ladder, and they took that teaching and used it in their creation.
Designing, hammering, painting, imagining, persisting, brainstorming, negotiating, connecting, scaffolding learning through play and creation - these small worlds house many hopes and dreams. When I allowed myself space and time to "go with the flow," my monkey mind was put aside and my left brain got a vacation. That dull ache subsided, and time flew by.
Tiny invitations to play can come to us in this in-between time - through scarlet elf cap fungus or an aunt’s text message or just a nudge felt inside. School is closed, but imagination is open; creativity abounds.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about sound maps as a way of learning about your place and recording what you hear around you.
This is a way of being very still and recording the sounds that you hear around you. You can do this from a balcony, backyard or sidewalk near your home.
This is a photo of a sound map I made from my back porch. What does yours look like?
Spring is really springing around my neck of the woods! It is so encouraging to hear so much birdsong, and to have the sun shining through. Each day I am walking and writing, walking and writing - my 2-pronged approach to this in-between time.
Below are some ideas around expressing gratitude (a wonderful well-being and positivity-encouraging thing to do at any time!) and journalling.
Routine: expressing gratitude
In our forest school groups, this takes many forms, but we try to do this regularly. It demonstrates a reciprocal relationship with the land and with each other. Here are some examples:
How do you express gratitude at home? Try one or more of these ideas this week:
It's not surprising that an attitude of gratitude is mind-changing, and life-changing too. What we focus on matters! I notice, with my own children, that it's very easy to come up with a laundry list of the bad feelings or moments - these are potent too! For myself, ending the day on a "good note" helps with sleep and with my attitude the next morning.
Create: a nature journal
Journals can take many forms. In our programs, we have made some from recycled paper, and we have bought some too. Personally, I prefer blank pages - unlined. More possibilities! Here are some possible prompts, but follow your nose! And eyes and ears and heart.
Outside this week
Some of Josh Shea's ideas of what to look for this week include:
In closing, I encourage you to use the outside world as medicine as much as possible as a family. Follow the interests of your children - it's amazing to hear the questions that rise when you allow them to lead their learning.
We are aware that Huron Natural Area is overrun with people right now, making it an unsafe place to be, so please try to find other areas to walk/explore. Thank you!
"It's not enough to wish, dream, hope. Even children know this.
We must sail into the sea of uncertainty.
We must meet fear face-to-face.
We must take our dreams as maps for a greater journey.
Dreams, to come true, need a good story.
So go live one."
~ Vironika Tugaleva
Last week, I put out the call for maps of Huron Natural Area, with children just using the power of memory, and I'm happy to share these submissions with you. I love how different each one is - different parts of the park drawn, and various stories (I'm sure) that inform the maps.
Here is what Poesy said about her map, below:
"This little snake was the baby one I showed my Mom at the end of Forest School one day. I found it under the log. The pink house is the bat house in the meadow. There is a mallard duck swimming in the pond. My favourite trees are these ones at the bottom of my map. They are at the beginning of the path. I drew the place we had the fire on the last day. In the top corner I drew the fox den, along the path to coyote corners. I miss forest school so much!"
Another family took up the challenge. Three children made three very different maps. Here is Samuel's map, which shows many areas of the park - kind of like a bird's eye view.
And here is Eliza's map. I love that both Eliza and Poesy have the bat house on their maps. It is definitely a landmark in the park now!
And here is Ezekiel's map. He did a very detailed drawing of places that included the entrance, play area, and parking lot.
Below is a map that we worked on with several of our forest school groups over the years, adding bits and pieces here and there. Some animal sightings, some special places (note the use of "magic" for many of the areas), and frequented areas. Over the years, we have named the spots too, sometimes according to the animals that we saw there, or evidence of animals. Map-making definitely is a way of storytelling for us - to tell what we've seen and heard and experienced together. Naming these spots, trees, landmarks says, "this land is important to us."
Here are two other ways that we've made maps over the years:
These are "maps" that we make in one session together.
1. Each person gets a stick with a long piece of cotton wrapped around. We have also used yarn or masking tape.
2. We go on a journey!
3. We collect things that interest us. [we talk about our picking guidelines - no live creatures, no scat, things that have fallen on the ground, and using the "honorable harvest" to discern whether to pick/harvest]
4. As we go, we attach them to our journey sticks.
5. When we reach our destination, we talk about what we chose and where. As we do that we "map" out our journey, picturing places in our heads as we hear each other describe the treasures collected.
This name might seem deceptively similar to the name "Journey Sticks", but believe me, these are TOTALLY different. We made these after a year of being together.
1. Be together for a long time. Maybe even a school year. Take photos of adventures together.
2. At the end of that long time, gather around the photos. Remember together.
3. Pass out sticks and sharpies. Draw or write about your favourite memories.
4. Share your ideas with the group.
This map is a little more abstract, but it is a way of mapping out our time together - recording memories in drawings, words, and colours. Looking back, highlighting. Remembering where and when and what and which season and which feelings. It's a powerful way of reflecting together... saying "oh ya!! I remember too!"
How do you map your experiences with the land? With each other? With yourself?
Friends: I'd love to have your help to figure out what bird was murdered in our backyard. I am pretty sure I know who did it... we have a neighbourhood cat who is often on the prowl... I just need to know which of my feathered friends it was.
Here is a photo of what remained:
You could just guess, OR the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service has a Forensics Laboratory and Feather Atlas where you can search feathers by colour, pattern, size, position, and type of bird. So if you have a feather collection like I do, it can be very helpful as you try to discern which bird body it belonged to.
Here is some information about the feathers pictured above:
Colour: If you can't detect shade from this photo, I'll tell you what colours my eyes see: there are varying degrees of grey, some black, and some white, and then at the far left end, some shades of brown.
Size: The feather at the far right is 13cm long. The all grey feather in the middle, just to the left of the one that has white on its tip and left side, is 9cm long. The feather at the far left, with some black, brown, and black spot on brown, is 6.5cm long.
Habitat: I live in the city, on the border of Waterloo-Kitchener, and have a backyard bird feeder. There is no water around, so this is no water fowl.
What do you think?
“It is a serious thing
Just to be alive
On this fresh morning
In this broken world.”
~ Mary Oliver
Hello to our dear forest school families! We wanted to send you some ideas of outdoor-related things to do while you're having a bit of a different routine (maybe) than usual. For some of you, maybe your homeschooling continues as usual - although with less interactions with other homeschoolers. For the schoolers, it's perhaps a bit of a summer-holiday-but-not-quite feeling. And for you parents! Blessings and all good things to you right now. :)
Over the next few weeks, I wanted to give you some ideas of routines that we do in our forest school sessions. Perhaps after reading these posts, you'll say: hey! I can do forest school easily from home! Exactly. You can! I encourage you to make these routines part of your family's practices - for you as adults too. They are good for any age's soul.
I'll also include some ideas for what to spot outside this time of year, and some crafty/maker ideas. Feel free to play along and send photos of your creations to email@example.com.
Routine #1: the sit spot.
Maybe you've heard your child recount a sit spot experience at forest school. Or maybe when you ask about what they've done in forest school, the answer is "nothing." I assure you, the nothingness that is cultivated during a sit spot experience can be quite magical. Often, when we review our time together as a group, several children will point to the sit spot as their favourite time.
This often takes adults by surprise. The sit spot is quiet, introspective, calm, un-moving. Not always how we picture young children.
Here is the recipe for our sit spot routine: find a place in nature where you can sit for several minutes and open your senses. We give the guidance that this is not a climbing or a building time, or time to make silly faces at your friends time, but an opening your ears and eyes and noses and feelings and thoughts time. Some children choose to use a nature journal to record things; others just take it all in.
Sometimes we will have a story that leads in to a sit spot time. The Quiet Place by Douglas Wood is one great example. But most often, we will either sing a song to start it, or put down our "veil of silence", lifting our hands up to the sky, then lowering a pretend veil or curtain as we count backwards from 10 to 0. When we get to zero, everyone is quiet and finding their spot to sit.
Then we wait. Like a turtle, or moss growing on bark, or like us, quiet and still.
After a few minutes (or longer, depending on many factors), we gather. We use an owl hoot most often to call the group back. Sometimes we use a "singing bowl" and we hit it three times like a chime to call people back to the circle. We then lift the veil of silence back up, and then sometimes share what we saw/smelled/heard/felt/thought about during that time.
The sit spot encourages us to really get to know a piece of land. To notice the little things around us: the movement of wind, the call of a bird, the colour of the light through the trees, the buds or leaves or bare branches, the feelings that are inside of us today. It allows us to sit with ourselves and with the land, cultivating closeness to both.
Explore: make a sound map.
As part of a sit spot, you can introduce a sound map. This is a way of recording the sounds you hear around you. Take a clipboard, piece of paper, and pencil. Make an X on the page that represents you. Then sit quietly, waiting for sounds. When you hear one, record it on your map in relation to you, using a picture or word or letter as representation. Listen for several minutes, and see how many sounds you can hear, and from which directions they are coming from.
Create: make a map of Huron Natural Area.
Kids! Make a map of Huron Natural Area. What do you remember about the land? Some things to consider for your map:
This week, outdoors:
Brought to you by our friend Josh Shea at the City of Kitchener, here are some exciting things to start looking for this week outside. See how many you can find, and let us know!
“We sometimes do weird things at forest school,” I occasionally think to myself. Realizing that some parents may also have these thoughts, I decided to explore why we do some unusual things.
Like exploring dead animals.
In our society, most of the dead animals we see are roadkill and we don’t pay much attention to them. Other ones seen are often stepped around or avoided. However, at forest school, we take time to look at dead animals. (Don’t worry, we don’t usually touch them - only poke them with a stick.) There are two main reasons we do this:
A dead animal allows us to have a closer look at an animal we may not otherwise get to see. I’m thinking of the dead possum we found in a tree last winter. I’d never seen a possum up close – neither had many of the children. On another occasion there was a dead mouse on the trail. Last week, it was a dead fish scooped up from the pond. Usually they run (or swim) so quickly that we can’t get a good look at them. These occasions allowed us to get a closer look at the animals that live in our parks – learning about what they look like and how they adapt to the environment.
More importantly, the question of why the animal died always brings up great discussions. The children are usually full of questions. And these questions need a space to be heard, shared and thought through. It is interesting to hear children’s thoughts about why animals die - from cancer to starvation to “maybe it’s just sleeping.” Discussing death of an animal to which the children had no attachment can be very beneficial as they learn to understand the causes and finality of death. At forest school, we share ideas and are respectful of others’ thoughts – whether they are philosophical, faith-based, or based on creative thinking.
At forest school through observing the environment, looking at models or reading books such as “Plant Secrets”, we talk about life cycles of trees, plants and animals. But we quickly notice that death is commonly missing from the animal life cycle. But at forest school, life and death are common parts of our weekly experience.
We are aware that our actions have potential to cause harm. Children rescue worms and snails from the trail. We show them how to hold nymphs gently so that their fragile bodies are not damaged. When a dead animal is seen, questions of what happened to it are asked within the context of our weekly lessons of caring for the earth and being respectful of life. Hearing stories such as “Hey Little Ant” and “Everything is Connected” further emphasize the influence that we humans have on the ability of animals to survive.
So why do we look at dead animals at forest school?
We acknowledge and make space for children to talk about the causes of death, and to acknowledge our potential impact on the environment around us. It may seem weird to look at dead animals and talk about them, but these are important life lessons and conversations for all of us.
by Giselle Carter
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on placemaking – a key principle of forest and nature school programs. It has been defined as “regular, repeated access to the same natural space.” The Project for Public Spaces explains it like this: “Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process” (https://www.pps.org/category/placemaking).
At Kitchener Forest School, we have collectively reimagined spaces at the park. The younger groups often play at a place we call "Muskrat Bay." It used to just be a place that one of the trails went through. The older groups often go to a place that we call "Coyote Corners" – which used to just be a space off the trail. The names grew out of creatures, and evidence of creatures, that we observed with our groups. The names evolved over time, just as our knowledge of the creatures that shared the land evolved. These spaces have become the heart of our forest school communities - places where we play, learn, and observe the changes each week.
Children learn to feel comfortable in that space. It is that space where memories are made each week. They build on what they did the previous week. They get to know their favourite spots within that space. They learn the boundaries – to stay away from the area with the poison ivy.
The children help to reinvent the spaces. They have chosen a favourite climbing tree. They have favourite places where they like to build. They have expanded the space as they see a great fallen tree to balance on. They have named the Magic Tree and the Sitting Tree and the Rainbow Bridge Tree. They are connected to the place and have a love for it.
As the children spend time in the spaces in different seasons, they notice changes to “their” space. They see the spring flowers start to come up. They spot turtles sunning themselves on a log on the first sunny day. They notice when the bugs come out! In the fall, they notice there are more leaves on the ground to play with. In winter they learn what the pond looks like frozen. They discover that beavers have been placemaking too. Together in our space, we learn the rhythm of the life around us and the seasons as we play.
When thinking about our spaces at Forest School, it is so true that:
"It's Placemaking, not Placemade. It's a process. [We] are never finished."
(Place Governance working group)
by Giselle Carter
Hammers, Huge Swings, and the Freedom to Play