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Learning to love learning, the Forest School Way

Posted on July 31, 2023

Forest School has long been a favourite of the FortWhyte Alive community.

With kids exploring nature all day and expanding their minds what could better encapsulate the FortWhyte Alive mission – connecting humans with nature.

Below, take a deep dive with Leah Smith, FortWhyte Alive’s Forest School Manager, into the Forest School ethos and how Freedom, Trust and Reciprocity create benefits that last a lifetime.

Group of kids sit in circle in forest near sign reading "welcome to forest school"

As an educational model, Forest School is quickly growing here in Winnipeg, across Canada, and around the world.

The ethos is largely based upon child-led, play-based learning but what does that really mean?

What are the children learning and how is it different from traditional schools?

At FortWhyte, Forest School is closely linked with the mission statements of Forest School Canada. The pillars of which are Freedom, Trust, and Reciprocity. In practice, it comes down to the trifecta of interaction with ourselves, each other and the land.

group of Forest School kids play in forest

Educators have the freedom to teach authentically and children have the freedom to learn at their own rate of interest and development. Freedom on the land ensures boundaries are customizable and adaptable based on the group’s age and size. Children and educators have the freedom to roam or stay close to the main site.

Emphasis on trust is essential as all types of weather is navigated. Adventurous play happens organically as children explore the land. Learning to trust their peers, educators, and the land is an integral part of the curriculum for children.

Reciprocity is a big word for young children! However, at Forest School, it is an everyday relationship with gratitude. In a discussion with our Forest School’s group of 4-6 year old’s, we discovered that giving back to the land is more often about what you don’t take than what you give.

Child holds stuffed owl at forest school

In a Forest School setting “lessons” can fit into the same categories as a traditional school setting. The major difference is that math, science, literacy, social skills and the arts are delivered through a process best known as Emergent curriculum. This means educators are building learning experiences based on observing the children and what they are most innately drawn towards.

We know from the current research in neural development learning happens on a much deeper and more efficient level, when the whole body is engaged in the experience. The whole self, body, heart and mind play an active role in how we connect the dots and integrate information that is received.

Child swings on hanging branch at forest school

Forest School Practitioners undergo a process of re-learning as we adopt this style of teaching. Our educators work to move away from common strategies such as giving information and instruction. These traditional teaching strategies passively engage children. The goal is to move towards a more collaborative approach, providing stepping stones for children to find insight and information in their own way.

One way this can be achieved is by diverting direct questions back to the children, such as “I wonder how that happened…”. This strategy continues to fuel their creative, investigative problem-solving skills. The work of an educator is to model humility and stay connected to the children’s minds.

As an educator or a parent, when you get to demonstrate your own personal joy, whether it’s wood carving, fire building, gardening or plant identification, this inspiration grows in the children simply by watching you.

I believe emergent curriculum is powered by heart-centred inquiry.

When people of all ages have the freedom to choose what and how to learn; trust the land to support our curiosities and passions; exist in reciprocity with flora and fauna, the focus on what is learned is displaced by the intention behind how we are learning.

Learning to love learning is the most important curriculum of all.

childs muddy hands cup a pollywog

Leah Smith is FortWhyte Alive’s Forest School Manager, Early Childhood Educator, and certified Forest School Practitioner. Leah is a huge nature lover who’s dedicated to finding ways for every child to experience the magic of nature in all its forms.

Learn more about Leah, and meet the rest of the Forest School team.