Earlier this year PEER Associates published a set of case studies of three forest day programs modeled after our original in Quechee, Vermont. The document reveals so many wonderful things that happen when teachers commit to taking their students outdoors. This document can serve to illuminate the good work you know you are doing, inspire you to get your students outside more, or help you persuade parents, administrators and school boards to take a chance on this idea. And then there are all the heartwarming photos of the joyful kids. Check it out!
For the third year we are offering a Professional Learning Community to Support Outdoor Play and Learning. These nine facilitated sessions (with meals!) are hosted at elementary schools in the Upper Connecticut River Valley region in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Please follow the link below to the flyer with more information, and share with colleagues in our area who may be interested.
Eliza here. I’ve been busy with a new baby. But I am ramping back up to host some workshops and courses. Here are some opportunities in the next few months:
April 18-21 Vancouver, BC, Canada Children and Nature Network Conference
I will be hosting a workshop on the final day. Take a look at the schedule to see all the exciting folks who will be at this international conference!
I will be hosting a workshop. This will be my fourth (or fifth?) In Bloom Conference. They are always a terrific way to spend a day. Follow the link to find additional conference days in New Haven, CT, and Kittery, ME.
July 10-14 Keene, NH Nature-Based Early Childhood Curriculum
As part of Antioch University New England’s Nature-Based Early Childhood Education Certificate program I will be teaching a week-long course this summer. We’ll focus on designing purposeful and sustainable outdoor learning programs for young children. I took this course in 2013 and it is what helped Meg and I get our Forest Kindergarten program out of our imaginations and into reality.
In mid-September I went to the woods with a new group of kindergartners. We spent an hour and a half or so introducing our space and a few routines. We had a morning meeting, and we played some exploring games, but mostly we had free play. You never get that first time in the woods with a new group moment again, and it is always fascinating. What will the students gravitate to? I want to write a bit about what I saw happen during free play.
Almost immediately some children found a thin rope hanging down a rock face from around the trunk of a sturdy beech tree. Before long almost the entire group (13 present on this day), were lined up to try to scale the cliff by pulling on the rope and pressing the soles of their shoes into the rock. It was a challenging task. The cliff is not really a cliff, just some exposed granite about five feet high, but it is fairly perpendicular to the ground, rough faced but without real hand or foot holds. A few of the kids could make it up on their first try, having by practice or luck the right combination of balance, upper body strength and shoe sole traction. But most needed to start, and restart, grip and regrip, slip and recover. Some abandoned the task, ran off, but then returned.
This is what was fascinating. The ones who had trouble with the rock climb kept coming back. Twenty or so feet down the granite face there is a downed tree that leans from the ground level to the top of the cliff. I pointed it out to the students who were waiting in line, in case they wanted to pass their waiting time with a similar activity. A little girl, she has since been dubbed “Sneaky Salamander,” took me up on the offer and began to bear-climb (on all fours) up the trunk. Three quarters of the way up the trunk she was four feet off the ground, and quavering. She felt at a bit of an impasse and a frightened expression was overtaking her face. I moved closer, and encouraged her, but never touched her. After a few quivering moments she inched her hand to a higher hold on the trunk, pulled up her brand new hiking boot, and pushed herself up and over the edge of trunk onto the top of the rock face.
I suspected I wouldn’t see her on the trunk again for a while, weeks, maybe months. She had had a few moments of feeling really scared and stuck there. But of course it was hardly minutes until I saw her again clawing her way up the span.
Again and again that first day I watched kids dedicating themselves to meeting the challenge the rock face presented (ignoring that just another twenty or so feet down the face, the granite sloped to the ground and one could easily just run around to the top of the cliff.) Kids slipped, hands were scraped, knees were banged, and still these five year olds stood in line cheering each other while waiting to give it another go.
* * * * *
As I watched their confrontation of challenge with eager enthusiasm a book review and author interview I heard on Vermont Public Radio came to mind. I suggest listening to the podcast of the Vermont Edition interview, but here’s the short description posted on the VPR website:
Are we holding back our kids by never letting them fail?
Our guest today argues that kids need to have the freedom to fall short, to try things that don’t quite work, as they’re being educated, so that they can develop the skills to succeed later on in life. Failure isn’t just an occasional fly in the ointment of a good education, she argues, you need to fail.
Over my time in the woods the last three years with my kindergartners I’ve seen a pattern develop of all kinds of students seeking challenge that is meaningful to them and working to overcome the obstacle. It often is quite literally an obstacle: a hard, icy patch in the trail, thigh deep snow, the “climbing tree,” or the granite cliff. Sometimes it’s cold or wet weather, sometimes it’s towing the sled with 5 gallons of collected maple sap. Sometimes it’s working week after week to build a debris shelter big enough to house all three friends who want to play at the three little pigs story again and again. I do not see in the forest a problem teachers often lament in the classroom–”lack of motivation.”
Giving these young minds and bodies the space to find their own failure is essential to their development as students. For in this open-ended, developmentally appropriate setting, their failure has meaning to them, because it is failure at something alluring. Then, giving them the time and space to keep trying, to risk a little bit, to revisit the challenge week after week, lets my students experience what hard work feels like, followed eventually by the feeling of accomplishment. We are letting children’s natural affinity for learning nurture their motivation for task completion and pride in accomplishment.
I would argue that the problem we too often observe as a lacking of motivation, is actually a lacking of experience confronting challenge. Let our young students seek out their own challenges, work through failures of their own design, and I imagine our reward will be older students more capable of academic diligence.
Can you allow your students more time and space to design their own challenges? Can you recognize benefits from challenge of all types? As my Forest Kinder co-founder would say, “Try it! What’s the worst that could happen? If you fail, you fail. Isn’t that what we ask of our students, to try?”
The following text just went out in an email to principals and teachers in the Vermont/New Hampshire Upper Connecticut River Valley region. Read below to find out more about this professional development opportunity starting August 24th for local (commuting distance to Quechee) folks.
Happy August Greetings!
We are writing to let you know of a professional development opportunity soon to take place in the Upper Valley. Eliza Minnucci and Meg Teachout, founders of the Ottauquechee School Forest Kindergarten Day program and www.forestkinder.org, are convening a Professional Learning Community to support educators interested in taking their students outside for productive play and learning. Please forward this email to folks you think might be interested in joining us—parents, volunteers, early childhood educators, librarians, teachers, administrators–all are welcome
This PLC will begin meeting August 24th, and will meet monthly thereafter (first Mondays) for eight, two-hour-long evening sessions, with one half-day Saturday session in September. Participants can receive graduate credit from Antioch University New England for $350, in addition to the base course fee of $200.
The purpose of the PLC is to help educators take their curriculum based work outside – we will discuss outdoor spaces, infrastructure and the practicalities of an outdoor classroom; the role of the teacher in outdoor spaces; curriculum connections; measuring learning outdoors; communication with parents, administrators, other teachers and community members; and the innumerable latent benefits of outdoor learning. The PLC will also help us to build the local community of educators who take their students outdoors.
Download the course flyer here.
Download the course syllabus here.
Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to join our PLC starting August 24th!
The most tangible of all visible mysteries – fire. ~Leigh Hunt
On the last forest day of our first year in the woods our main task was deconstruction. We needed to pull down the structures we had built together so that the lashing did not damage the living trees the branch beams spanned. We had a handful of eager adults and the project was quickly finished. Lengths of rope were coiled and stacked, and piles of limbs teetered around the perimeter of our space. In some ways this is an anticlimactic way to end our time as a group in the woods, but it is necessary and instructive work. We were clearing the way for next year’s group of five year olds to build their own woods world, and caring for the trees that had supported our shelter and latrine all year.
Before we put out our last fire, we gathered a final time. On this occasion we broke one of our fire rules, and allowed students to toss one stick on the fire. Before tossing the stick each child was to thank the forest for something. While much of the day was spent taking apart, we had been coming all year, and leaving for a last time was an appropriate moment for constructing something: an understanding of what we’d received from our visits.
Thank you, forest, for all the sticks you gave me to build a fort. Thank you, forest, for letting us visit. Thank you, forest, for keeping us warm. Thank you, forest, for the green plants. Thank you, forest, for letting us come here. Thank you, forest, for letting me have sticks and not giving me poison ivy. Thank you, forest, for keeping us safe.
With each thank you the student tossed his stick onto the fire, and the fire consumed the wood, taking the thank you throughout the forest in drifting tendrils of smoke.
* * * *
In our Forest Kindergarten day each week, fire is at the center of our space. We have an established fire pit (suggestions on how to build one follow) and it is the first assignment of students to gather kindling, and of adults to build the fire. We cook over the fire each forest day, and mark the end of our time in the woods each afternoon with billowing steam as we douse the coals.
We built our fire pit initially with help from a parent volunteer. He enthusiastically, and in a downpour, dug a very deep pit far below the organic material floor of the woods. The idea is to get to “mineral earth,” material which will not burn. Leaf litter and roots in the topsoil can catch fire, smolder underground for days, sometimes emerging much later to ignite the forest. Once the deep pit was dug we lined it with stone. Better would be to fill the pit with sand or gravel, making it fully a foot larger all around than the fire ring. We encircled the pit with rocks the children had carried up from the stream-bed on the way to our home-base site. We did this in a ceremony during which each child passed the rocks around the circle and touched each one before it was laid around the pit. Four logs lay in a square a foot or so back from the ring, creating a visual barrier that the students were not to cross. There is an opening on one side of the square where, at our fire, only adults add fuel.
During our first year in the woods we experienced some difficulty in starting our fires. We were neglecting the third ingredient after fuel and ignition: oxygen. The fire pit was so deep that the flames had difficulty pulling enough air to really get going. As the ashes piled up we noticed the fire became easier and easier to start and maintain. So, a lesson to share, dig your pit deep for safety, but then add sand or rock to raise the base of the pit back towards ground level.
After building your pit, you’ll want to consider what rules you need for the fire. Perhaps you need none. I recently visited a public school kindergarten in New Hampshire where students are allowed to walk right up to the fire, add fuel to it, as well as cook their own food (on the day I visited, hot dogs). Occasionally an adult would limit a student’s exuberant tossing of kindling, but this was on a case by case basis, and the responsibility and personal safety I observed on the children’s part was great, especially in the way it seemed to be second-nature to them. This class had just started extended visits to the forest, with fires in the last month of their school year.
Perhaps it is because we start fires with our students in September, just as we are building routines and behavior expectations, that we have more limitations on our students’ engagement of the fire. In our setting for the last two years the rules have been that students do not cross the logs around the pit, keeping them at least a foot away from the edge of the fire, and students may not add fuel (or trash) to the fire. We require respect of these rules pretty strictly…although we do have occasional special days or tasks, when we allow students to roast marshmallows, or use a bellows, or toss in a stick.
Finally one last essential piece of logistics; check with your local fire department. Our school has a standing campfire permit on file with the department, and I call on the mornings we plan to have the fire to check with the fireman on duty. Most days I get the go ahead, and he just asks that I call when the fire is extinguished. Occasionally there is a ban on all fires due to extended dry weather or high winds. We always comply, of course. We’ve also had a representative from the fire department come to our pit to check it out. While there is always the risk that you are prohibited from burning in your space, when you do so with the explicit approval of the fire department, not only are you on the right side of the law, you have demonstrated to your students how to be safe and responsible. We’ve even had our quarterly fire-safety visit around the fire pit.
I would certainly argue that more experience with fire leads to more responsible and safe children. This is a great example of the benefits outweighing the risk. Gathering around the fire meets a need in the children to be witness to a miracle of sorts, to learn to be near something wild and potentially harmful, but to become comfortable in proximity to such a thing. The fire creates meaningful tasks for the children to engage in, digging the pit, gathering wood, hauling water, foraging for birch bark, and making space for each other around the flames. It also lets us cook together, another endeavor young children are eager to master. It throws a bit of warmth, but more than that it radiates comfort and beckons for children to pause, listen, watch and wonder. And appreciate the gifts of nature.
The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness. ~Henry David Thoreau
A tale of Redback Salamander dismemberment, and how it saved the tails of its brothers.
One spring day, just after the snow had melted, my kindergartners were in the woods for Forest Friday. A younger brother was visiting with a parent and he found a salamander. While passing it from hand to hand the two year old in question accidentally ripped the tail from its owner. Kindergartners were fascinated; the tail was twitching. And the salamander, suddenly released by the youngster, seemed to have darted away. Could it really go on without its tail? Heated discussion ensued. Redback Salamanders are plentiful in our woods space, and children fanned out to find more. Other students asked to consult our nature guide, Naturally Curious, to find out more about the Redback Salamander. Meg helped look up salamanders while a curious student took notes to share with the class.
The next thing I knew a kindergartner had yet another bodiless tail wriggling in his hand. A group of girls gaped and protested.
“You killed it!” they exclaimed.
“No, it can still live with out its tail.” replied the boy, his wide eyes betraying uncertainty.
The girls carried on pretty dramatically, mounting a detailed funeral ceremony, and constructing a memorial site to the missing and presumed dead salamander.
The boy in question felt worse and worse. My inclination was to comfort him, and subdue the girls. But this was the chance for a lasting lesson that would endure longer than any “don’t touch wildlife” or “handle animals gently” rule I could try to enforce. Talking with the young student later I asked if he would need to take the tail off a salamander again, his answer was a resolute, though quiet, no. The suffering of the salamander, and the horror of his classmates, clearly weighed on his shoulders.
* * * *
As Meg and I are speaking with other educators about taking children into the woods there are a few common discussions we find ourselves in. One is about how we manage the young childrens’ seeming destruction of the nature to which we’ve brought them. Though we catch ourselves at times reacting harshly, “Put that salamander down! It’s had enough love!” we try our best to let the children experience nature on their own terms, “loving” snails, salamanders, worms and spring ephemerals. The forest is not a place we want to fill with rules about not-touching, staying on the trail, or with sharp castigations for interacting with our space and our company. If we were to do so, all these rules of engagement “no picking! no collecting! take down your forts! leave the rocks in place!” would crowd out the authentic learning of empathy that a natural, if often coarse, handling of the world provides young children.
As a young child myself I have a painfully clear memory of catching a painted turtle laying eggs one hot spring day with my best friend,Cheryl, at her house on the lake in our New Hampshire town. We carefully picked up the leathery egg cupped in our hands, put some water in a five gallon bucket, added some grass and watched the turtle scrape around in the bottom for a bit, before running off to play more at the water’s edge. When we returned we found that the turtle, stuck in the bucket, and likely very agitated to be trapped in plastic in the hot sun, had stepped on, and ripped the egg. I flinch as I write this twenty-five years later. I felt horrible. HORRIBLE. I still do. What a terrible thing I had done to this turtle, to the world.
Just recently, after having my first child myself, my mother passed on a journal she kept while I was growing up. From June 6, 1989: Last night I came in to kiss you goodnight and you were crying in your bed. “The turtle egg got crushed and it’s all my fault.” I tried to tell you it was an accident, that you had taken good care of it as best you could, but you were very upset. “But I killed a living thing.” You’re so hard on yourself!
Imagine the day a differently. My friend and I find the turtle, but a hovering adult shouts at us to leave it alone, “Don’t mess with wildlife!” or even a kinder “Leave the momma turtle alone so her babies are healthy.” Cheryl and I go on our way making mud castles and jumping in the lake. That evening I’m not crying at bedtime, and that day does not sear itself into my memory. That lesson goes, at least for one more day, unlearned. There is a part of me that wishes to relive the day without being responsible for the death of a baby turtle because of the guilt I still carry. But it is that guilt that I recall as I drive at dusk on country roads, and slow down, lest a deer choose to cross my path. It is that empathy I exercise when leaving some of my fields unmowed so that bees have flowers to visit. For that one ugly experience in 1989 it’s hard telling how much wildlife has been spared since. Systematically keeping children from these experiences might do more harm than good.
I don’t advocate encouraging children to hurt animals of course. I can’t help but ask them to take the animal’s perspective, and to consider just watching. But I bite my tongue too; we don’t have any rules against picking up salamanders, worms and beetles, because giving kids the space to have authentic interactions with nature, however scarring for the animal, and the child, is part of building an empathetic adult.
Ken Finch, of the Green Hearts organization wrote an essay on this topic that helped me come to my understanding of this process for children, and helped me to make peace with the possibility of salamander death each year. Read his essay here.
And, in case your interest is piqued, salamanders do “autotomize” their tails in defense, the tails do continue to wriggle as part of this defense mechanism, and Redbacked Salamanders are more than plentiful in the Northeast, in some cases found to number more than 1,000 per acre. This is an example of the kind of research and non-fiction text reading for detail that an authentic experience in the woods can lead a very earnest group of kindergartners to undertake.
On Monday, May 18, the forest kindergarten class at the Ottauquechee School headed out into the woods, as they have done every Monday all year. And, like all those Mondays before, work in the woods this week reflected the work the children have been doing in the classroom. For our forest kindergarten the woods is not a setting that requires new curriculum, instead it is just a different environment in which to access the already full curriculum load of today’s kindergarten. Students make up word problems, practice their fluency to five, add and subtract to ten, and deconstruct numbers to twenty. On this Monday, students used tens frames, constructed from sticks, to organize their math thinking.
If you are considering taking your students into the woods, don’t be discouraged if you don’t have gimicky outdoor games, or ecology based lessons. What is worth teaching inside, is worth teaching outside…and can likely be more engaging in a natural environment. We hope lessons like Erika Wetzel’s highlighted in this photo and on her class blog, can inspire you to just take your class outside to do the things you already need to do inside. Being a forest classroom doesn’t necessarily mean adding a burden of additional lessons and planning, it can just mean being outside.
And when it’s time for recess…you’re already there!