For most of my adult life I’ve been teaching University students who are great at math. Even if they are slow on the uptake about the potential impact of their work on the environment and on others, they are great at sums. But I’ve become concerned about children who never get the chance to go to University, who never get the opportunities to contribute to the world as they might if they were born into different circumstances. The ones who, more often than not, are not good at their sums.
In another world and in another place, Eric and I saw the magic that ‘forest school’ had to offer, the healing power of nature and its effect on children and at-risk youths. But forest school is not just a place to have fun and take succor from the forest. It is an amalgam of student-centered teaching approaches practiced outdoors without walls, or corners, or ceilings that uses the simplicities and complexities of the natural environment to gird student learning. It is a long-term process of holistic development, that encourages deep level learning whilst supporting the wellbeing, and creative, independent thinking of every child regardless of their proficiency in math or their ability to ‘behave.’ One child, quoted on the UK Forest School Association website, says: “I don’t have ASHD in the forest.” After a one-year certification process, which Eric and I completed in the UK and Australia, we decided to launch our own forest school within our ‘Forest Exploratorium’ here in Sullivan County and see for ourselves.
Fast forward a year and I have just completed a placement at Sullivan West, the local public elementary school. I was invited to support the Academic Intervention Service (AIS) for students below grade level at math. They frequently develop a wide range of coping strategies to avoid feeling bad at not being able to do the math that often get translated into ‘behavioral issues’ when acted out. The AIS team are a patient and reliable source of love and strength for these children – often the only constant in their lives – while helping them learn in spite of motivational and focusing difficulties.
During my placement, I introduced the idea of forest school as a possible child engagement strategy. The AIS team and the school embraced this experiment, and within just a few weeks we had put together our own outdoor classroom at the school, together with a set of resources to teach math outdoors. (The school custodians were incredible, realizing, perhaps before anyone, how great this was going to be for the kids, including their own: ‘if this had happened to me when I was at school, I might have enjoyed it!’) They chopped tree trunks into stumps for seats, hung parachutes for shelter, prepared paths, and enjoyed the time outdoors themselves. The children love it. They scurry out of their usual classes when it is time for AIS, put on their coats and join us outside, not even noticing that amidst their fun, they are learning lots of math. Instead of rolling around the floor in avoidance or sitting stone-faced in a corner, when they need time out, they politely ask me if they can take a break and go and look at the stream or go to ‘their tree’ for a couple of minutes. Refreshed, they return to their assigned problems, which might be using place value charts made of sticks and stones to do subtraction, or race along a forest path to solve a math equation by finding hidden math-fact-clues that are carefully planted hidden treasures. One child told me recently: “I prefer the outdoor classroom, I feel calm in nature.” Another explained: “I think better when I’m in the forest.”
I have been working in education and social justice for most of my professional career. I have also worked in marginalized and borderlined communities around the world. But the experience of these children has moved me in ways I could never have imagined. The forest is helping them in ways that theory – because of our vast environmental crises – is only now beginning to dream of. These children are our future. I can only hope that this small intervention can help them know that.