I recently started to study Qi Gong and Kungfu wtih the Shaolin Temple online. If you haven't heard of the Shaolin temple or the Shaolin monks, these are monks who train for years as peaceful warriors. One of the teachings in the discipleship philosophy is to "have your cup empty". This means to accept teachings even if they disrupt your worldview.
As teachers and parents, we must always accept new teachings that disrupt our worldview. As I started to ponder this concept, I noticed that my entire ideals have shifted from all the teachings I've received all semester in my Seneca ECE course. Specifically, the view of the child, the view of the teacher, the view of the environment, the view of how learning happens, the view of my previous Montessori teachings etc..
As children continue to organize their world through schemas and by accepting new information rapidly, we adults must also follow. Children constantly see the world with an open cup, especially young children. They are sponges rapidly reviewing and renewing their brain maps and neuro pathways so much faster than us adults. It's this rapid pacing and open mindedness that gives them their curious and creative thinking.
So with that, I would like to keep my cup empty and continue to accept new teachings as they come.
One of the most important benefits for children who attend forest and nature school kindergartens is that they are allowed to engage in what's called 'risky play'. Risky play is defined as any type of play that is thrilling or exciting and that could result in physical injury. Leading researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter from Norway, has been researching the phenomenon of children's risky play and came up with 8 categories or types of risky play.
1. Playing at heights. Children love to climb things, especially trees. When I was younger, I always went to my friends house and the first thing we did was climb the tree in her front yard sitting there for an hour just chatting and enjoying the feeling of sitting in the tree tops. The sense of joy in climbing a tree and sitting in it, securely holding the branches is a great childhood activity that needs to be brought back!
Make sure trees don't have any loose or old branches. If they do, tell children how to notice and mitigate these areas.
Always supervise children under your care when climbing and try to trust that they know how high they can go.
If you need to, you can enforce a specific height limit like 3 feet or as high as ______ (something they are familiar with).
2. Playing at high speed. Children like to run because they are developing their gross motor skills. Movement is important and experimenting with high speed movement allows children to test the limits of how fast they can go. We have all seen children sled down a hill at a fast speed, bike down a hill very quickly, or slide down a slide fast! At my outdoor school, we allowed children to slide down the hills at the Brickworks in the winter after checking for hazards and removing any hard objects. They loved it!
Supervise children doing high speed activities that are in open spaces with less hazards around.
Teach children how to fall using their hands ensuring no one has hands in their pockets. Learning how to fall is important.
3. Playing with dangerous tools. Children want to try and use tools like knives, hammers, axes and can if they know how to use them and show capacity to follow rules. I had children as young as 5 using whittling knives to whittle sticks that we stuck into a garden for labelling and also taught older children how to split fire wood. It is a great opportunity for children to learn responsibility and to feel capable of doing something useful.
Tips- Teach whittling rules such as keeping a blood bubble- safe distance between participants, carving away from yourself, and how to sit during whittling. Check to make sure everyone is using the rules and having a safety plan if something doesn't.
Use potato peelers instead of whittling knives for younger children.
4. Play near dangerous elements. Children like to look closely in ponds and throw rocks in water. They also like to help prepare fires and sit near one. If children are given opportunities to understand safety around these elements, they can enjoy unforgettable experiences. Last year, we took hikes year round beside a creek. The children loved seeing the frogs and then icicles in the winter and formed lasting connections to these elements.
Tips- make sure you explain the rules and boundaries before attempting this type of play with larger groups
If children are around a fire, use some stones to create a boundary around the fire pit that no one can enter into
Near water, children may need to stay a specific distance from the pond. Ensure they know that distance or have an adult around if they are doing something like fishing or searching for frogs.
5. Rough and Tumble play. Children, especially boys in my experience, really love to play fight. When all members are consenting, the play fighting is a fun and necessary outlet for them. I found that allowing this form of risky play is necessary and female teachers especially should make sure they aren't being bias surrounding these forms of play. When I allowed for this play, I also noticed girls joining in and noting that all children can enjoy and need it.
Tips- make sure all children are 'consenting' before involving in rough and tumble play.
Try to let the children work out any disagreements before stepping in.
Use your best judgement to step in when necessary and supervise this type of play at all times :)
6. Play where children can 'disappear' and feel lost. This is really a form of risky play that involves trust. I used to allow children to go somewhere where I could just hear them and not see them for a specific amount of time. The children were given whistles to alert me if something was wrong. I was always close by but just having that sense of being alone helps children to trust themselves, it improves the relationships between adults and children, and gives children a sense of autonomy within limits.
Tips- have a safety plan. When you 'howl' like a wolf, the children run back. Do this a few times before attempting to let them play where you can't see them to ensure you can 'evacuate' a situation if necessary.
If there are older children, they can act as a supervisor in place of the teacher.
This is safer in a forest or woodland environment than a playground where too many children are playing. Smaller groups of children works best.
I just began my forest school practitioners training and with it, a deeper understanding of the theoretical frameworks for this educational movement. Before this, I was basically 'winging it' and teaching these kids through intuition. One thing I know I've been doing right is pretend playing WITH the kids in order to help promote and protect their play.
It goes something like this...I start a structured activity and all of a sudden, the kids all see their favorite cedar tree tunnel and run towards it excitedly. I do the same! I'm so excited to play! The kids all run into the tunnels which I can barely fit into but I try. They enjoy that I do try and all climb up to the top of a cedar shrub where they can see clearly as far as the eye can see. Instead of interrupting them 'as their cedar tree has become a hawk perch', I just observe and start thinking about how to respond to their play. Suddenly, I become their victim and must hide so they can find me with their 'hawks eyes'. This is fun.
Another example. The kids ask me how old I am. I tell them guess. They say '88'! Of course I then break into an old lady walk, voice, and grab a stick as my cane. The kids love it. I ask them to lead me into our dirt pit area that they love so that I can rest. The kids start to explain how to get there and what the trees are and birds because I can't 'see' clearly. I then am turned into a solid icy mass that can't speak or move as it seems that they want me to observe them. Kids have creative ways of asserting their needs.
It was great fun.
Another example. We are at Etienne Brule park and find a cool inlet forested area that has logs, trees, and shady areas with some natural swings. The kids all jump onto a swinging branch and say it is their unicorn who is going to fly them into different kingdoms. They tell me I am a guard and must ward against any evil spies. I do it and then I see a group of birds 'turkey vultures' flying above us. The kids and I decide that they must be spies and we need to come up with a magical spell to ward them away.
All of these examples showed me that when I partake in their play and let them lead, really engaging, deep, and intricate types of fantasy worlds and pretend places and characters can emerge. Whatever emerges, we just co-create it together and it makes the learning very easy.
Instead of structuring the children's play, let us adults immerse ourselves into the children's play again.
Until next week...
Today, September 22nd aka Fall Equinox was a day to celebrate the beginnings of my self employment. I showed up to High Park in Toronto and was met by a group of shy 4 5 and 6 year old's. We started by discussing our favourite spots at high park as they had already built a relationship to it.
I shared that my favourite place was the black oak savannah near the nature centre. As I explained why I liked it, I focused on the ecology and the history and cultural importance of this area. The kids seemed interested but when I asked them their favourite spots they told me a cedar tunnel and a dirt pit.
It sounded like some great spots and when I asked them why they liked those places, they couldn't give me an exact answer so we just decided to go to them.
On the first day, we went to the 'cedar tunnel'. What it turned out to be was a cedar shrub that their tiny bodies could get under and into. There are a bunch of little tunnels and secret spots for them to hide, but most importantly, it lends itself to imagination! Within minutes of our arrival, they ran off into the 'castle' forts of the cedar tunnel, the rocks nearby became unicorns and the entire area was their castle grounds. Each kid took on a role and as I left them to their play, I recorded what happened.
One kid asked me if I would help her feed the unicorns while the others wanted me to come inside and check out their forts. It was a great imaginative morning.
The next day, we strolled along to a dirt pit as they called it. It turns out this is a dried up stream bed that perhaps used to be a waterfall and a meandering stream going down the ravine. They LOVE this place. It's made of soft sandy surfaces, tree roots, ravine walls, and lots of opportunities to dig with sticks and make up games. They played here for two hours uninterrupted and I just observed them and recorded. Their game consisted of some of them becoming dogs while the others were the trainers. Some kids created a sofa while others some stairs to climb up to the top with and some others created a frog habitat to help a frog we found trying to jump up to the top.
It was a wonderful time and the kids were sooo happy to have free play time at these places. Kids don't need a lot to feel excited, they need mostly for adults to step away and leave them be to their play. Their ability to self regulate, get along, solve problems, and work as a team was amazing. They were giggling and laughing for hours and that was a fantastic first two days in nature!
It's almost fall, the bees are busy pollinating golden rods, the squirrels are collecting and eating nuts, and the leaves are beginning to change colour. Let's take our children outside for some great learning opportunities about nature in late summer.
In this September newsletter, I'll introduce you to a great game you can do to help kids learn about strategies that different squirrels use for hiding food and how to be inquisitive about different insects you can find lingering on the fall flowers.
In order to get your kids interested in squirrels, just start by asking them some inquisitive questions such as...
1) Why do squirrels bury nuts?
2) How do squirrels organize their nut hoard?
3) Do red squirrels and grey squirrels hid their nuts in groups or individually? Why?
4) Where do squirrels hide their nuts?
5) Do squirrels remember where they hide their nuts?
6) Which predators eat squirrels nuts?
7) How much do you think a squirrel weighs?
8) What do squirrels do when they perceive danger?
9) How many squirrels are in ... Toronto? Why are there so many squirrels?
10) Do squirrels hibernate in the winter?
Activity Ideas- "Oh Nuts!" from 'The Big Book of Nature Activities' by Drew Monkman/Jacob Rodenburg
Red squirrels- Hide their food in "piles". They'll need to find their food during winter. When encountering danger, squirrels touch a tree, indicating that they have climbed to safety.
Gray squirrels- Hide their food "one by one". Like red squirrels, they'll need to find their food during winter. When encountering danger, they too touch a tree".
Jays- Can steal food. Jays are free to watch squirrels hide their food.
Red fox- Eat squirrels and jays. Foxes simply tag an animal to indicate that they have eaten it. Tagged squirrels and jays must return to the start area.
I most recently started researching Peter Gray and other unschooling- play researchers and learned a lot.
Most of what I've been doing naturally in my work at Gradale and with my own camps and pandemic pods is based on child-led structured play. I watched Peter Gray's "the decline of play" on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg-GEzM7iTk&t=849s)
and I also found a fantastic teacher "teacher Tom" online.
I know instinctively that kids like to play and need it because they are happy when they do it but also they learn how to get along.
When kids are given freedom to play, they will. They will play all day. Hunter gatherer children who have been studied, say that the children and young teenagers were free to play and explore all day long from day to dusk all day long. The adults in these cultures know to let them play because it helps them learn.
These kids are super resilient, cooperative, mature, and happy. Therefore, play is really important that young mammals aquire skills that will let them be successful adults.
Why is play then on the decline? In the last 50-60 years, children have lost the ability to play. When I ask my parents who are in their 60's, they told me they had school but that they would spend most of their time playing outside alone with their friends or siblings. Not only this but the recess and lunch time hours were much longer during school. Kids in elementary school didn't have homework so this gave them more time to play.
We need to bring back this hunter-gatherer education for kids. Kids NEED more time to play. Play is self-controlled and self-directed. The self-directed aspect of play gives it the educative power says Peter Gray.
Stop having a 'schoolish' view of education thinking that adults are the only ones who can educate children. This isn't grounded in facts and science about how children learn.
5 to 8 times as many kids today suffer from anxiety or depression as was true in the 1950's. The suicide rate of 15 and under has gained tremendously. Our world is declining for children. Not only this but children feel they have a lack of control of their lives more and more.
In my work with children during the pandemic, they have continued to show the highest rates of resiliency than the adults. They are more concerned with playing with their friends than they are about the pandemic. The kids I work with are motivated by playing, climbing, using their imaginations, being creative, and problem solving in groups than they are about the pandemic.
Things must change. If you are confused about how to educate your children right now as a homeschooling parent or you are worried that they are learning enough at school, please try to study the decline of play. Our anxieties and worries are completely in the wrong direction, worrying about academics when we should rather be concerned about the lack of recess time our children get, the lack of time they have playing freely with their friends, the lack of time they get to choose how they want to play, and the increase in mental health disorders of children.
Play play and more play is needed.
Last year I had a unique opportunity to teach a group of 'special needs' children at Gradale Academy. I was the only teacher and there was minimal supervision, so for an entire year, I decided to take the kids outside for mostly unstructured play time two hours a day.
At first, I tried to teach them the names of trees, play games, learn about the pond life.but all these kids wanted to do was play on their own. The age of the kids was grade 4-6 so 8-12. There were 9 boys and 2 girls.
What happened? They didn't just climb and catch frogs, they learned essential social, emotional, and self regulation strategies, they engaged in risky play, learned how to get along, solved their own disputes, made up imagination games, and NEVER GOT BORED!
Some of my favourite members were- the kids found sticks and created forts against some fallen trees. The fallen logs became a highway and their forts were their homes and they named this place downtown. They created an entirely imaginative town and role-played different social figures. One student became the police officer, another was the town mayor etc.. The kids got a long mostly but at times, conflicts happened such as students entering another students home or someone throwing a stick at another student. However, they were able to sort out the fights on their own through active dialogue without me.
Another really great memory was when we discovered a frozen shallow pond and the kids decided they wanted to play hockey with found sticks in nature and used a chunk of ice for the puck. The kids played this game for HOURS.
What did I learn in this year...the more I allowed them free unstructured play as I sat in a quiet area where I could observe them and supervise, they students play got more dynamic, rich, imaginative, creative, and socially driven. The more I asked them to do something specific, they more they had aversion to us being outside.
It taught me how much children crave free unstructured play time and why they need it. It's how children learn and play allows them to be themselves- creative, imaginative, curious, and simply have fun.
If you are a parent or teacher, please give your children as much unstructured play time as possible and enjoy watching what they do!
I worked as a teacher trainer for 4 years, and prior to that in an English Educational Department as a trainer for pre-service teachers. In those experiences, I was always frustrated by the lack of open mindedness and flexibility of the trainees to stop having such a ridiculously detailed agenda aka the 'lesson plan'. Lesson plans are like a recipe. If you haven't made the dish at all, it can be useful to use a recipe the first time in order to make the dish tasty. However, as you progress along in your cooking, you can add lib and make it up as you go along. If you cook without a recipe, you are inventing, you are creating, you are taking a risk, you are in the moment, you are trusting yourself. These are all of the elements that are also necessary when working with children.
1. Trust- trusting children to learn themselves isn't easy to do if you are used to planning a detailed lesson plan with a goal. Having a goal at the end of the lesson isn't allowing for creativity, imagination, invention, and the use of curiosity. When you trust the children and the flow of their play, you'll see that they come up with very interesting games, role-plays, and games that require no prior set up and there is no end goal. The kids just enjoy playing in the moment and they are then able to do what they do naturally, invent, be creative, and play.
2. Stop talking- don't talk. Even I would move yourself away from the students or children to give them the impression that they are alone. I usually sit on a fence nearby or above them on a hill so I can see them all. I don't even interfere right away if they are fighting. I let them sort it out on their own first. This isn't laziness, it's me observing their play, making sure they are safe, and being fascinated with their play. It's great, you should try it.
3. Responsiveness- responding is a way of mentoring. When you have no plan, you put yourself in a position to be passive and responsive to the children's needs. There is usually reactiveness in a planned classroom when students aren't on task or doing what they're supposed to so they fit the standard and the end goal. In a non planned atmosphere, your job is to respond to students interests, questions, or just general play. Easy.
4. Lastly, you need to be in the moment and think like a kid. I find, when I get really grounded and focus in the moment, I can really let the kids play, explore, and be curious about the world around them. I don't think about the past, or the future or how these even connect. I literally just observe what they are doing right now and then what they do next and so on and so on. Kids are in the moment intensely and they have a different sense of time. When you stop planning, you allow the present moment to occur and this is why kids enjoy it when you stop planning and be like them, enjoy the 'present'- it's a gift.
I just got a new cat and luckily this cat enjoys walking on a leash. Now, walking a cat is not like walking a dog. Let's get this straight. The cat is walking you aka it's a cat led walk.
As I'm an advocate for child led learning, I started to make a connection between cat led walks and child led walking. The cat wanted to climb a tree, there she goes; she wanted to watch a squirrel play, she did that and so on.
When I started to teach kids, I would take them on nature walks but I kept telling them 'no' don't do that, stay with us, don't go that way etc etc.. However, when I started to let go of the reigns and let my kids lead the way, it was easier.
We would have a plan but instead we'd get pulled into looking at a specific tree the kids liked or they wanted to climb it and as they got more relaxed into the tree, they would say things like 'this is great', 'I love how this tree supports me'. When I basically stopped having an agenda, and let the kids do their thing, that's when the magic happened.
So, walking your kids around in nature is basically like walking cats. Don't think about directing their route or telling them to sit and stay still. Let them wander onto an unknown path, make sure they are safe, but don't have an agenda and just see what happens.
Cat walk your kids and let the adventure begin!
Try it out and comment below :)
Due to poorly ventilated public school classrooms where some windows are even painted shut, with old HVAC systems, and over-crowded class sizes; you should start planning for more outdoor classes as much as possible. When I look at a public school from the outside, I can imagine a lot of learning experiences despite wire fencing, large amounts of pavement, and little to no trees. I have a can-do attitude and see this as an opportunity to problem solve with out of the box thinking. Here are some resources I have found for turning your asphalt pavement wasteland into learning opportunities.
Let's start with what we have. A lot of pavement. Many teachers have told me that there entire schoolyard is a big slab of concrete and therefore feel that they can't teach outdoor education. Wrong!
Concrete and pavement offer a plethora of learning opportunities from studying surface heat, to permeability, to frying an egg on the surface. The opportunities are endless. I even did an entire unit on graffiti and the students spray painted our concrete sidewalk outside of the school.
Instead of seeing concrete and pavement as an obstacle to outdoor learning, use it as a tool for curiosity. Pavement and concrete surfaces are really cool :) Here are five ideas you could try out.
1. I found this new science resource for elementary teachers, Mystery Science. It looks great and they’re offering a free subscription to a few thousand teachers this week. Sign up! Below is a cool lesson involving hot surfaces.
Find a cool shady space to read a story to your kids. As an extension, walk around your schoolyard and find out which places are cooler and which places are too hot. This is a great way to create a sense of place, getting students to feel temperature in their body is a sensory awareness activity, and it also teaches them survival skills for where to find shade on a hot day. While on the walk, encourage them to feel different surfaces, pavement, soil, grassy areas, and to inquire along the way. Why is this surface hotter than that one? Why was this surface the coolest? Why is it cooler under the tree or where there is more access to wind? Have fun with it and be sure to comment below if you try it.
2) Permeable pavement. This is from a cool website called teach engineering and stem developed by the university of Colorado. In this activity, students investigate how different riparian ground covers, such as grass or pavement, affect river flooding. They learn about permeable and impermeable materials through the measurement how much water is absorbed by several different household materials in a model river. Students use what they learn to make recommendations for engineers developing permeable pavement. Also, they consider several different limitations for design in the context of a small community or school.
3. ‘Go With The Flow: Teaching and Taking Action for a Healthier Watershed’ is a resource for teaching students from kindergarten to grade 12 how the planning, design, land use and stewardship of our school grounds impact the flow and quality of water through our local watersheds.
4. Take a spin to learn about friction. You can do this on the asphalt, grass, and concrete school surface outdoors. Grab packages of tops from the party favor section of the store. Have the students choose several surfaces that have different textures. There's a variety of surfaces outside so they can test them all out. Have the students time how long the top will spin on different textured surfaces and record how long the top spins on different ones. Then you can inquire as to why it spun longer on some surfaces vs others.
5. In this lesson, students will investigate life as a pavement ant, by exploring physical and behavourial characteristics, life cycle, and habitat. The activities are designed to take place in an urban schoolyard or local habitat during the fall or spring seasons. They can be taught over the course of a week, or extended for a more in-depth exploration
Well, there you have it. At least 5 lesson plan ideas to use involving pavement and concrete as an inspiration for inquiry. There are many MANY other ideas for exploring and inquiring using schoolyard surfaces; even if you don't have an inch of green grass on the schoolyard. Your student will likely feel engaged in these lessons as they can move around more and have more autonomy to learn at their own pace. Check out the resource trail for more lesson plans and resources linked to curriculum topics and grade levels. All of these lessons can be conducted in your concrete schoolyard.