Michelle Hegge, Teaching Director, Chelsea Cooperative Nursery School 

"By its very nature, child-led learning, especially outside, means greater engagement by the learners. The children are learning without even realizing it. We retain so much more when we learn by doing."

Photographs:  Chelsea Cooperative Nursery School 

Q.1.     From your perspective, why are trees important? 

Trees are important for the very basic reason that they provide the oxygen we breathe! Trees clean our air of toxins, provide shade, stabilize the soil, provide homes for a variety of animals, give us food (maple sap, apples etc.), and provide wood for lumber and paper. In short, trees are indispensable.

Q.2.     Can you tell us what a forest school is?

Forest School is an inspirational process that offers ALL learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees.

Forest School is child led and play based. At its core is repeated exposure to the same natural environment. This experience allows children to develop a connection with nature and allows for learning and growth that cannot occur in a “one-off, field trip-like experience."

Q.3.     What sort of activities do children engage in?

As I mentioned, it is a play based program and the types of activities are limitless. At this time of year we are enjoying puddle jumping and general water play (sailing stick boats, digging canals, building dams), and just generally discovering the awakening spring world. We always enjoy walking on fallen logs, exploring under the logs and rocks for creatures, seeing how many different types of fungi we can find, building shelters, learning to tie knots and using ropes to construct things/add to our imaginative play. We learn about fire and how to be safe around it, and usually have a fire in the winter, which adds to our sense of community as we share marshmallows and hot chocolate. We learn to use tools as necessary (knives for whittling, bow saw for cutting dangerous branches, and for some art activities). We like to measure the sizes of various trees (how many children does it take to hold hands all around this tree?).

We teach children to calm their minds and bodies by doing 'sit spots,' a time of quiet observation, by themselves in nature. Storytelling is also a favourite activity that the children love to participate in.

We are constantly engaging in risk assessments with the children and teaching them how to decide if an activity is safe or not. We teach them to check the depth of the water before wading in. Is it above their boots? Before crawling on a fallen log, or climbing a tree, we look at the sturdiness of the tree. Is it rotten and likely to break? If you fell, what would you land on? Is there a way we can make this safer? 

Q.4.     Is there anything in particular that you do to encourage children’s love of trees and nature?

The premise of Forest School is that through this repeated exposure children will develop a connection with nature and will want to both protect it and continue spending time in it. Just walking into the forest changes the mood of the group as they observe all these amazing trees. With our preschoolers we talk a lot about living versus dead. We teach them not to take branches off a living tree, but that branches found on the ground are okay to play with. We also talk a lot about bark and compare it to their skin. We talk about how important it is not to take bark from a living tree. When the children find fallen items like acorns, beech nuts, pine cones etc., we use their natural curiosity to talk about what they are, where they came from and their importance. We observe the animals that use the trees (birds, squirrels, bugs). We also talk about the fungus that they find on the trees and the function that it has in nature’s life cycle.

Q.5.     Does pedagogy and learning differ in an outdoor setting?  If so, how?

By its very nature, child-led learning, especially outside, means greater engagement by the learners. The children are learning without even realizing it. We retain so much more when we learn by doing. All of the senses are engaged and the learning has been self-initiated. Each child learns what they are ready to learn.

Q.6.     What are some of the benefits of forest schools?

There are so many! As mentioned previously, Forest School develops that connection with nature. We can't expect someone who has very little exposure to nature, and who may be out of their comfort zone in the forest, to really care about protecting it. In this day and age, it is vital that we protect our rapidly diminishing natural spaces. 

Forest School gets children and families outside! With the average child spending from 5-7 hours a day in front of a screen, this is vital! Research is showing a multitude of health benefits from spending time outside. It increases their physical fitness, reduces obesity, and improves eyesight as well as both physical and mental health. Children who spend significant time outdoors have been shown to have greater concentration skills.

Forest School also teaches children how to assess risk and to make critical decisions. Teamwork skills are developed as is empathy and emotional intelligence. 

Q.7.     There seems to be a growing interest in forest schools.  What do you attribute this to?

I think that people are becoming genuinely concerned about the amount of time that children spend in front of screens and the lack of unstructured play. The media has helped with this by reporting on research regarding the importance of unstructured time outside and the health benefits it provides.

Q.8.     What inspired you to become a forest school educator?

I have a background in biology and nature interpretation. I have taught preschool for the last 21 years, and I always incorporated as much nature programming and outdoor play as I could.

In 2010, I read Richard Louv's bookLast Child in the Woods  which inspired me to increase the outside time even more. With the support of our school's Executive Board, we implemented Outdoor Adventure Days, which took place one day a week. At about the same time, the Forest School movement was making inroads in Canada, and in 2012 Forest School Canada was established. My co-teacher and I took part in the first Forest School Practitioner training course in the Summer of 2013. We are now among the first certified Forest School Educators in Canada. 

Q.9.     Can you describe one of your favourite experiences you have had as an educator in forest school?

Over the last three years, we have found that it takes a group of children four visits to the same forest site before they truly settle into self-directed play. The first visit is all excitement and high energy. The children are unsure of what to do and the freedom of simply being outside leads to an inability to settle. We have also found that children are unsure of how to play without a toy that has a specific purpose. This is a sad statement on the lack of unstructured play in many children's lives. However, each subsequent visit becomes easier, as they get busy exploring their surroundings and developing their own creative ideas. The key as an educator is to be patient and let it happen. On day four, the magic happens. We arrive at our forest site, put down our backpacks, and each and every child gets right down to the business of playing. They are completely engaged.

Q.10.  What is one of the most memorable things that a child has said to you in forest school?

This is a favourite quote shared with me by a parent. Her child was in our class, and one fall weekend, their family had gone for a walk in the woods. Her then three- year-old son took a deep breath of air and declared, “Mmm! It smells like school!”

Q.11.  Do you have a favourite tree in Ottawa? If so, what species is it and where is it located?  

It is difficult to pick a favourite tree. I have different favourites for different reasons.

I love the weeping willows at Mooney's Bay Park as they just give an impression of peace and beauty. I also love the apple trees along the canal and in the Experimental Farm when they are in bloom – a sign that spring has truly arrived.

The White Pines at our Forest School site are majestic and awe inspiring. When we walk into our forest with the children and look up, it makes us feel so small to have these magnificent pines towering over us.

I also love Beech trees. Their smooth bark is unique and it is so much fun to look for bear claw marks on the trunk, evidence that a bear was there looking for Beech nuts!

I also love White Birch trees. They add to the beauty of the forest and brighten up any wood lot in the winter time. Fallen Birch trees are a great source of bark for starting fires but it also often comes off the tree in rings, which the children use as bracelets, or even crowns, depending on the size.