by Jay Young, Director of Operations, Carp Ridge Forest School

(Ed note: This month we’re posting the 3rd and final part of a talk Jay presented to environmental educators at a recent ‘Congress of the Humanities.’ (Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here.) The event was co-sponsored by Wilfred Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

If you’d like a full transcript of the presentation, contact Jay at: jay@carpridgelearningcentre.ca)

A lifelong relationship with wilderness and wildness

As I mentioned previously, forest schools can help create the underpinnings of ecocitizenry in young children. They foster an understanding of sustainability, develop environmental literacy, start a practice of conservation, nourish experiences of empathic relationality and move children towards a biospheric consciousness. These are the qualities we would like to see in the new crop of environmental citizens.

This pedagogy began in the European forest schools of the Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway, although its genesis was in Denmark. The I Ur Och Skur (Rain or Shine School) has been in existence in Sweden for decades and it is subsidized by the government. Most members of Swedish society under a certain age have experienced one of these forest schools. And their UK counterparts have been in existence for nearly as long.

We in Canada can only hope to emulate their pedagogies and equal the successes they have had. But our success is so important for the continued stewardship of Canada’s wild places. The time is now for Canada’s reconnection to nature and it begins with the children.

Experiential environmental education provides the knowledge and the concern that informs an engaged environmental citizenry. They will want to ‘repay mother nature,’ the living foundation that continues to provide, especially within environments that they are intimately related to. The experiential educational model fosters lifelong relationships with particular places and develops appreciation for wilderness and wildness.

Fostering emotional, cognitive and behavioural connections to nature

The children educated during their formative preschool and kindergarten years will develop empathic appreciation for the natural world, particularly the environments with which they are most intimately experienced. Concurrently, a cognitive component evolves that becomes an environmental consciousness.

And a conative response emerges out of this, the initiative to act on the emotion and the knowledge to behave responsibly and live sustainably in harmony with the natural environment. Here we have the concern, the knowledge and the will to act that I described earlier as constitutive of the ecocitizen.

The phenomenon of place attachment provides an example of emotional (affective), cognitive (mental) and conative (behavioural) connection to an environment. Place attachment has been known and researched for many decades but it seems that the true significance of this experience is only beginning to become apparent.

We all live in places and we all have homes that we come from, places we have lived and sights/sites we have seen. We are all more or less attached to each of these. But if we were encouraged to really think about our relations to places, the connections we have to other beings, both human and more-than-human, in these places, we might better appreciate the significance of each of these places for our continued well being, if not survival.

Experiential environmental education sends positive ripple effects through the culture

As Robert Michael Pyle notes, “a sense of place is a way of embracing humanity among all of its neighbours. It is an entry into the larger world.” Through experiential environmental education, children can truly come to know their environments while they learn about them.

And they will take this knowledge home with them to other places, their homes, their neighbours, their community, and influence the behaviours of others in relation to their places. The ripple effect is significant.

As John Dewey, an early advocate of experiential education understood, if you simply show a child how to do something, they might remember it but if you allow them to experience it and learn through practice, they will undoubtedly remember it.

Offering experiences that fully engage a child’s imagination or wonder

However, in our modern societies, many of our experiences are indirect or secondary experiences, mediated by some cultural device or another so everyone, but especially children, are having these impoverished experiences that do not inspire or even engage a child’s imagination or wonder.

Robin Moore, a children’s play researcher notes that “primary experience is being replaced by the secondary, vicarious, often distorted, dual sensory (vision and sound only), one-way experience of television and other electronic media.”

He further asserts that “children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child’s exterior world with their interior, hidden, affective world. . . The content of this environment is a critical factor in this process.”

A rich, open environment, like a forest, will continuously present alternatives for creativity while a bland environment, like much media, will limit healthy growth and development.

We need to experience the world with our senses; we need to know nature directly. We are born into our environment, our lifeworld, with which we are always in contact. But few truly understand this. Richard Louv notes that nature helps to shape and mold who we are, so children quite obviously need natural experiences, for the healthy development of their senses and for optimal learning and the potential for creativity.

Does a technological culture foster shallow experiences with people and the world?

Modern society mediates most of our experience through the filter of culture and most often that means technology. Technology allows us to know the superficial about something but rarely to access the depth. We don’t know things with our senses but with our minds, our conceptions about something rather than the experience with it.

However, children can develop an attachment on an emotional level as well. They can come to develop care and concern for their environment, through the intimate relationships that they cultivate via their experiential education in nature.

I believe that humans have the capacity to care for the other beings that populate these environments as much as they can empathize and connect with other humans, if we cultivate this capacity. The empathic relationality proposed has important implications for the child’s continued relationships and actions in the world; we are encouraging the evolution of environmental citizens.

A national initiative: Forest School Canada

The future of Forest Schools both here in Canada and internationally is promising. As mentioned, the European schools have a long history, particularly the Scandinavian countries. While here in Canada, a fledgling organization called Forest School Canada is promoting the same pedagogy across this country.

FSC will offer training, be involved in research, design curriculum and facilitate programming. It will act as an umbrella organization for establishment of forest schools across Canada, operate lab schools and initiate dynamic outdoor  programs for infants, toddlers and kindergarten age children.

This is all very promising but I must bring this back to the ground from which it will grow, by relating the work that currently occurs in Canada and directly influences the next generation of children in Ottawa and its outlying communities.

Carp Ridge Forest School

Carp Ridge Forest School provides an early years program that elicits in each child a strong sense of imagination, empowerment, increased mobility and motor skills, respect for self and others, and environmental responsibility. We offer unique programs, which provide holistic, child-centred experiences in predominantly outdoor environments and the children are empowered to be active agents in the learning process.

They connect to each other and their natural environments in respectful, caring and non-violent ways and these children learn to respect and honour others through their experiences with natural worlds. They learn about conservation and sustainability through the practice of it, even before they understand why it is so important.

Using natural settings as a basis for learning

At the Carp Ridge Forest School, we believe in the importance of connecting children to the land and providing them with opportunities to learn and grow in natural, stimulating and empowering ways. We also believe in engaging children’s imagination, role modeling a sense of awe for the natural world, and using experience as the basis for learning.

As mentioned previously, the experiential learning model can be a highly effective educational method. We see this firsthand as experiential education engages the learning child and addresses their needs and wants through true experience and the act of “doing.”

Simple activities closely linked with explorative, unstructured play can teach many valuable academic and social skills, like team management, communication, and leadership. At the Carp Ridge Forest School, through experiential learning, we guide children to explore life fully; to engage their minds, bodies and spirits.

Seeing yourself as part of the forest, not a visitor in the forest

The facilitators deliver a program that encourages the children to creatively explore the natural environments and learn through the spontaneous play that results from the natural inquisitiveness and interest in other beings. In this way, they cultivate an empathic relationship to the land, the animals that live on it and the children view themselves as a part of these environments not visitors or apart from environments in which they play, learn and grow.

I can speak first hand of the benefits I have witnessed in the children that I care for daily at the Forest School and my own son who attends the preschool. His physical development while already advanced has only improved since joining the school and his capacity for exploration and creativity has increased as a result of the experiences he has had with the other children, the facilitators and the natural environment of Carp Ridge.

Grateful for sticks and love

He is developing the capacity for empathic relations with others already and this includes the birds, bees, the larger fauna and flora that we are fortunate enough to spend our days with there. His time for gratitude before snack or lunch invariably includes mention of cardinals, blue jays, trees, frogs and a multitude of other more-than-human beings and even a generalized nature.

And finally, I leave you with an anecdote from the Forest School. I was not personally present but since it concerned my own son, I was informed shortly after. At morning snack that day, the group had come together and begun this practice with a moment of gratitude by each child.

When the sharing stick made its way to Noah, he paused for a moment and clearly stated that he was grateful for “sticks and love”. I think that speaks for itself. This work helps each child to develop as a person, as any good early years education should but I think it goes beyond that to add another dimension of relationality that encompasses the planet and all its creatures.

In this way, I believe that we are actually helping to nurture the next generation of environmental citizens. But because of the affective and empathic nature of this development, I think of them as much more than political entities, they are citizens of the world…ecocitizens.

Each student is a teacher and each teacher a student

I have learned as much from the reciprocal relationship I have developed with every one of the children in the Forest School as I might have imparted to them. I firmly believe that true experiential education involves this reciprocity that is a cornerstone of empathic relationships, to paraphrase Paolo Freire, “each student is a teacher and each teacher a student in the praxis of experiential education”.

His reference might have been to uneducated workers in South America but the same reciprocity exists in every experiential education context.

And the Forest School is no exception, in fact, it is a perfect exemplar. The children hold nothing back, they are exceedingly honest and they have remarkable insights and hopefully the facilitators can attempt to emulate them.

Honest communication about the state of the world

In the development of the necessary understanding to effect significant environmental policy change in the coming future, we will require an owning of our culpability for the calamity that befalls us if we are to genuinely mentor this next generation of citizens.

Only through honest communication about the state of the world can we hope to encourage our children to engage in the urgent work of repairing the relations we have damaged with our natural home.

When children are provided with natural environments for early learning they flourish. They develop a growing gratitude and emotional bonding to the planet, the home of all our various, complex environments.

A rejuvenated and re-imagined relationship to the planet

If we model the relationships we wish to see in the world, we can encourage the development of the next generation of environmental citizens through our experiential education which just might move us towards a cultural environmental ethos that reflects this renewed, rejuvenated and re-imagined relationship to the planet.

Through experiential relations, we might develop the empathy for the natural beings with which we share this planet and learn how to cultivate practices of knowing and acting that will manifest these necessary realities.

Beyond any human created borders that we identify with, the connection to the earth is a primordial relationship that is as familiar as the air we breathe. In fact, it is. Humans evolved in natural environments and our biological hardwiring is still physical and embodied, no matter how much cultural veneer is appended to our experiences.

We always breathe air, we must always drink water, we must necessarily eat food, which regardless in which form it takes when we ingest it, had natural sources. These are all biological imperatives that every human and many other lifeforms must live by.

We require nature and all its services but we require it in even more subtle ways, the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the experience of walking silently through a forest, the feeling of water lapping about your ankles, and so many more, are all experiences that enhance our human existence. And the more of them we have the more we care to have.

Cultivating a primordial relationship

So, we need more natural experiences, both for ourselves and for our children. We might then develop care and empathy for the planet and its denizens. The evolution of the ecocitizen couldn’t be more crucial at this period of human relationships to the planet.

Experiential environmental education and its manifestations in a diversity of forest schools could help in this process. Through the expansion of an environmental ethos, the next generation of ecocitizens will understand and create sustainable relations, have a high level of environmental literacy and practice conservation and reparation.

They will experience empathic relationality for the other beings of this world and perhaps even evolve toward a biospheric consciousness, knowing through the experience of relating to all others and the larger environments of which we are all a part.