Last week, my-eight-year-old daughter packed my Swiss army knife in her pocket, strapped her flint stone on a necklace, packed an empty water bottle to collect sap, and headed off into the woods for school. Badass.
Once a week, my three kids dress themselves in layers for wick/warmth/weather, pack extra socks and gloves, and I drive them 30 minutes from our house, and drop them off at forest school. They are divided into multi-age groups (ie., 5-7 in one group, 8-10 in another), and spend the day building the fire to cook their lunch, exploring trails with their newly adopted “trailhead” names, and getting hands-on with elements from the traditional curriculum (ie creating and using simple machines like planes and levers).
And they cannot stop talking about it. We’re very new to the program, and for the days leading up, plus the days that follow, “is it forest school today?” are typically the first five words I hear in my day.
Remember that level of freedom of our childhood? Neighbourhood games of capture the flag. Biking around (and mostly unaccounted for) until the street lights came on. Going to the corner store to get milk, keeping the change (or spending it on candy). Going over to a friend’s house and knocking on the door to play without your mom texting in advance, or planning Instagrammable themed cookies for when she came over to your place.
Time expanded. We were free to explore, free to roam, and free to problem-solve ourselves out of uncomfortable moments.
Parenting has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, and it has affected how our kids’ childhood is shaped; as parenting has changed, parent intensity with schools has changed, and the rules that govern our kids’ daily lives have evolved right alongside it.
In the fall I learned that baseball had been banned from recess, replaced by soft-ish tennis rackets, because the bats were deemed too dangerous. In the winter I learned that picking up (yes, picking up) snow had been banned, because the threat of that snow being ice and that ice being launched at someone was deemed too dangerous. Many days have passed when my kids report back-to-back indoor recesses because of the light rainfall happening, or because it was too icy in the thick of winter.
And it breaks my heart.
Within a couple of generations, we have sanitized childhood so much, because of the perceived threat of risk and danger. What we’ve lost sight of is, that it’s the opportunity to experience risk and danger that is a crucial part of childhood development. When we are adults, figuring out how to balance our often crazy and over scheduled lives, we have the gift of retreating to our memories - the feeling of riding your bike so fast down the hill it felt like flying. Going to the school playground after dinner and knowing a bunch of neighbourhood kids would be there to play basketball, jump rope, or just hang out.
Those memories are what help to centre and refocus us, calling back that feeling and learning how to remember and recreate it for ourselves.
And now? Our kids, largely, do not have that opportunity. We’ve stripped away the freedom of being a kid, learning how to safely and responsibly navigate risk, and replaced it being shuffled from lacrosse to piano to competitive dance to organized and over-the-top birthday birthday parties - often within a three day span.
Forest school, for our family, has been a literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air. There is such comfort in knowing my kids are in a space with adults who know the environment and how to further cultivate my girls’ respect for that environment, while appreciating their inherent need to explore, create, and discover.
When I pick my kids up after a day in the woods, they are tired, dirty, and happy.
I brought blueberry muffins for the car ride home the first day, and was met with “these muffins taste like society.” There’s a knowing they have that what they’re doing is special, and oh so natural to their own nature. And when they get ready in the morning, with “jack knife” and “fire starter kit” on the packing list? They are keenly aware that, in their words, “if we brought this stuff to our regular school, we’d probably be suspended.”