Thursday, 20 April 2017

Forest School in Palestine

The day we had a forest school training in Jenin, was a blistering hot day... 30 something degrees celsius. Its almost hard to imagine now that I have returned to a wintery Sweden, with cold winds and snow flurries.

Really it was not an optimal day for the first time learning in the forest... but with the attitude of there is no bad weather only bad clothing we ventured into nature. I was grateful that being British from Sweden I could take one of my layers off and just be in a T-shirt, but all of the women on the forest training course needed to be fully covered... I of course covered up as soon as we left the forest out of respect for the women I am working with... but t-shirt and thin loose cardigan in that heat was hot and sweaty! One of the women had a body-warmer on, and I asked how she could cope wearing that... her answer was "I don't want to get sick"... as there is a belief that getting cold makes you sick... and if there is a belief that you can get cold when it is 30°C outside then this is something that the educators need to help parents address so that they have the freedom to explore outside in nature regardless of the weather.

At the end of the week we reflected together on what the most important area of learning had been for them... (we had been learning about the Third Teacher for most of the week)... many of them took up learning outside.
Not only had they discovered that all learning could happen outside, it also gave them more space and freedom to explore, it made it easier for them to combine learning and play together.
Earlier in the week we had talked about the third teacher... which areas were their personal favourites and which were not... but also for the educators to ask their children about the third teacher... which rooms did they like the most and why?
Just about ALL of the educators reported that the children did not like sitting at tables learning lessons, writing was a specific area the children brought up as not being liked... while the areas of free play (which was mostly outside) was liked... despite the teachers concerns that this area was not always the safest and was the place where most accidents happened.

So forest school... or nature school... outdoor classroom... however you would like to define it, seemed like the perfect way to support the educators and children to find learning through play... to learn their alphabet and writing in a place and in a manner they would enjoy.

I Have already planned a 2 days forest school training when they come to Sweden , this was a short 2 hour session to whet their appetite for outdoor learning and play.

Of course the session started with a picnic... as this tends to be the traditional way of exploring the outside I discovered during the reflection time... when they have been to the forest before it has usually been together with parents as a picnic - so seen as an outing rather than a pedagogical opportunity through play... here is one of the reflections from the course...

"Forest school... complete holistic learning... they can learn math, science, art, language, recycling, history - it is a school in the forest... you can treat the forest as a classroom and can create different areas... you can also use the kindergarten outside area as the mini forest school."

Another of the educators said...

went to the forest... usually they walk and play only... but now they use nature to help them learn while playing... write your names and being outside it helps their learning abilities.  

another talked about how the outdoor learning had impacted her own setting...

I had problem with lack of space and with the idea of outdoor playroom I was happy to create this perfect place where there is room for the children... the tree, the air flowing and the atmosphere and the children like it very much. I designed it as a Palestinian traditional place, to create this space with tradition... and now I wants to use it for lego too... getting more ideas... the parents of the children also like it.

So back to the day of forest school training...
once we had eaten we got going...
We started off talking about how can we help the children if they got lost... so that they did not just wander aimlessly, but kept still until they were found.
We talked about making a friend with a tree. Hugging a tree to feel comfort. That with a friend then being lost can feel less scary. Also if you are hugging that one tree then you are not moving further away and can be found faster.
We talked about how the children can make things in threes to let people know where they are - the trees in Jenin had very high branches... but the trees in Sweden have much lower branches... and this is good to be under when the weather is cold, as it is a way of keeping warm.
So a row of three sticks, or a row of three stones could be a good marker on the ground. Things in the pocket, or flowers or leaves could be hung in the branches to decorate the tree, but also as a sign to help searchers find the lost child. Being active can help the child keep warm (if it is cold) but also being active helps time go by faster too, and helps reduce stress if the child feels worried about being lost. All of these things can be done in the form of play with the children when they visit the forest or nature area... making things in threes, maybe even making mandalas if there are lots of materials on the ground, or writing your name with natural materials. Even tree hugging can be fun...

Here we are collected as a group... some just off the shot... but you see a spot of tree hugging going on. We played a game where everyone chose their own special tree friend and gave it a hug... usually I would take the time with children to ask them about the tree, why that one? and then take a photo of the child with the tree, so that they had a memory of it... and also to see if they would choose the same tree next time we were in the forest.
Then it was time to swap trees... usually I would play this for a while with enough trees for everyone... so that they children have fun just swapping trees and running through the forest. But as time was short we went directly to the part where one tree was taken out of action... usually I take my tree or my colleagues tree out of action... then there is one person without a tree... this person has to find a tree during the change... which results in a new person is without a tree. No one can take the same tree as they have just been with. But you can return to the same tree again, just that each time a change must be made.
This is lots of fun... and the adults were laughing and running just as much as with children.

Once we were on the verge of getting too hot, we stopped for some water and then I showed them that with simple materials in the forest you can create and explore many things...
wire, rope, string, clay, magnifying glasses, pens and paper etc... each material I would explain how it could be used in a variety of ways, and how that learning could be brought back to the setting to be explored in a new way there, thus deepening their learning.

Here you can see the educators making nature prints. With this being self hardening we talked about how it could be brought back to the classroom and how the children could paint them... or have them as a paring game... the cone and the clay print... could they match the right cone with the right print?
The prints and cones could then be examined... what kind of cone was it, from what sort of tree... the play and exploration becoming the kindling for their learning.

There was time to explore the materials that is already found in the forest... and since  writing had been brought up as a problem area for motivating the children the educators got to write their names using nature... some made small pieces of art work, some tried many different materials to find out which one worked best to create their name... and others felt inspired to write their name big, small and with many different materials... some chose to write with "my" alphabet while most chose to write their names in Arabic...
What was important was for me as trainer to take an interest in what they were doing. They were all very keen to show what they have done - which does not surprise me so much since they have all been educated in a system that is very teacher down. They are breaking with this mould... I have great admiration for them learning how to support children's learning rather than teaching down when they have never been given the opportunity to experience this themselves during their own childhoods. Social traditions are different, and we need to have respect... we cannot come in like a tidal wave of change (and I feel that these teachers would love to be able to do that) - we need to be more of a ripple of change... so that the changes are understood, they are not met with resistance and that they are far reaching without crashing and destroying a beautiful culture... The culture is important... making changes within a culture to support learning without disrespect is something this group of ours is striving towards.

At the end of the session we played another game... it is a game of collaboration, a game of listening... the fox game!

It can be played like we did with two teams, or many teams, each competing to silently get to the "food" first ( a rock, or some other marker in the forest)... you need to be silent so the food does not run away.
if someone in the fox group makes a noise, the head (the person at the front of the line) then goes to the back and becomes the tail... this slows down the progress of the fox.

As the educators noticed it was tricky on the crunchy dry grass as it made a lot of noise... if  this game  was played in the same place after rain, then the grass would be softer and not so noisy.
The children can think about how/where to play the game without making a noise with their bodies, feet or mouths... like we did... on the road instead it was much easier...

Another way to play the game is to see how far the children can get working as ONE fox. All the children in one long line. MARK on the ground where the head starts... then in absolute silence the children must try to get as far as possible... no sound at all... otherwise they will wake the monster in the forest (or whatever story you would like to tell... or no story is needed).
Each child can be the head ONLY ONCE... so if there are 15 children then there are only 15 times a noise can be made... then a mark is made in the ground again where the head is.
The children measure the distance between the first mark and the second mark... how far have they been able to get? They have to think HOW to measure....
Then they start at the first mark again... and try once more... do they get further or not? They measure the second attempt and then do the math... how much shorter were they than last time, or how much longer were they?
WHY did it go better, or go worse? Can they think of strategies to make it even better?

The idea of stepping stones was made during the session... maybe the children will think of more ideas?

The game also helps the children to be quiet and hear the forest, it helps with concentration and also with teamwork/collaboration skills

Based on my observations of this forest school training session I will make sure the next two sessions in Sweden will be relevant and build on what we have learned, what I have learned about the needs of these educators over the last ten days and also what I have observed the needs of the children are.

I am very much looking forward to continuing the outdoor education.


  1. I would invite you and the colleagues to join the International Association of Nature Pedagogy. It is a network of practitioners developing nature based education globally.

    1. thank you for your invitation...
      right now I am not able to subscribe to any associations, no matter how interested I am in them, due to the fact that I have chosen to take time out and work on writing a book. So due to not having an income, and having three children, and an understanding husband that is financially supporting me, I have chosen not to pay for any such memberships until I have work again... which will probably be in September time, unless I manage a way to extend writing... until then finances will be for the family, and to enable continue my volunteer work in Palestine...