Throughout the week of August 9th, the children of River Road Child Care (RRCC) spent the daytime in the forest behind St.Amant and built a relationship with the land and with each other. This adventurous program is called Forest School and is a child-centered educational practice. It takes place in nature where children have the freedom to explore. Their curiosity and interests shape the curriculum. Forest School facilitators are present every step of the way to support the child’s learning. “This program doesn’t come with a schedule. It’s about following the child’s lead and turning their interests into learning opportunities,” says Gerrie Stolz, Coordinator at RRCC.
Ten children, aged 4 to 6 took, part in the program. On their first day, Indigenous Knowledge Keepers, Shanley Spence and Marda Bone, paid them a visit. Shanley told them about the Talking Feather and Talking Stick, which the children used throughout their week. “We passed the Talking Stick around in our sharing circle,” explains four-year old Halle. “When someone has the Talking Stick, it means they’re the only one who can talk. No one else can talk. Everyone has to listen.”
Shanley also told the children that the trees were a family. This helped them relate to the trees and treat them with the kindness they’d treat their own family. Marda, who is supported by St.Amant, visited the children multiple times throughout the week. She shared stories with them and played her drum. “Incorporating Indigenous teachings is a big component in Forest School because we’re on the land of Indigenous people,” says Gerrie. “It was important that Knowledge Keepers teach the children why the land is here, why and how we must thank and respect it.”
Throughout the week, the children climbed trees and the embankment, built huts, set up a hammock for some relaxation time, painted a giant rock, created a “Welcome to Forest School” sign from a tree trunk slice. The children sanded a trunk, spotted deer and other wildlife, and went on two long hikes along the Red River during which they used a book written by an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper to learn about different plants in the forest. Needless to say, the children had fun.
“I liked figuring things out and spending time with friends,” says Stefan. “I’d like to go again, but I’ll be at a different daycare. I start grade one next week. Maybe I can visit my sister?”
Some parents noticed growth in their children. “Halle used to be upset when she got burs on her clothes, but after Forest School she started saying, ‘It’s ok Mommy, we’ll just pick them off before putting them in the washing machine,’” says Trish Flynn.
“Overall, it was a great experience that should be done with all kids several times throughout the year, maybe in different seasons so that kids can learn how Mother Nature behaves at different times,” says Danijel Djuric.
Recognizing that every child has different needs, the teachers made adaptions as needed. “We wanted to make sure that this was a safe, enjoyable experience for every child,” says Gerrie. “One of the ways we adapted our program for a child with autism is by bringing outdoors the same practices we used indoors.” For example, the facilitators used orange tape to block off certain areas of the forest and told the children that those areas were off limits. Although Forest School requires teachers to follow the child’s lead, that doesn’t mean there are no rules. The children had three rules to follow: be safe, be kind, be gentle. These rules applied to nature and to people.
“Be safe means no punching, no pushing, and no going past the orange tape because it’s too far,” says Halle.
“Be kind means helping other friends and be gentle means looking after nature,” adds Stefan.
Forest School took approximately three months to plan. The children took an active role in planning it, they verbalized their concerns and suggested solutions. Parents were kept in the loop. Before the program began, they received Power Point presentations, detailed documents, and had Zoom meetings with teachers to understand what Forest School is and how it will look at St.Amant. During Forest School, a summary of what the children did as well as pictures were emailed to parents at the end of every day. “The communication between the center and the parents was great. They were really good at sending out a lot of written information,” says Trish. “We got emails about safety, risks, how the center would prepare the kids, how they’d get them involved. They even sent us information that made me go, ‘Oh, I never even thought to ask about that, I’m glad you brought it up.’”
On the last few days of the program, the teachers noticed the students were more self-reliant and more collaborative than they were at the beginning of Forest School. They played in groups and reminded each other to wash their hands and clean up after themselves. “This was such a wonderful experience and it couldn’t have happened without St.Amant’s support,” says Gerrie. “When we saw a wasp nest, our operations team came out and took care of it. When it rained, operations set up a large tent for us. When I was looking for Knowledge Keepers, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee suggested Shanley and Marda. The supports for Forest School are present at St.Amant. That said, it will continue to be part of RRCC’s curriculum. Who knows, we might even have a Forest School session for St.Amant staff.”