Inspire: to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.
As we all settle into the rhythm of our fall session, we are also settling into our relationships to each other. As teachers, we have spent these last two weeks relearning the familiar faces we already know, marvelling at the changes that two short months have wrought. Small children have stretched up, limbs lengthening to middle childhood; shy children display new confidence; and giddy children have matured. The changes in each child are noted, recognized and honored. How might these changes in the children similarly change how we inspire them to learn?
For the children who are new to the program, our primary focus is on creating a safe foundation of relationship that supports each child to seek out their connection to us, as their teachers. Last week, I wrote about the ways in which forest school is different from a typical preschool and how we seek to teach and inspire the children. None of those things work if the relationship we have with each individual isn’t strong and respectful. We have spent these last two weeks planting the seeds of this connection with all of the new children. While we establish connection, we also notice who is slow to warm to the group, who is anxious during drop off, who is struggling to form friendships or to settle into play. How might these unique attributes change how we inspire these children?
If play is the work of children (a concept in early childhood education that has been embraced from Locke to Montessori to Piaget to the esteemed Mr. Rogers) then the work of their teachers is to inspire.
How do we honor the children’s interests and impulses, while also inspiring them to purposeful play? In the early weeks of each session, it’s common for children to fall back to familiar play themes: cars and trucks, super heroes, and dolls. Unfortunately our beautifully stuffed teacher backpacks are not cleverly disguised Mary Poppins-esk bottomless carpet bags and the limits to what we can carry out into the forest are very short and very clear. There are no toys cars and garages, no dress-up bins, no life sized baby dolls with all their assorted accessories at Forest School. All of these typical themes have benefits for children and are important for them to experience and discover. But at forest school, our intention is to forge a closer connection to nature. We also want to encourage children to tap into their imagination, creativity, ingenuity and capability.
The challenge for us in the first few weeks is to find the balance between letting familiar play themes provide a comforting structure for children who are adjusting to a new program in a new environment, and encouraging them to expand their play schemas to include their new experiences. We might encourage a child who is passionate about cars and trucks to imagine how a rock or a stick might be utilized during their play. We might redirect super heroes to be re-imagined as knights of the forest. We might use a little bit of forest magic to create fairy dolls out of grass and leaves.
However, as the children become familiar with our routines and comfortable in our play spaces, we find that the “third teacher,” the environment is what inspires the children most to purposeful play. Without familiar, clearly defined play areas (blocks, play kitchen, quiet area) the children are free to embrace the flow of their play in a natural and organic way. Play that starts off being centered around superheroes might end up morphing into a collaborative potion making team. One child stirs the vessel, two children carefully scoop water from the stream and navigate the sometimes treacherous path back. One child scoops dirt, adding just the right amount at just the right time. Another might search out the perfect leaves or small sticks to add.
This messy, busy work is a beautiful place to watch children begin to blossom. The children are practicing the physical skills of carrying liquid, walking softly, and pouring. They are communicating with each other and practicing critical social skills, such as negotiating, resolving conflict, sharing and expanding their vocabulary as they explore this experience together. The children are feeling the cold water splash on their fingers, the rough soil cake onto their palms. They notice the leaf mold and compare it to the freshly dropped leaves nearby. They smell the rich muddy fragrance of the earth as they dig it up, and the sharp green scent of freshly crushed leaves.
While we strive to inspire the children through stories and games and beautifully curated nature museums, it is the steady but wild, constant but always changing, secret but always present third teacher who is truly the source of all our inspiration. Our goal is always to inspire the children to these beautiful moments of attention, intention, and connection with each other, with ourselves, and with our beloved third teacher, Mother Nature.
“The best classroom and the richest classroom is roofed only by the sky.”