discovering identity in the forest

By Louise Jupp

We can never think of the child in the abstract. When we think about a child, when we pull out a child to look at, that child is already tightly connected and linked to a certain reality of the world — she has relationships and experiences. We cannot separate this child from a particular reality.

Loris Malaguzzi

capturing you

Who are you? Who am I? Who are we? These questions are ones I would assume we ask of ourselves, others, and I would hope ones that we also think about in the context of our teaching and learning communities. Having recently spent 7 weeks in a pilot Forest School, joyfully engaging with a group of very fascinating 3 year olds, I discovered I was reflecting on these three questions a lot. A few weeks into the program, one of my cherished Forest School colleagues asked, “Why aren’t the children transferring the skills they learn in the forest to the classroom?” I reflexively responded, “because I don’t think it has anything to do with skills, I think it is about identity.”

needing a climbing tree

Social inclusion, participation in forest activities, and play groupings at our Forest School were initially determined in part by gender, “friends,” ability and age. Comments such as “baby hats,” “boys can’t play here”, “I’m not a big girl,” “you can’t play here, “you’re not my friend” and “you can’t come” were peppered in the children’s conversation. These judgements and comments were less surprising to me as I reflected on the experience of most children in child care where individuals are grouped by age, advanced to a new room by age and whether intentionally or not, are often segregated, or at least frequently referred to by gender, age and sometimes ability.

These qualifications and requirements for the right to free and self chosen participation and entry into social groupings in Forest School quickly disappeared. As the time in the forest grew, so did the children’s apparent acceptance of each other, in terms of both identity and ability. Several weeks into the Forest School experience, children not only willingly accepted into their play children of varying abilities, gender and traits, but they sought each other out as a certain skill base or talent was required. Strong children were called to carry heavy buckets of water and logs, observant children were solicited to find insects, worms and caterpillars, those with good balance were asked for help to climb trees and balance on logs. As time progressed the children began to identify themselves with self chosen names, the “collector”, the “smasher”, the “helper”, the “finder” and the “superhero.”

Meeting at the fire

As children sit around the campfire (even when not lit we gather here) at the end of each morning and we talk about our time spent in the forest, I often ask, “what did you do in the forest today?” One of the children said, “I collect.” I misunderstood her and asked again and she held up her metal bucket full of forest treasures to me and said, “See, I collect. I’m a collector.” Soon many of the children labelled themselves, “I’m a smasher,” “I’m a finder,”“I’m a helper.” Some were more specific, “I find salamanders” “I find spider webs.” I was very touched by the response and later thought about the children and the roles and identities they were forming for themselves. I couldn’t help but wonder about their indoor classroom and thought to myself, “where is there a place for a collector?” Would a smasher find his identity indoors without constantly being berated for inappropriate behaviour? Is the finder constantly reminded to put the materials back where they belong? Would a helper get a chance to discover their identity in a classroom where the teacher has all the power and solves all the problems?

collecting snails

I think that as educators, researchers, reflective practitioners, we might need to revisit and rethink the communities we have developed with the children we teach. Can we nurture and honour the identities formed by the children even when these identities do not easily or smoothly fit within the learning space? I believe it is possible, but not without much reflection and change. 

finding salamanders

As children naturally discovered each others talents in the forest, they sought each other out to gain assistance with their plans, to discuss their ideas about where to find or how to gather water, logs, bugs, flowers, acorns, worms and salamanders. After the first few weeks, children gathered each other for meetings and snack, noticed when someone was not at the campfire and requested that we wait for all to arrive.

Children who were otherwise excluded in the indoor classroom environment shared a sense of engaged belonging in the forest. Comments such as “I work here”, “I tell people things”, “friends will come to my Birthday now” were noted as an indication of a sense of inclusion. Some children whose behaviour had seemed “out of place” indoors, became leaders outdoors as their strong skills at finding, organizing, problem-solving and seeing things invisible to others, became invaluable in forest exploration and inquiry. I think children are included when a sense of community is developed in a place where everyone is invited to find, state and live out their own place in a classroom space as defined by their unique identity and outlook on the world.

the smashing tree

It is in community and relationship with others that we form our identity. To begin a relationship, teaching or otherwise, with the stance that each individual is unique in their qualities, interests, gifts and abilities might be a strong start to strong relationships. It is imperative as educators that we revisit and reflect on our image of the child. If we continue to see children as first and foremost a group of children at a certain age, all with similar developmental characteristics and needs, we miss completely the possibility of developing a truly meaningful and deep relationship with another human being. I believe that once we start to see children as they see and define themselves, as they create and present their own identity and sense of self, then the sense of belonging for each child will follow naturally.

the climbing hill

Because of this child built, forest cradled community, there is great acceptance among the children of individual needs, preferences and personal identity. A child with exceptionalities who sits alone in the classroom is now heard as he leads the tour of spider webs in the logs. A socially excluded child in the classroom becomes a leader in the forest as he invents safe ways to move heavy logs, and creates a gift of loose parts to our invisible forest school walls. A child who is challenged to walk without stumbling indoors, runs joyfully down a root strewn path a few weeks later, calling out to a friend ahead. Children’s voices come in a hundred different languages. Children can hear one another, no matter what language is spoken. Adults are the ones who need to learn again how to listen.

climbing tree

I believe that being in and with nature, truly being a part of nature is essential to our formation of identity. I believe that we do not develop fully when we develop without a strong and meaningful connection to the outdoors, beyond parks and playgrounds, the wild, unpredictable outdoors. We connect in the forest because we discover a part of ourselves that we may not have even known was there but we also connect because we discover that we need others to help support us in our work as we all have different talents and strengths. We are better as a community, happier, more successful in our pursuits when we are together in the forest, when we work together in the forest. We appreciate one another, we see another side of one another that may have no place or voice indoors and as we grow into ourselves, we find we love one another. We may not be friends, we may not appreciate all the qualities we discover about each other, but in community, like in a family we discover a love, we feel a strong sense of belonging, we have an acceptance of the Other, and there the true relationship begins.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Femi Akande says:

    I learned a lot from this. Your piece holds valuable lessons for adults as well. Thank you.

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