Andrea Magee – 09/06/2019
Are you afraid of the big bad puddle?
Reflections from the ‘Children of nature worldwide hand in hand’ International Conference.
To skip to workshop highlights and concepts from the conference, click here.
I’m not going to lie; the classroom, primary-trained teacher in me has some lingering anxiety regarding the big bad puddle. Nevertheless, ever since attending an international conference held entirely outdoors, I have had the strongest urge and utmost motivation to take my class outside as much as possible! I teach in a bilingual (English/German) international school, and in my spare time I have recently co-founded a non-profit organization called Embrace Joy in Education (emJoy education) with other education enthusiasts working abroad. My friend, and fellow emJoy co-founder, Dimitra and I attended the Children of nature worldwide hand in hand International Conference at the beginning of May and I’m delighted to now be able to share some of the things we learned and experienced there during a weekend of rain, hail and even snow!
On the International Day of Forest Kindergartens (3rd May), the conference kicked off in a special area of forest, a short bus ride from the city center of Zurich. I call it a special area of forest, because the main walking trail through it is named Elefantenbachweg, which translates as ‘elephant stream path’. The name became clear when Dimitra and I were given a guided tour by Dorothea, one of the volunteers, and discovered the local elephant! We immediately imagined children taking great joy in finding an elephant in the forest, which we’re sure many did, as the first part of the conference was a forest festival for children.
We arrived just in time to see the happy faces of families having participated in an afternoon of forest activities before the official opening of the conference. As we approached the venue, there was already an amazing atmosphere of openness and connection amongst strangers with a common appreciation of nature and education. We were greeted by Christoph, one of the organizers of the conference and president of Feuervogel, an association for nature pedagogy. His warm smile and easy-going demeanor made us instantly feel welcome. We were eager to explore our new surroundings, and, with the help of Dorothea, we found our way around and took plenty of photos!
Most of the speakers and other participants had various ties to nature education, either as advocates, forest kindergarten teachers or outdoor educators. Outdoor education felt a bit like a foreign concept for me, even though in my heart I knew that it should just be a natural part of education, as well as everyday life. Yet, the structure of school has always been engrained in my practice and if I answered the question, ‘Are you afraid of the big, bad puddle?’ honestly, I would say yes. Yes, I’m afraid, because I don’t know what I’m doing. All my training took place in an institution, with the goal of implementing what I’ve learned within the four walls of a school. Meanwhile, there has always been this other teacher (nature), ready and waiting, beyond those walls to take on that teaching role and let children learn freely and with joy. Since I’ve recently dived into this new passion project of emJoy education, it’s become more and more apparent that to really embrace joy in education, I need to let go of those invisible reins and allow nature to become the new classroom.
This question, which I’ve used to entitle this blog post, has been adapted from the title of one of the workshops at the conference called ‘Who’s afraid of the BIG BAD … Puddle?!’ Although I didn’t get to attend this particular workshop, the question stood out to me and I later got the chance to find out more from Ruth Joiner, Forest School Leader at Association L’Ecole Buissonnière and a founding member of the RPPN – the French network for Forest Schools. Ruth leads two groups of children, aged 4 to 7 years, and 8 to 14. She highlighted that one of the main challenges is that people are scared of ‘bad’ weather. They have a fear of illness related to cold temperatures, and a fear of dirt and related illnesses.
So how do you convince someone who is afraid of the big bad puddle? Well, Ruth emphasized that as long as quick checks are in place to ensure basic needs are being met, it is up to us, as adults, to practice what we preach (i.e. go out ourselves in all weather conditions with appropriate clothing), and use positive modelling. By adapting how we speak (instead of the usual “oh what a shame it’s raining”, we say “yes! great! it’s raining, how lucky, who wants to find a puddle?!”) and using movement through games, dance, action songs, etc. we can highlight all the fun to be had by learning in the nature, whether that be with mud painting, river play or puddle jumping competitions! To find out more about nature education and outdoor learning for children who are beyond the early years, read on to get a sense of workshop highlights and examples from Denmark, Turkey and Wales.
All in all, I’m glad Dimitra travelled to Switzerland and helped me see the joy that comes from outdoor education, in ALL weather conditions! Even if I can’t manage to teach in the nature, then I’ll try at least to teach with nature, by bringing the outside world into the classroom and considering ways to use more natural materials in school. I can now say that I’m facing my fear of the big, bad puddle. Are you?
Workshop highlights & concepts from the conference
Snail based Learning
It was evident from the conference that the focus was mainly on forest kindergartens, because there is a growing worldwide movement for more children to learn outside in their early years. However, I was encouraged to find there is some initiative for the movement to expand up the year groups to the primary and secondary years. One prominent example of this is The Green Free School in Copenhagen. One of the workshops, held by Karen McLean, Ph.D., outlined a step-by-step Snail’s Guide to Outdoor Schooling that can be applied to any group of children. She highlighted the terminology used that removes any sense of hierarchy; teachers are not called teachers – there are only children and adults, all of whom are learners.
As a classroom-trained teacher, there is a resistance to allowing nature to take on the teaching role and letting the children experience and experiment for themselves. The Snail’s Guide to Outdoor Schooling that was outlined in the workshop only allows for explicit teaching or ‘academic’ work in stage 4 out of 5 stages. Snail-based learning is realistically what we should be working towards when we think of education in terms of sustainability and equipping children with life-long learner attributes that will help them succeed in a future we cannot possibly imagine.
After the Denmark workshop, I bumped into Karen’s daughter who is 12 years old and attends The Green Free School as a student. I seized the opportunity to get her take on what it’s like to go to school that has a powerful emphasis on nature and outdoor education. She said she likes it ‘because we do a lot of fun things. We’re learning, even though it doesn’t feel like we’re learning.’ Interestingly, she had met two other 12 year old girls at the forest conference, one from England and one from Germany, and of course, I couldn’t resist asking them what they think of their schools. The girl from England said she thinks school is ‘boring’ and wishes ‘to do more languages. I want to speak Spanish,’ she said, and they don’t have enough real-life, valuable language experiences at school.
It was the 12 year old from Bavaria in Germany, however, who really pulled on my heartstrings. I conversed with her in German and when I asked how she finds it at school, she replied ‘streng’ and ‘stressig’, which translates as ‘strict’ and ‘stressful’. After digging a little further, I found out that this was a direct reference to the amount of testing imposed at school, as well as the lack of emphasis on outdoor education, physical education and creative arts. It is no wonder that young people face worrying mental health issues when, at 12 years old, the only words that come to mind about school are that it’s strict and stressful. I felt a deep sense of sorrow that this girl is already feeling like education is a burden and not a joy.
Building Mental Toughness: Naturally
Returning to reflecting on the conference, I was also excited to attend a workshop held by Darren Lewis, who runs a Swedish-inspired outdoor learning program in Wales (Skogsmulle). His workshop was called ‘Building Mental Toughness: Naturally’, during which he outlined components of a model that links to resilience, growth mindset and emotional intelligence through nature based pedagogy. It was news to me that this all ties into a recently established law in Wales called the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) which requires schools to show how they are supporting the wellbeing of their children and staff. It is again this drive for a sustainable future that has nature and wellbeing at the center of it all.
Challenges for nature-based learning in Turkey
And if you feel that attempting to move learning and teaching outdoors demands ‘too much effort’ or ‘too many resources’, let me tell you that this is not entirely true. Attending the workshop held by Gaye Amus made me think that small steps and changes can have an important impact on children’s perspective and connection to nature, e.g. utilizing a small space to create a school garden. Coming from Turkey and currently living and gaining experience in Finland, Gaye talked about the challenges she had to face initiating the nature movement for kindergartens and primary schools in Turkey, one major challenge being the disbelief of the parents, fellow educators and policy makers. As she said, she was the ‘crazy’ one taking the children out during all sorts of weather conditions to explore and learn. It took her time and effort to convince them why children need the connection with the nature and what the benefits of learning outdoors are. Gaye Amus is offering training for educators and she is spreading the word about learning in nature in seminars and conferences. She is the founder of Learning In Nature Ltd and passionate about outdoor learning.
Forest Kindergarten Zurich
One of the main highlights of the weekend conference was seeing outdoor learning in action during an organized excursion to a local forest kindergarten in Zurich. I was curious to know what a forest kindergarten is really like, and how they spend the day outdoors. Having only recently experienced a forest day with my own class, I was aware of how time flies in the forest! During the conference excursion, we just had enough time to set up some shelter with ropes and tarps, make a fire, prepare a tasty, salty snack with wild nettles, hang up hammocks and learn to tie different knots so that the ropes can be adjustable or used for various purposes (to hang a tarp over for shelter, to adjust the height of a hammock, to play, etc.) They say time flies when you’re having fun in the nature, and it certainly felt like it!
Dimitra is a teacher from Greece, living and working in Finland.
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Embrace Joy in Education is a non-profit organisation and passion project run by teachers in their spare time. EmJoy aims to bring teachers together and create a community of support and inspiration that will lead to joyful learning for all.