If you follow along on Instagram (@toddlerintrees), you’ll notice that I’m forever taking snaps of various things that the toddlers are doing or playing with at forest school. I’m not with them all day so these are usually from the morning drop-off hours – i.e. this is just the tip of the iceberg.
But it’s funny how perceptions are relative… for the educators and other parents here at the Danish forest school, they don’t bat at an eye as to these things being special or out of the ordinary for children. Most might require some supervision of course, but one of the great things that forest school teaches is a very high level of trust that toddlers can – and are expected – to do quite a lot.
As laid back as I am (correction, as laid back as I thought I was), I just don’t know if I ever would see a lot of these (if any?) back home in the US… But then again, I haven’t actually had a child in school in the US either since we started here. Here’s a sampling of things that caught my eye since we’ve been here:
1. Saws: At the pace these toddlers were sawing, they weren’t getting extremely far. But yet, they each took their turn at working on breaking down extra pallets that they could then pack up with them for the woods for campfires.
2. Wet Saws: Full disclosure, this one did not take place at the actual school, but at the Nature Center in Bornholm. However, the nature center there hosts a lot of school groups so I thought this would be fair game to throw in. We were there for this one; it was an exhibit that allows kids to cut their own pieces of local granite. It was with supervision of course, but I think I must have had a million heart attacks in the five seconds it takes to do it. Everything was (of course) fine, but I can’t say that I would rush to do it again. This, though, is a great example of me really having to question whether I get nervous about something because she can’t do it (because she can), or because I can’t stomach it. With wet saws, I think I might have to draw the line, but the exercise of asking myself that question has been a great learning for me in this whole forest school experience. It’s often a good reminder that sometimes, I have to step back and not let my own fears get in the way of her experience.
3. Frogs: And snails…and worms…and just about any living thing they come across. They don’t “play” with them per se. But they often are encouraged to find various animals, most of which they pick up and handle and learn about in the moment, before putting them back where they found them. My first thought when I first saw this was “aren’t they dirty?” but the ease at which the kids gingerly handle them, and tell you all about them, has made me wonder “does it matter?”.
4. Wheels: Bikes and balance bikes and scooters and just about anything on wheels rule the roost. The school yard where they meet is full of them, plus many of the kids bring their own. Morning drop-offs can be like the Los Angeles freeway with the amount of traffic whizzing by, at autobahn speeds no less. Kids fall, and they run into each other as they learn, and they might even run over you, but cycling is such an important part of Danish culture that apparently no age is too young to get up on wheels.
5. Grilling Rods: that’s a double whammy….grilling AND rods. Ha! Bonfires and camp fires feature regularly in their day, especially on colder days, and it’s pretty common that the kids will make something using the fire. This could be sausages or apples or bread loaves or potatoes baked in the embers. Sometimes, I wish they would make extra to bring home for the parents. Like always there is supervision here but no teacher can hold thirty grill rods so you can do the math there…
6. Their own toys: Friday’s in our forest school are “toy time”, in which the children can choose a toy to bring and play with and then talk about during their circle. Most of the time my daughter chooses a favorite stuffed animal, but as far as I can tell, there doesn’t necessarily seem to be many rules about what you can or can’t bring (I certainly have never received any), which means that the kids have to choose wisely using their own thoughts on this. I’ve seen everything from princess tiaras (aren’t those anti-feminist?) to play swords (doesn’t those teach violence?) to little kinder egg toys (can’t those be choking hazards?) at toy time and everything in between…Guess what? The kids turn out okay…And the interesting thing is that, over time, choosing something for toy time has become something my daughter really thinks about and considers. She uses her judgment not to bring her stuffed white favorite dog on the day when it’s pouring rain and muddy…she’s learned how to make decisions that balance what she wants to bring and share with what the considerations might be as to whether that’s a good idea.
7. Mud and Sand: This must be forest school ingredient number one. Sand is ubiquitous in Danish schools and playgrounds (forest or not). And given that it rains more often in the year than not, there is mud to be found pretty quickly. Both are very much encouraged and mud pies run in high fashion amongst the toddler set here. And you’ll find it everywhere – on their clothes, in their backpack…you name it.
8. Brooms and brushes: I can’t really figure this one out. At first, I thought these were part of some sort of “teach kids to clean” initiative (though my daughter’s own state of cleanliness at the end of a long school day led me to have my first doubts), but half the time the kids are just using them to spread the afore-mentioned sand and mud further around. So who knows? But the kids love them.
9. Herbs and foraged goods: This goes a bit with the cooking theme above… The kids are taught about things that are edible in the forest (and also, things that are not). Here the kids had collected ramps and wild garlic… On the first day she went, a naturalist joined them to teach the kids about mushrooms in the woods…And it helps kids understand that there are places other than just the grocery store aisle that produce food.
(PS: In re-reading this post, I realized I forgot the most common one of all – STICKS! Seeing my child with the stick in hand has become so common place, I haven’t even bothered to take a picture – I guess it brings them closer to the trees ;))
So, parents, what do you think? And what have been some unexpected play things that your own schools have brought in?