If you had asked me two years ago, before I had actually put in a child in forest kindergarten, what I was looking for in a school, cleanliness would have ranked pretty high on the list. First and foremost would have been education, and teachers and community, but the truth is, cleanliness was a pretty close proxy in my eyes for how much a school cares for its students…for how much teachers look out for an individual…for how much they teach children to be mindful of their person and their environment around them.In a forest school, of course, I had to shift my perspective entirely. Because well, if you have a child in forest school you know that there is nothing “clean” about it. My car is regularly caked with dirt and sand, with the odd twig or rock or crumpled leaf falling in between the cracks of the leather seats. The entry to our house where she takes off all her gear is no better. And our washing machine…well, let’s just say, I don’t think the manufacturers had quite this volume in mind when they specified that this model was for “home use”. The notion of keeping their clothes clean is an ongoing battle. We will probably run that washing machine into the ground. Most days, I want to teach that taking care of your person and your things is important. It signals to people that you care, and it instills personal responsibility for your appearance, the things you own, and accountability you have to take care of them. But some days, we give the washing machine a break. Some days we just can’t keep up.
But I learned that the kind of dirty that you get in forest school, isn’t the kind of dirty that really bothers me. This is the kind of dirty that you earn…that you garner because you’re out exploring and learning and challenging yourself and doing and….living. That is different from the kind of dirty caused by neglect or apathy or lack of pride or lack of knowing better. And it’s a kind of dirty I’m willing to encourage because it made think about what dirty means in a children’s environment. One takes aways from a child’s experience, one adds to it. As an adult, you must have the judgment to know which one of the two kinds of dirty you’re seeing on your child, and ultimately, the children will learn to tell the difference too.
I might still insist on fighting the good fight when it comes to the dirt – on the shoes, on the snow pants, on anything. In fact, we’ve subdivided her closet into two spaces: the first for things worn to forest school, knowing that those clothes will take a hit from the experience of adventure. And the second, to be worn outside of it when maintaining appearance matters more. They are both small wardrobes, but having that division helps me teach both lessons as a parent. I don’t always win the battle against the dirt, and that’s okay. If my child is learning and living and having fun, then that dirt isn’t the mark of my failure as a parent; it is a mark of successful childhood.