Winter 2021 was milder than many and served up many changes that we needed to adapt to: freeze/thaw, snow/rain, and cold/warmth. On our Forest Fridays, some well-timed blizzards and wet snow served to make the challenges harder and the subsequent successes a little sweeter. As children move from 6 to 11 years old, there is an increasing desire for them to assert greater independence, to test their skills and abilities and evolve their play to include more elaborately structured relationships and strategies. The backdrop of constantly changing conditions and weather proved to provide opportunities to build resilience, social skills and wilderness skills. We were impressed with the teamwork, strategy and resilience that evolved as challenges, play and activities evolved - even as change hovered around us both in the forest and in our schools, families and communities with the ongoing pandemic.
There were sessions when strong winds brought on sudden snow storms. We adjusted with more layers and more sliding! Change manifested itself in the practical makeup of the Forest Play program when group size and composition changed in response to shifting restrictions. Sometimes an ‘amazing plan' was thrown out last minute to adapt to incoming weather or an absence. The natural world is a powerful teacher that demonstrates how adapting to change builds resilience and inspires growth.
Following the theme of change, adaptation and resilience, the story at lunchtime described the adventures of two cousins, Nordegg and Cynthia. We created this story to describe how the pair dealt with adversity and challenges and increased their independence, skill and resiliency through adaptation, empathy, persistence and practice. From the sudden departure of the character’s parents at the beginning of the story to the endless chores created by the quirky Grandpa, we imagined what it would be like to have to spend a night out in the wild, track down your food and find your way home. The subsequent challenges and activities the children participated in took the form of matchless fire building, animal tracking, shelter building, mapping, cooking, chasing, stalking and sliding (lots of sliding). Part of the process in presenting the children with a fun challenge each session, was to allow the leadership, teamwork and creative problem solving to play out.
One day, the children were presented with the challenge to move a cumbersome log (likely weighing up to 80lbs), from one point to the next. Taking inspiration from the story, two groups of four children not only met the challenge with excitement, they persevered and excelled in spite of dumping snow, sideways wind and dropping temperatures. Some groups rolled the log, others made teams to carry it, others tried sliding it on the snow. The adversity of the day was furthered when the challenge to build a matchless fire was presented. Without a moment of hesitation, sparks were flying. In meeting the challenges and adversity, the children bolstered their confidence, worked through frustration and disagreement and at the end of the day went home with a sense of accomplishment and pride.
The Forest Friday sessions provided an opportunity for the children to explore, have fun with their peers, take chances, make mistakes, get frustrated and find creative solutions. It is our hope, that by creating and holding space for children to learn through outdoor play that confidence, social skills, independence and resilience will grow. In turn, they will be better able to respond when confronted by inevitable moments of adversity.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Yet every season, we are amazed at just how much the childrens’ level of awareness improves!
At Forest Play, we design our programming around the 8 Shields mentoring model for nature connection. This philosophy follows the cycles in nature and learning and supports our work to connect children to themselves, others and the natural world.
The scientific research and cultural examples supporting this model show us that awareness is indicated in numerous ways. Awareness may show up when a child finds a moment of solitude, or a “quiet mind”. Awareness may present itself as “caring and tending” when children use their kindest words to speak to friends, plants or leaders. Among others, awareness is also indicated through “self-sufficiency”, like learning to put on that cumbersome backpack (!), as “awe and reverence” when we give gratitude to the fresh snow or tasty lunches, through “inquisitive focus” when we ask questions about who made the tracks in the snow as well as “aliveness” when speeding down a slippery hill! Observing how, when and why these indicators of awareness appear helps us understand how to best support the children and create the sessions accordingly.
Continuing on our winter theme, the stories, activities and games focused on winter adaptations of local wildlife. The winter forest elves, Icicle and Snowflake, went on adventures with bighorn sheep, woodpeckers, wolves and porcupines! There were lessons in eating behaviour (bighorn sheep have 4 (FOUR!) stomachs to help them eat quickly in meadows and retreat quickly to digest on high ledges), communication (the pileated woodpecker drums on trees to stake its territory) and physical adaptations (the waxy coating on a porcupine quill has antibiotic qualities that prevent infection should it accidentally prick itself). Listening to a story about a pileated woodpecker then seeing evidence of one or finding bearberries after learning about what meadow vole eats is when connections come to life.
Thanks to the Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park, we have the incredible opportunity to take inspiration from the story, mix in some curiosity and explore open spaces. Familiarizing ourselves with the scat and tracks of mule deer, coyote, red squirrel, pine marten and snowshoe hare, for example, help us and the children develop relationships akin to having neighbours in the forest.
We’re looking forward to where the spring season and coming adventures may take us. With an increased level of awareness, the possibilities are endless!
It is said that stories live on the wind and those who are aware and whose senses are alert, can catch the story that needs to be told in that moment.