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!
Over the past 6 weeks of play and learning, we have explored how animals adapt to life during the colder months here in the Rockies. By drawing our awareness to the local wildlife, we focused on an animal or insect each week to help us explore: how do animals adapt to winter?
Snowflake and Icicle, the winter forest elves, welcomed the season as they woke up from their deep hibernation. Through the elf adventures in the lunchtime story, we learned how mule deer lowered its metabolism in winter to conserve energy, how spider didn’t freeze in sub zero temperatures thanks to curious antifreeze qualities of its hemolymph (the spidery version of blood) and why lynx has extra fur between the pads of its paws like built-in snowshoes to help hunt in winter.
The lunchtime story allows us to weave the wisdom in animal adaptations into fun, imaginative and relatable stories. Our intention with oral storytelling at Forest Play, is to take the focus away from explicit information and focus on fostering an unwavering curiosity, awe, wonder and respect for the natural world. By adding imagination and context to information, stories inspire children to lead their own learning and follow their curiosities. We see this when the children explore their curiosities as the characters or animals enacted through play. Embodying the lynx, for example, the children prepared to pounce and told their friends, “shh. Keep quiet. Don’t scare away my prey.”
Animals and insects adapt to winter in numerous ways such as planning ahead and having a safe place to go, preparing and storing food, knowing how to camouflage, minimizing effort when moving through the snow (adapting with big feet, for example, or dispersing weight and following packed trails). Beyond embodying the animals through play and the magic of the story, nature connection is deepened when the children encounter and observe the animals in real life. Drawing awareness to deer, snowshoe hare, pine marten and meadow vole tracks in the snow or the chance encounter to observe animals in the forest, the invaluable nature connection experiences are further deepened.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and cold weather adjustments, we feel grateful that we are able to continue offering valuable outdoor experiences for your children. We look forward to what the rest of the winter season has in store!
Catching their Stories
As your child(ren) returns home with snowy, dirty or wet mittens, you have an opportunity to receive their experiences or catch their stories. Showing a genuine interest and encouraging them to share in increasing detail helps validate and deepen their experiences. Some days, they may be excited to share a lot and other days, not very much - it all depends on the child and the day!
Asking questions such as:
Adventures and challenges help us build new skills and inspire us to think differently. The past few months at Forest Play, we've been on many adventures inspired by the interests of children in our Forest Friday program and the story we've been sharing at lunch. In the story, the main characters (Evalyn and Eric) find themselves traveling to the Northern Kingdom - a place where they expect to uncover the seeds of a potential war. The place they visit and the people they meet are not what they expect and their journey leads them to uncover the "pieces of peace."
Some of our adventures this season at Forest Play required agility, speed and teamwork skills to retrieve pieces of a puzzle. Other times, map reading and way finding skills were put to the test as children navigated through the forest to find the letters to spell UNITY - one of the "pieces of peace." Their ability to work through potentially frustrating challenges gave them the opportunity to see the value and importance of finding an inner sense of calm or INNER PEACE when working through difficulties. They rose to the challenge and guided their friends blindfolded through a maze of fallen logs and obstacles, rescued stranded rubber chickens and walked safely across an area of "boiling lava" using limited lava-proof tools. The final challenge of the season brought their stories and adventures from the previous weeks back in riddle form. The challenge was to recall where in the landscape those adventures occurred and to work together and use the "Good Message" while finding what they needed to light a fire and bake apples. The GOOD MESSAGE is about using our finest words when speaking about or with others.
The "pieces of peace" (Unity, Inner Peace, The Good Message) are part of what is often referred to as the "Peacemaker Principles" and have been part of traditional Haudenosaunee society for centuries. Shared through the 8 Shields Institute, we integrated them into our story and our programs so we could shine light on the puzzle of peace and how we can work together to create peace.
We were impressed by the children's creativity, problem solving skills and enthusiasm this season and look forward to seeing them again in the winter, spring or summer.
May your families have a joyful and peaceful holiday!
As the nights have become longer and the days shorter, we have all noticed the change in light. It might be that we feel more tired than other times of year, or perhaps a little more introspective and reflective. Our bodies are attuned to the changes in light and we have a "sense of light" as much as we have a sense of smell, sight, touch, taste and hearing. Some researchers, such as Dr. Michael J. Cohen, have highlighted "sense of light" amongst 52 other "natural survival senses" that all humans have. When activated, these senses can help lead us reconnect with the natural world, ourselves and others.
During the past few weeks of Forest Play, we've drawn attention to the changes in light and shared stories and inquiries about where we can find the light during the dark time of year. We've explored the forest and noticed that some places have more sun than others. We've seen how ice and water can capture and filter light. We've also noticed that trees like spruce, pine and fir are still able to gather the light of the sun- even in the depths of winter- and share it with us through their green needles. We take in some of that light when we drink our spruce tea and Christmas trees are traditionally brought into our homes to remind us that the green plants will come back and the light will return.
Within the forest, light can also be hidden, but coaxed out and shared. This happens when we burn wood in our wood stove and outdoor fire pit and also when we burn sap for candles. Using hand saws, we cut small tree cookies from dead wood and felt the exertion stoke the fire inside our bodies and bring heat to our toes and fingers. We collected sap from trees and watched as the sap extended the light and life of our matches. Providing we kept feeding the candle small amounts of new sap, it kept burning.
There is wisdom here for us too - each of us has a light we can share. Through kind words, laughter, play, stories, helpful actions and compassion for each other and nature, we share our light and in so doing move through darker days with support and hope.
May you and your family find light and joy over the holidays!
This fall, Friday afternoons arrived with a great sense of anticipation - both for Forest Play leaders and for the children. Many of the children in our Friday afternoon programs for 6-10 yr olds have been with us for many years and we love it when they arrive bursting with questions and a list of things they want to do: "Can we carve?, I want to finish my sword. Can we play camouflage? Can we go to the canyon today? Can we play Hunger Games or Busted today? Will there be time to go to the creek?" The passion and the exuberance they show when engaged in the activities is a sign that these children are exhibiting one of the attributes of connection that we aim to foster at Forest Play: Full Aliveness. As described by Jon Young:
"People with this attribute live fully in the moment. They put everything they have into what they are doing without 'pulling any punches' If you’re going to sing, then REALLY sing. If you are dancing, then REALLY dance!”
The children in our Friday afternoon programs love challenges and projects - whether it is building shelters, honing their skills to blend in with the forest, making beautiful art with yarn, rocks and elements from the natural world or learning new skills like carving. While engaged in their passions, we notice where their edges of knowledge, skill and awareness are and when we meet them next, we work to help them move beyond those edges so they can deepen their sense of aliveness.
"When children are out in nature, all the senses get activated. They are immersed in something bigger than themselves, rather than focusing narrowly on one thing, such as a computer screen. They are seeing, hearing, touching, even tasting. Out in nature, children's' brains have the chance to rejuvenate, so the next time they have to focus and pay attention, perhaps in school, they'll do better. "(Richard Louv)
Fall 2020 gifted us with one of the warmest autumns we have experienced since we started Forest Play in 2011. The warm weather, yellow leaves and golden grasses provided a beautiful and comfortable backdrop to introduce your children to Forest Play, to start building connection to nature, self and others and to establish our daily rhythm. The process of building connection is fun, rewarding and grounded in foundational routines that research and practice tells us helps children to be happy, healthy and resilient.
We started our season with a focus on “Owl Eyes.” Owls have a highly developed sense of sight and by using our owl eyes, we can see many things at once - what is in front of us, what is in the sky, on the ground close to us and to our sides - all without moving our heads or eyeballs! Our days began near the parking lot at Quarry Lake, children ran to hide in the willows or in the trees in the nearby forest. As other friends arrived, we were challenged to find those who were hidden and we saw first hand how owl eyes helps us detect movement and find the hiders more easily. Games such as camouflage, Eagle Eye, Lynx and Hare were all enjoyed by the children. Each game involved on a combination of hiding, seeking and improved our sense of sight.
Following a couple of weeks that focused on sight, we moved to expanding our sense of hearing with “Deer Ears.” Deer tracks are a common sight in the soft mud, and it is not rare for us to see a deer moving quietly through the forests and meadows while we play so the children are familiar with the prominent ears of the Mule Deer. We cupped our hands around our ears to mimic the deer and noticed it magnified the sounds around us. Putting our "Deer Ears" into practice, we attempted to sneak up on each other while blinded by our touques and found we could indeed “see with our ears.” Hide and Hear was a fun adventure that involved going off into the woods with a group armed with some sticks to make woodpecker noises while the other group came to find us by following the sound. As always, each game was transformed by the individual interests and creativity of the children and we had many variations that involved voices, rocks, flutes, running through the woods and following sounds that kept moving around the forest!
More recently, we’ve moved to our sense of smell and heard stories of how smell dominant animals such as bears, wolves and even skunks can help us see the forest in a new way. “Smell cups” were developed by the children by crushing different things they found in nature (sage, grass, spruce needles, mud, rocks) and then sharing the resulting smells with friends and Forest Play leaders. We also explored tracking a scent through the forest that was left behind by some very strong smelling children and adults who had a distinct onion-y smell to them!
Now that the first snow has fallen, we’re seeing, hearing and smelling new adventures. The smell of wood smoke from our stove will probably comes home with each of us and will hopefully carry with it memories of our warm shelter and adventures building snowmen, snow trains, slides and other creations.
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.