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Forest School Adventures in Canada

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Back to Northern Weather

Preparing to start our first year of an outdoor forest-play program, I recently read Linda Akeson's book, There's No Such Thing As Bad Weather. Quickly I realized that so much of Akeson's stories and research from growing up in Sweden and having children in the US resonated with my experience living between Canada and the US.

The only outdoor program experience we had with kids in the US, was with our 15 month old son at a small outdoor pre-school program in California. It was focused on music and grounded in a belief that interaction with nature and animals is important for early development. We rarely brought jackets and if so, we always left in our tee-shirts. We have many fond memories of picturesque, dewy mornings spent outdoors in the soft, rolling, green hills with baby lambs, friendly goats, and wandering ducks.

Moving back to Canada I realized how "out of practice" at cold weather I had become (and how my Californian husband had a lot of acclimatizing to do). Canadians, as Swedes, are much more willing as a general rule than their southern neighbours to accept that up to 8 months (or more) of the year require the Swedish "no bad weather" attitude and invest in wardrobe that facilitates enjoyable time outdoors. Children are largely encouraged to play outdoors year-round and many of all ages look forward to the winter months for skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and winter hiking.

Outdoor Learning

As Linda Akeson points out, countries like Sweden not only are facilitating access to nature as a way of living, but are setting a world-leading example in this kind of nature-based, conscious, and sustainable way of living, raising, and schooling their children. So much so that they even have a word describing it:

"Friluftsliv. The term was first used in print by famed Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Isben in 1859, and describes a culture and a way of life that heavily revolve around exploring and enjoying nature.
They not only see see access to nature "as an inalienable right," but natural elements such as fresh air as, "pillar(s) of public health." Linda Akeson

It was my dad who first sent me an article on an outdoor school in Oregon. Reading more, it was interesting to learn about the benefits found in early research of this type of nature-based program. With our son almost pre-school age, I began looking into local, Canadian options. It was exciting to find a few outdoor programs. I soon realized that these classes are very popular (especially during covid) and we were placed on a waiting list for a parented forest play class for both our 18 month old and 3 year old.

Our core beliefs drive the experiences we provide for children through ... programming, and research supports many of our beliefs about the positive effects of authentic outdoor play on children. Our Beliefs:
Outdoor play is inherently therapeutic
Children require time and space to move their bodies
Nature provides the ultimate sensory experience
Children deserve distance from the adult world regularly
Ample outdoor play benefits children physically, mentally and emotionally
- TimberNook

After becoming a "very enthusiastic follower upper," with the (amazing) program leader, we were granted two spots in the fall session. A few weeks prior to our first day, we (I) eagerly started researching more and preparing. I had already developed a great respect and appreciation of outdoor time for both my own mental-health, as well as my children's well-being after taking up our own version of "urban walking" and logging hundreds of kilometres with the double stroller since moving.

Our Forest Play Experience

What I understood about preparing for outdoor programs in Canada in the fall/winter is that, closely behind enthusiastic, we would need to be warm and dry. After learning about and sourcing (second-hand, good quality), base, mid, and outer-layers for us all, our first day arrived. Dressed for the weather and armed with a thermos of tea and a multitude of snacks, we experienced our first class.

Before we officially began the session, the program leader gave us an introduction into what we as parents could expect and our official role. "Try to stay back as much as possible and not interfere with what your child is naturally drawn to in the environment." In other words, let them do what they want and stay out of it; proving to be challenging, yet rewarding advice from the first moments of engagement with the forest space.

The Swedish Outdoor Association ... holds that all children enrolled in its forest schools have a right to "become dirty, stay active, and be inspired by nature" - Linda Akeson

Despite awareness of the beauty of autumn that week, I was unprepared for the serene, peaceful, beauty, and gentleness of both the environment and our first hours of the program. Largely unstructured besides "stations" of natural materials set up throughout the "rooms" of the forest setting, the warmth, beauty, and absolute joy of the morning carried through the rest of the day and left us eager for the next week.

"Us humans are a part of nature and we have a need to be in nature. I think this need will grow with the global development. We need to be in nature on a regular basis to achieve balance and harmony. In the long run, we can't deny that we are biological organisms." - Helle Nebelong as quoted by Linda Akeson

Wondering if it was the excitement of our first week that held exclusive magic, it was exciting to discover the same level of joy in our second week. Similar to Week 1, activities had been strategically set up throughout the forest area in an inviting, yet non-formal way. The environment held many natural elements perfect for play including a small, yet excitingly boot-filling deep creek, a steep and very muddy hill with a cardboard box slide, a strategically challenging mix of stumps and climbing logs, a few areas perfect for "hiding" under low growing trees, and stations set up to facilitate exploration of natural materials such as an "apple market," and leaves piled at the bottom of a slide.

Still revelling in the warmth of the season, falling leaves, and the way the light filtered through the forest trees, it was just as wonderful and once again led to a peaceful afternoon with much less of the usual whining and general unhappiness of toddlers between 3:00 - 5:00 pm.

Children improve their attention span when they play outside on a daily basis. Increased movement and activity helps to stimulate and ignite the brain for sustained attention to task ...
Research proposes that spending time in nature also lowers cortisol levels in the brain, promoting calmness and improved mood.​ - TimberNook Research

A few weeks ago, the program hosted an extremely helpful evening for parents and children to discuss how to dress for the coming colder weather, as well as an open play session. It was amazing to me, that for the first time in any kind of social situation (especially since covid), that my son was not only keen, but had zero hesitation, to follow some kids from the older, un-parented class to a further, out of sight mud hill while I listened to the talk. When I did venture over awhile later, it was very fun to see not only that he was enjoying himself, but that he was venturing to the very top of the mud hill (for the first time), and sliding down without reserve. It was also surprising to observe him throwing a rope down to help his sister climb up because, as he told me later, "that's how the older kids had helped him."

Ample, unrestricted outdoor playtime leads to creative social adventures amongst children. They create their own societies in nature, build structures together as a group, and dive into imaginatory games with peers. - TimberNook Research

Recently, we had our first below freezing morning. Despite underestimating the time it would take us all to layer up and remember to pack additional gear, it was largely a success. We were all just as excited about heading into the forest (I made extra sure to not forget my tea) as the previous sessions, and despite a somewhat slower engagement period, we ended up having just as much fun (and coming home just as, if not more, muddy from playing in the creek).

Resonating again with Akeson's gratitude for ample natural and forest spaces just "out the backdoor," we are thankful to have access to a multitude of natural, protected spaces within walking distance from our home. A river valley, the Rocky Mountain range, as well as countless parks and playgrounds incorporate our daily living areas and destinations. Now that we are also learning more about how to stay enjoyably warm during the coldest months, we hopefully will be able to continue to foster and facilitate a love of nature in our children. Either way, at this point, we are thankful and looking forward to a full year of outdoor adventures both at school and otherwise!

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