By Sonja Lukassen
The Forest and Nature School approach is all about relationships- with each other, with the land, and with ourselves. When offering programming based on learning and connecting through play on the land, we strive to be clear about what we can do together while we play. As many educators who work with children do, we phrase our guidelines in terms of what is possible. A list of Do’s and Don’ts might accomplish the goal of being clear about safety, and also can set an authoritarian, top-down tone that feels heavy handed and counter to the intention of being co-creators with the children. We have found that approaching safety as a conversation centred on respect for each other and the land, with common goals and input from all, works to establish an atmosphere of trust and possibility, which in itself contributes to children being more likely to make safe and kind choices.
There are many beautiful and important reasons that having multiple play sessions on the same land with the same group makes sense, and one of them is that there can be a revisiting each time of previously agreed upon guidelines, and a gradual release of how tightly safety concerns are held. Hiking, climbing trees or playing beside a pond might look and feel different on our first day together than on our third or fourth.
Educators hold the space each day, and are present to support dynamics and physical and emotional safety. Starting with a conversation on Day One leads to that being the expected and trusted way for us to negotiate play and risk together. Rather than a child asking if they are allowed to do something, they say there is something they want to do and we figure out together if there is a safe and kind way to do so.
It doesn’t really make sense to cover every possible safety consideration with a group on their first day on the land. There is so much that is new and interesting to explore and discover- it isn’t fair to expect children (or their accompanying adults if working with a school group) to remember all the details when they haven’t even had a chance to get to know a space yet. The season, the weather, the age of the children, how long they’ve known each other and how experienced they are on the land are all factors that affect what guidelines feel the most important to focus on on any particular day.
Below is a slideshow that helps demonstrate wording we might use and where we tend to place emphasis when co-creating guidelines with a group. This was created as a tool to share with educators and families. When co-navigating risk and safety with children I am always out on the land, rather than indoors in proximity to a slideshow. It can definitely make sense to front load for children by telling stories, showing photos and talking about an experience before actually diving into it- many educators do this, in which case a slideshow of some sort might make sense. When we are actually talking about the play, though, and how we will step forward together, we are out on the land, surrounded by it as we do so.
This is not a comprehensive, cookie-cutter, copy-and-paste kind of list. Rather, it’s a sharing of ideas and an approach to support your own journey as you work and play with children on the land.
There are so many steps to feeling confident and able to take a group out onto the land and to trust the learning that will emerge through play. There is no certain way that it must look and feel, and how it does look and feel will change from week to week, season to season and group to group, for so many real and legitimate reasons. Learning through play on the land is less about making sure certain experiences arise and is more about nurturing the culture of the group so that the environment is rich and filled with opportunity. Hopefully the approach described above can help support your steps in this process.