By Leah Balkoski, Assistant Director of Notchcliff Nature Programs
One of the first rules of thumb I was ever given as an outdoor educator was to never help a child climb a tree higher than they could on their own. Why? Because, of course, if a child needs help getting up, they will even more certainly need help getting down. Perhaps this was one of the first things my mentors warned me about because the request is so common: if I had a nickel for every time a student has implored me to lift them to a branch that their friend could reach but they can’t, I’d be buying myself a new pair of hiking boots. But even more frequent than the cry to get up is the cry to get down: “TEACHER! I’m stuck!”
Children, having climbed higher than they perhaps realized, often simply admit defeat up in the branches and insist that it would be impossible to descend. Assessing the situation, I calmly ask them to identify which direction they came from, and back one foot down after the other until they successfully retrace their steps all the way to the ground. Of the countless times children have climbed the same trees and stick forts in my years of teaching a forest school co-op, only once have I had a child sincerely need help getting down from a tree that, ironically, he seemed to get legitimately stuck in because it was actually too small for him. Of course, only moments after I helped him down, I turned around and he was right back up there. The second time, although it took much longer, I stood by and coached him through a safe descent. When he was back on the ground, the rest of the class cheered and he beamed with pride. Although he never went back up that particular tree, he spoke about the experience for weeks after, exuberantly proud of his ability to overcome an obstacle himself.
This is only one example of the various situations in a typical forest school day that I know many adults would balk at, but to me, it represents many of the invaluable benefits of an outdoor learning environment for young children. By being encouraged to problem-solve and rely on themselves before turning to adults, children develop essential self-help, independence and resiliency skills. As Maria Montessori writes, “if teaching is to be effective with young children, it must assist them to advance on the way of independence.”
Studies proving the benefits and indeed necessity of play and risk-taking for children have been long understood, but safe and appropriate environments for children to experience such play, adequate time spent in such environments, and adult support and supervision are often missing. Children don’t get experiences like these in restrictive indoor classrooms, or on manufactured playgrounds, or with constant instruction and stifling assistance. The forest school environment is, as scholar Anna Cerino asserts, “the ideal environment to nurture independence and promote children’s well-being.” With a high teacher to student ratio, children are allowed “to undertake tasks and play activities that challenge them but do not put them at undue risk of harm” (O’Brien). In a study conducted by Liz O’Brien of forest schools in England and Wales, the number one most important theme identified as a direct benefit of forest school is confidence: the development of “self-belief that came from the children having the freedom, time and space, to learn, grow and demonstrate independence.”
Cerino and O’Brien both highlight the importance of the physical environment in children’s development of confidence and independence. “A woodland setting,” O’Brien observes, “that is framed by strict safety routines and established boundaries allows the flexibility and freedom for child-initiated learning and other innovative approaches to learning to take place in a low-risk environment.” The forest naturally provides endless opportunity for play, discovery, healthy risk-taking, and development of social-emotional regulation – all at each child’s own pace and with autonomy. “Children who show a high degree of independence have higher confidence, self-esteem and motivation,” Cerino writes. And in turn, she continues, “self-confidence is a motivator and regulator of individuals’ behavior in everyday life.”
From carrying their own backpacks to choosing what tree to climb, students at forest school are given ample independence during the day under the supportive supervision of teachers. Giving students independence indicates the underlying trust and respect teachers and families have for their children: trust and belief ”that the youngest children can also challenge themselves cognitively through play and without interruption from adults” (Cerino).
To learn is to make mistakes and grow from them, to fall down, brush yourself off, and discover with delight whatever it was that tripped you: a cool rock, or a stick the perfect size for building your fort, or a turtle shell, or a rabbit’s hole. Independent learning and thinking are every child’s right, and one that adults must defend and give ample space for.
Cerino, Anna. (2023). The importance of recognising and promoting independence in young children: the role of the environment and the Danish forest school approach. Education 3-13, 51:4, 685-694.
Montessori, Maria. (2007).The Discovery of the Child. Montessori-Pierson: Amsterdam. Volume 2.
O’Brien, Elizabeth A.; Murray, Richard. (2006). A marvelous opportunity for children to learn:
a participatory evaluation of Forest School in England and Wales. Forest Research (UK).
Williams, J. (2003). Promoting independent learning in the primary classroom. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).