Intrinsically Motivated Education at Forest School

by | Apr 13, 2021

“For any of us, no matter what our background or what our age, we need to approach a thorny-problem, a creativity-type task, for the sheer pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction and challenge of that task itself, rather than for some extrinsic goal, like getting a reward that someone has offered us, or for impending evaluation. Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity, and extrinsic motivation is almost always detrimental.” – Beth Hennessey Ph.D

I received a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Environmental Science with a concentration in Ecosystems from Binghamton University. Throughout my undergraduate studies, my professors often asked me and my classmates to propose a project-based solution to the environmental problems our global society faces today. My classmates impressed my professors with imaginative and elaborate inventions, like everyday home items to capture solar energy or phone-apps that would help to determine waste mitigation in any given situation. 

My project ideas, at the time, seemed much…simpler. And I’m sure my classmates might have found them a bit…silly. I always passionately responded with the basic premise: we need to raise the next generation to be more creative, competent, and motivated to take care of themselves and the Earth. Perhaps synchronistically with my passion for children’s education uncovered through that coursework, I became pregnant with my daughter just a few months after my college graduation. Today, as a mother, an Aishling mentor, yoga therapist and herbalist, I watch the growing confidence, competence, cleverness and compassion of our learners at Aishling Forest School and I still believe it to be true that our children’s upbringing and education is of the most important (and most easily attainable) environmental solutions. And Forest School programs play a major role in the solution. 

Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity that is without the spur of outside forces. The task is done for the sake of the task alone – for the fun or challenge entailed – rather than because of ensuing reward, punishment, or recognition. Intrinsic motivation is related to passion, drive, and creativity – which children have quite a bit of! 

“Motivation and creativity go hand in hand,” says Dr. Beth Hennessey, former elementary school teacher and now researcher focused on motivation and creativity at Wellesley College. She shares that in order to encourage the stores of intrinsic motivation that children have within themselves to learn, children need to be presented with the time and space to immerse themselves in difficult problems and to persevere, to work in teams and try new things, and to experience failure and try again. Intrinsic motivation is a specific yet ephemeral state, which the Forest School classroom naturally allows for in abundance.

Western Psychology finds three ingredients are needed to spark intrinsic motivation: a sense of connectedness, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of competence. This past week, we delightfully watched the intrinsic motivation to learn be inspired within our learners.

And here is our specific “intrinsically motivated education recipe” for learning math at Forest School last week:

  • A sense of connectedness

Before we adventure into the woods each class, we cultivate a sense of connectedness amongst our Forest School community as we sit around our fire pit and pass our talking stick around our circle to allow each person to share their voice, and to be seen and heard as a unique, whole and invaluable member of our community. Last week, our mentors posed the question for the community circle: “what has been hard for you this year?” Our mentors were eager to listen when a few learners had related together about a challenge, that learning math has been hard for them!

  • A sense of autonomy

artists in the forest children painting in natureOur learners decide for themselves at Forest School how to learn and play. We do not impose activities on them, but rather extend invitations, propose potentials, and allow the learners to choose their lens for learning and play. In response to math being a challenge, one of our mentors (who happens to be a certified math teacher) let the learners know that she would love to help them to learn math in a fun way. Intuiting that perhaps the learners’ challenge with math on paper is that it is too abstract or irrelevant to their lives, she offered that they could learn math through a building project. The learners were then invited to choose from a few different project ideas that could involve different types of math. For example, making a new den in the woods would involve measuring sticks and adding or subtracting lengths to cut, and making multiples of the same length. When presented with multiple ideas, the learners decided they would like to build a bake-sale stand, and would take the lead in bringing it to fruition.

  • A sense of competency

Nearly all activities in the woods at Forest School are challenging enough to keep our learners interested and motivated, but easy enough that they feel confident and competent doing it – by the very nature of being out in nature! The next steps in this learning project at Forest School will be for the learners to start thinking about how the building of their bake-sale stand will work. Our mentors plan to bring in rulers, graph paper, and tools for the learners to begin drawing “blueprints” for the project. Once the stand is built, the learners can continue to work on the project by creating recipes to bake and working with money if baked-goods will be sold.

Although the future is uncertain and we do not know what the world will look like or what the workers of tomorrow will need, we at least know that our children will need their creativity and intrinsic motivation above all else to contend and cooperate with our ever-changing world. Education psychologists today understand that children cannot be coerced into learning. For this reason,  it is simply incredible and enlivening as an adult to watch a child’s intrinsic motivation and excitement and passion about learning unfold naturally. As parents of learners at Aishling Forest School, we should be proud not only of our children, but of ourselves, for bringing the change that the world needs to life.

Ways to Bring More Intrinsic Learning Into Your Home This Week:

  1. Ask them some in depth questions, such as “What was hard for you this past week?”, or “What is something you’re really good at that you could teach me?” These are both questions we’ve asked at Forest School and would be nice follow up prompts that can inspire ways to intrinsically scaffold their play and learning.
  2. Give them a half hour (or more) or your undivided attention to play their way. Tuck away any devices and let them take you on an adventure- wherever that may go. If you can, carve out weekly play time where they direct the play and you go along for the ride. The sky’s the limit!
  3. Create a story with them. Ask your learner if they want to create a story together, either verbally, written and/or illustrated. Provide simple prompts for them to answer. For example: a) There once was a X, b) And his/her/they had a best friend X, c) And everyday they would X, d) Until one day X happened, e) And now X. That’s it- a simple story arch for you and your learner to play with. Feel free to expand on that as much as you’d like. Most of all, have fun!

With reference to: 

“Cultivating Intrinsic Motivation and Creativity in the Classroom” by Beth Hennessey

Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Healthy Little Humans by Michaeleen Doucleff

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