Meeting Children Where They Are Amidst a Global Pandemic

by | Nov 22, 2021

“The key is to meet children where they are. The way children choose to play and learn is usually better than enough- it is the perfect thing for them to be doing at that particular time.”- Janet Lansbury, author of “Elevating Child Care”

These past few years have been grueling, to say the least. Restrictive social and economic situations, the fear of contagion, illness caused by COVID-19, isolated family life, school closures, the lack of support networks for other adults, the loss of loved ones, the difficulty of combining working from home with full-time childcare, financial challenges, increased exposure to pre-existing vulnerabilities are all factors that can result in toxic stress for adults and children. And according to systematic research, toxic stress can negatively interfere in the construction and structuring of the child’s brain architecture.

I often hear from caregivers that are struggling due to these challenges and more. As humans living amidst a global pandemic, we are only beginning to heal from a collective trauma that will take years, if not decades to fully understand the repercussions of this collective loss and grief. And while getting back to “normal” or a “new normal” may seem comforting, at Forest School, we’re taking a different approach.

We’re meeting each child where they are.

In past seasons of Forest School, we would be working more frequently with our tools or becoming proficient with our fire-making skills, but as a learner-led, play-based program, we are committed to meeting the children where they are. And what they need, more now than ever is PLAY. For children, play is vital to social and emotional wellbeing and since we all play before we learn to speak, it’s the most natural vehicle for self-expression for children. Play allows children the opportunity to externalize the internal world, communicate feelings and experiences, feel connected and safe, regulate emotions, and process difficult life events. In essence, play heals.

aishling forest school, unstructured playAnd we’re seeing this healing happen each week, as our learners sink deeper into their playscapes, whether creating teams to orchestrate their favorite group games, or directing their socio-dynamic and imaginative worlds deep in the woods. Just last week, our learners crafted mud paints, made magical wands with scarfs, and had a “best day ever” playing in the rain and sliding down the mud hills. We also presented and implemented a new “Peacemaking Process” alongside a freshly foraged mint tea ceremony. Our Peacemaking ceremony is a supported process that allows each learner to fully express their emotions via “I feel” statements, which are then validated and repeated back to them. We then wonder about solutions to our problems and close each ceremony with a somatic shake and/or a loud howl and a clearing of the air with a handcrafted Mugwort cleansing wand.

According to Dr. Mine Conkbayir, whose Ph.D. is in early childhood education and neuroscience, “Forest schools are a haven for children’s mental health. Their emphasis on unstructured play, exploration, and intrinsic motivation is, in my opinion, what is missing from our current education system and its obsession with accountability and outcomes. Let us take ‘intrinsic motivation’ – Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory immediately comes to mind: wherein the education system is there time and space for children to wallow in their learning? To take joy in their journey of exploration and discovery? Playing in natural settings has been shown to improve concentration, buffer the impact of stress, reduce symptom severity of ADHD, reduce anger and boost those self-regulatory skills.”

A fellow Aishling Forest School caregiver, Dr. Jessica Scher Lisa, echoes this statement knowing that pure-play is exactly what children need:  “As a child psychologist and professor of childhood education, I was faced with this conundrum when my children became of elementary school age. Knowing that our current school system is failing our children in its inherent inability to provide the opportunities for children to grow and mature across the various domains of development, I looked for the solution to this problem for my family. Which eventually led me to forest school.

Aishling Forest School is a child-centered, inspirational learning environment. Forest school provides for an educational process to unfold in a supported yet unstructured manner, that is both natural and rich in opportunities for developmental growth. This model allows for ample amounts of play through exploration in nature, fostering physical, cognitive, and social/emotional expansion. Through immersion in nature, children learn about their relationship with the world, while opportunities for exploration and risk-taking build resiliency.

Children gain social skills in a real-life, natural environment, engaging in cooperative activities that foster problem-solving capabilities. Forest School provides an education that strengthens many areas of development at the same time. And while academic learning is a component, it is incidental, rather than contrived, which fosters a deep love of learning while allowing children to become exactly who they are meant to be.”

So in the era of being sold snake oil that our children are falling behind, that they need to perform more skills and be drilled in academic rigor, let us remember this: play is backed by brain science as being the best form of education for young learners, play is healing and that play is enough.

….So I invite you to take a breath and relax into the simple yet profound beauty that is unstructured play.


Here are some ways you can reawaken our sense of playfulness at home:

  1. Fill your cup first. This is not selfish, I repeat: this is not selfish. At Forest School, we teach that you must take care of yourself first before you can take care of others. Whether it’s getting up before your kids to have a quiet cup of coffee or taking extra long showers, it’s more important than ever to prioritize your well being so that you can take care of others.
  2. Create a Playlist for yourself- what brings you sparks of joy? Is it hiking, reading, singing, or cooking? Write it out on your phone and try to fit in at least 1 joyful playdate with yourself a week. Create boundaries with other plans and people and prioritize your beauty hunting and joy.
  3. Create room in your schedule to deeply connect with your little ones once a day. It doesn’t have to be for very long, 5-10 minutes a day will do. During this time, let your little ones take the lead in what you play, as this will allow them to feel empowered, particularly during a time where a lot has been out of their control. In addition, giving your little your undivided attention helps them to feel special and allows an opportunity for connection. When children feel seen and heard, they are more likely to follow your lead in areas outside of play. This is especially important if every school day has been feeling like a battle.
  4. Allow space for boredom. Boredom is the birthplace of creativity and therefore, an important feeling to experience and work through. If your child has been on electronics an excessive amount this year, you can anticipate that boredom may be an uncomfortable feeling for them because of the immediacy in which electronics resolve boredom. Decreasing electronic use allows us to reawaken our imaginations and opens our minds to the different possibilities that can only arise when we are a little bored.
  5. Silliness is both cathartic and contagious. Channel your inner child by listening to music and having a dance party with your little (I love turning off the lights and bringing out flashlights too!) Spontaneity and silliness are best fostered when we leave the board games in their boxes and allow time for unstructured play.
  6. And most importantly, know that YOU ARE ENOUGH and doing a good job. We’ve got this and are stronger when we’re together. You’re not alone.




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