The Kids Are Alright: Why There Are No Rules At Forest School

by | May 5, 2021

Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” -Margaret Mead

We often get questions about how the mentors maintain a sense of “control” in an otherwise child-led program. The short answer is we don’t.

At Forest School, our aim isn’t to control our learners. There are plenty of other fantastic programs out there for children with every minute packed and scripted and every need anticipated. Those programs are advertised as “child led” or “exploration based” because they offer free use of materials and the space to create. But when the program is spent at tables or seated in circle the whole time, there is literally little room for conflict to arise. With space to roam and freedom to act as kids, Forest School has plenty of conflict to offer in a truly child-led space. 

So how do we handle the inevitable conflict when it arises? Well, to answer that we need to start wayback at day one of forest school. Day one is a day spent tucking and adjusting gear, chasing down loose granola bar wrappers and asking our littlest learners if they have to use the potty. Once organized, we enter the woods together and look around with wide eyes at the seemingly endless opportunities for play. Some options are clearer than others and a welcoming place to start is the mud kitchen; an area of pots, pans, whisks, and a water jug set up near the main space in our woodland classroom. Some new friends dive right in while some step back to watch but without a doubt it happens. Someone takes something from someone else’s hand or someone uses all the water or someone gets splashed. With the first howl of displeasure, the learner turns to the nearest mentor and reports what happened. It sounds something like this:

Learner: “He took that from me!”

Mentor:  “Yes, I saw. He took that from you.”

Learner: “But I was still using it!” 

Mentor: [nods gravely] “You weren’t done using it yet.”

When a new learner hasn’t yet heard our narrating style of communication this can be confusing. Why aren’t the mentors taking the item back or at least going over to talk to him/her about “we don’t do that here…”? Shouldn’t they do something? But the mentor’s part in this does not arrive until later when we are back in community meeting. Here, the mentor might ask the group: “how did it feel when someone takes something from our hands?” The learners identify the emotions they feel when this happens: “frustrated, sad, mad.” We continue: “what can we do instead?” The learners come up with solutions: “not taking from people’s hands and waiting until they are done.” Then the mentors bring this up to a vote: “can we all agree that we will not take items from each other’s hand?” With an enthusiastic thumbs up from everyone, our first agreement is born. 

The rest of the agreements flow to include crowd favorites about no pushing or name calling and some smaller specific ideas about not knocking down a particular fort another group has been working or finding your own “loud space” if you’re yelling too loudly. Every conflict is an opportunity to discuss impact and what happens moving forward. Everyone’s voice matters and everyone’s vote counts. The agreement manifesto is dynamic and amendments can be made whenever the community sees fit. 

This style of child led forest school “rules” is adapted from Tom Hobson’s book Teacher Tom’s First Book about the democratic preschool in Washington state he worked at for many years. Teacher Tom writes about the importance of arriving at these agreements as a group and not having them dictated from the moment they walk into the woods. This is not the mentor’s or parent’s classroom but the learners and their voice is the one that matters. Teacher Tom writes,

“Deep democracy is what happens when we agree to have a “pinecone fight”, as we often did in my youth, all of us knowing without adult commands, that tacit in this agreement is that no one wanted to get hurt, so heads and faces are off limits, that one throws more gently at close range, and if someone starts to cry the game is on hold until that cry is over. Adults tend to muck this up by simply banning the game altogether, giving no one a change to learn anything”.

Democracy can be messy and we don’t shy away from that messiness. Scrapes and hurt feelings happen but they are never ignored by the community. So what does happen when someone knocks down the fort that was off limits or someone snatches the hammer from someone else without asking? Mentors and learners alike can remind the offending party that, as a group, we have agreed not to do that. Because these “rules” had been decided on by the whole class (including the learner who snatched), it will often diffuse the situation faster than if a mentor ran over and declared “sharing is caring” or removed hammers from the rest of class. Anyone can offer up an agreement and anyone can uphold an agreement. With this, we are a community rather than a dictatorship and we allow children to be their own advocates. Here, empathy is king and as mentors, we are moderators and peacemakers. We cultivate relationships. We guide without force or coercion. We include and come together not ostracize and punish. 

kids hugging, aishling forest school, child-ledIn a recent social media post, Kristen RB Peterson of Play Based Learning podcast  posted, “85% of jobs available to college graduates in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet (via the institute for the future)”. So what exactly are we preparing our youngest kids for these days when we think about their future? Is it possible that in preparing our children for their “adult world”, we are grasping at straws as it will be different in ways we cannot imagine? In a matter of preparation, what are the skills we can develop now that will unequivocally be needed in this unknown future? Of course, nothing is certain but we would like to think that an individual should know every voice counts within a community is an important skill. As is knowing that what we have agreed upon can be upheld and the idea that it’s better not to shy away from the messiness of forming a community where everyone fits and thrives. Yes, there will be bumps, scratches, and tears but that doesn’t mean we can’t come together in the end.

The learners at Forest School are the creators of their community and they are the ones who will create the communities of the future. My hope is when I am old and gray sipping coffee by a riverbank somewhere I can smile knowing there are a group of community minded former Forest School learners running the world with empathy and inclusion.


Some ways you can create your own manifesto at home:

  • Decide on a time for family meetings. Will you meet once a week? Once a month? Make it fun by including cookies and milk or another special treat. Use a bell or singing bowl to call the household members to the meeting. Use a talking stick, rock, or wand that has been decorated to make sure everyone’s voice is heard during the meeting. 
  • Grab some butcher paper and a marker. Discuss any recent conflicts and decide on the wording for an agreement. Being specific for younger children makes it easier for those agreements to be upheld later. Ex. “we agree to knock before entering closed doors” as opposed to “we agree to give each other privacy”.
  • Vote using a thumbs up/thumbs down or colored cardstock with green/red facing upward. The agreement only becomes official when a consensus is reached. That might mean rewording or revisiting the agreement at another family meeting. Before adjourning review any existing agreements. 
  • When an agreement is broken, remind each other “we all agreed that…”
  • Hang your manifesto with pride! Refer to it often and change as your family’s need change.
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