What Does Flow Learning in a Forest Look Like?

by | Sep 27, 2020

“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Last week, we adventured and found a new way into our home into the woods. Our learners held back prickly vines for their friends, taking care of themselves and each other.

In 2018, we developed Aishling Forest School, the first forest school enrichment program in Long Island based on the German “waldkindergarten” model and in association with the Forest School Association. Besides its commitment to 100% nature immersion, several key features such as Reggio-inspired emergent curriculum, child-driven flow learning, and an inquiry-based teaching style distinguish forest schools. We know that young learners learn best through hands-on discovery and when they are relaxed and having fun, when possible (because not everyday in nature is fun). The forest school model, based on the Forest School Association’s six principles keeps learners excited about learning by building on their own discoveries and interests and increases their connection to themselves, each other with the natural world.

Flow Learning and Emergent Curriculum

Young children’s lives today are often quite structured-not only in their home life but also at school. The forest school educational model allows learners the time to immerse in nature with no sense of rush and with no adults telling them what they must do next. The time slows as learners find their own rhythm and a sense of timelessness that is not often experienced in our frenetic world.

In many U.S. preschools and traditional schools, outdoor time and authentic play are being replaced by an intense emphasis on learning letters and numbers in a very formal, structured, and teacher-directed manner. However, current research indicates that these early academic programs may actually be detrimental to a child’s later academic success. At Aishling Forest School, we have decided to take a different approach.

When our mentors arrive at Forest School, they have no set agenda and no schedule for the learners to follow for the day. The children’s play and interests guide their education. Children have an enormous capacity for taking in and cataloging information and the more children are interested in something, the more information they can take in and retain. Our approach capitalizes on following learners’ interests as they explore. This type of curriculum is referred to as “emergent” because it is evolved directly from what is relevant, interesting, and personally meaningful to the learners.

Emergent curriculum, originally pioneered by the internationally renowned Reggio Emilia school, builds on itself as the class time unfolds. Emergent curriculum can benefit any environmental education program as it helps identify the learners’ interests, and the learning strands that evolve from this approach can easily scaffold into more learning.

In order to make the learning that occurs through emergent curriculum visible, our mentors share observations after each class and document via weekly recaps, the learners’ play, their ideas, their discoveries, and the interesting conclusions they make. (Erin Kenny, Natural Start Alliance)

Flow Learning in Action

One prime example of flow learning and emergent curriculum is our homegrown zip-line that was inspired by one learner who bravely conquered our rope bridges and wanted more. What started as a small rope zip-line no more than 4 feet in the air has now turned into a multi-person action-packed ride where learners create custom sticks to ride down.

Over just a span of 3 weeks, the learners have accomplished the following, based on their own interests:

  • Became inspired to create something new- a zip line. Decided to put their inspiration into action. Making a dream a reality through persistence and collaboration.
  • Worked together to problem solve how best to create a zip-line. They communicated with each other and their mentors to figure out the best spot, how high and long should it be? Are there hazards underneath the zip-line? How will we get up the zip-line? They asked questions, sought support and came up with solutions.
  • Next up- what will I use to get down the zip-line? A stick! But what kind? They decided a Y-shaped stick would be best. And how strong? They used the scientific method, problem-solving and math skills to figure out which sticks would hold them as they slid down the zip-line. Some failed, got up and tried again. Real deal resiliency in action.
  • We then learned that some sticks seemed like good y-shaped zip-line candidates but were way too big. What now? We decided we could use our bow saw to custom cut the stick to their specifications. Alongside their mentors steady hands, they learned how to use a bow saw to cut their own zip-line sticks. Through divergent thinking, problem solving and learning new skills, our learners were able to successfully enjoy their zip line. Which not to mention, was now more than 5 feet high and required them to climb a rope bridge, balance and then bravely zip down.
  • Over and over again, we heard learner’s say- “I’m going to do this.” “I’m going to face my fear.” “I have a fear of heights but I’m going to try.” “I’m scared my stick might break but I’m going to go, even if it’s at a lower level.”

These learners were creative, problem-solving, collaborative scientists testing their limits, learning to fail and celebrating each other’s successes in a way that was interesting to them because it was created by them and for them.

This is the type of holistic flow learning and child-driven educational philosophy that goes on at forest school. The results? A relaxing and engaging environment that makes learning more meaningful.

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