Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Why We Need a Forest School in KW

When I think back on the people and places that have been my guiding stars in life, few constellations shine brighter in my memory than summer camp. It's remarkable, the kind of influence that one week out of fifty-two can have on a young person, but what made camp indelible was that we, the campers, took it with us into the rest of the year. My sister and cousins and I would re-tell the counsellors' jokes and re-enact their skits to our endless amusement (and likely our parents' mystified bemusement). We would sing camp songs, again and again. And we began to have a sense that the skills we were being introduced to at camp- canoeing, backpacking, taking pleasure in living roughly and simply- could empower us to change ourselves and our reality outside of camp.

Fast forward a decade or so, and my dream of one day being one of those custodians of cool, a camp counsellor, had become reality, as had all the unmentioned, more properly 'custodial' aspects of the job. (These too had important lessons to teach). Prior to my fifth summer on staff as a nature educator, canoe trip leader, and in-cabin counsellor, a group of parents approached me and a co-worker about their idea for a camp-like outdoor skills program in our city, Kitchener-Waterloo. At our camp the fifth summer is generally a time when staff who have stuck around that long say 'adios' and paddle into the sunset to start other ventures. Perhaps because I was dreading saying goodbye to the life I'd so fervently idealized, perhaps because it sounded like an idea crazy enough to work, I said yes to a three-month pilot program.

That was two years ago. In the intervening time I've had the chance to reflect on the experience in the context of my farewell to camp and my escape from the halls of higher learning. I've had opportunities to seek out training and mentorship that gets me excited about passing on what's been given to me. I've had time to think about the world and my place in it, and I've discovered that being outdoors with kids is where my deepest passion meets the world's deepest need, as a mentor of mine put it. And so, in large part thanks to that initial group of parents, I'm going for it, and I’m extremely pleased to be partnering with Sarah Penner to make KW Forest School a reality this fall.

First off, the need as I see it: something like half of all kids in North America live in cities, where wild spaces are the exception rather than the default. I was lucky to be able to go up to camp once a year and to roam with my dog in the wooded ravine next to our subdivision during the school year. In a city environment, where almost everything a child touches has been designed, marketed, industrially produced, and purchased (yes, even the trees), it's a profound gift for a child to encounter wildness, and the raw, unmoulded materials that fuel creativity.

It's also a bit of a paradox for us to be designing and marketing a service that will deliver those experiences, but for this I'll gladly beg your pardon, because as I see it the other piece of the puzzle is passion. I simply love being in the woods, and my experiences at camp taught me how humbling and awe-inspiring it can be to open a door for a child onto a world they'd never dreamed of before. All the better if that world happens to be their own backyard.

That's part of the point of founding a Forest School in KW. As magical as it can be to go away to camp or even a nearby nature reserve for a little while, our goal with KWFS is to unlock the magic in the places we already inhabit. Nature is everywhere, and she is always teaching. Thus there are no paid teachers at our school; our staff are known as Field Leaders because their main tasks are to keep everyone safe and to make the initial introductions: kid, forest, forest, kid- now go have fun. Oh, and we might have a few magic tricks up our sleeves as well.

Meeting in the park after school once a week with a group of eight kids might not seem like a way to change the world, but is there a larger, subversive purpose behind an inside-out school? Certainly. In a sense, the children in our program will all be visiting scholars, collaborating with us on research into the limits to industrially-produced satisfaction and the possibilities for convivial regeneration. This research will mostly involve playing with sticks, stones, leaves, and snowballs. It may lead to unexpected results; we will keep you, our stakeholders, informed through our monthly potluck 'seminars', when families of Forest School participants will be invited to picnic with us in the park and see what we've been up to. Can you picture it now? If so, you're halfway there- we'll see you in the woods.

This post has been cross-posted to KW Forest School's blog. Check it out!

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