Letting the child lead in Forest School

By Coach Shimin

Parents familiar with Forest School style would know that we let the children ‘lead the way’ in sessions. This includes deciding on where to go as a group consensus, letting them question things without giving outright answers, resolving their own arguments, finding their own group dynamics, initiating their own activities within the space, and more.

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As coaches or adults in the sessions, we try our best to facilitate without being overly ‘teacherly’ – meaning no top-down instructions or ‘telling’, instead letting them try things out, figure things out on their own as far as possible. This evidently helps them to be more independent, self-learning, self-fulfilling in seeking out their own interests and activities, and honing their senses and awareness of themselves, others and their environment. While this may sound rather ambitious and abstract, it really is how we wish for our children to develop themselves solidly at a young age, so that they may become confident, self-reflective and compassionate human beings in all aspects of life as they grow up.

As adults who are usually too used to ‘telling’ or ‘instructing’ or hand-holding children, we have a lot to unlearn and relearn, which is very demanding when we already have ingrained structures and perceptions firmly lodged in us over the years. So we have to learn through experience and much restrain to hold back, trust our children, and let them lead the way, so that we may see the world through their eyes, and experience it without our usual baggage.

So let’s give some examples.

When deciding on where to go, everyone but one child agrees on a place. That child is obstinate and against it for some reason, and the other kids obviously don’t know why and become frustrated at him and also because they can’t move off. Coaches refrain from confronting that one child, and instead encourage the others to talk to him to understand what’s going on. If the situation drags on, some kids may start to compromise and change venue, and even all others do so until they all agree on another venue. Not everyone is happy about it, and it took a long while. But they realised the difficulties in compromising, and gained maturity in being able to do so.

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When a child says he’s bored, coaches just listen to what he has to say. Coaches do not initiate activity suggestions or tell him what to do, but probe him to explore his own feelings and motivations. Sometimes it’s a phase, and he’s happily playing catching with the others after a while. Sometimes he’s just too hot or tired from lack of sleep. Sometimes he really doesn’t know what to do with himself, so the boredom is a good opportunity to figure it out for himself.

When younger or new children have to navigate more challenging terrain or climb rocks, etc, coaches adopt safety positions – usually to make sure the child does not fall backwards or hit his head. Coaches allow the children to find their own way to make it through the terrain, as they have different physical abilities. If coaches were to start to hold their hands or carry them through, the kids will become reliant on adult help and not know his/her own physical abilities or limitations. This could pose an even greater danger when they proceed further on their own, as they don’t know what they are capable of or not.

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Two children get angry at each other and start to argue and show signs of aggression. If it’s a regular group, some of the other kids will step in to understand what’s going on, and to mediate the situation, voicing their opinions honestly, even if it doesn’t sound nice. If one of the kids starts being too aggressive, only then the coaches step in for safety reasons. If one of them runs away to avoid confrontation, we bring the kids back together to voice out their feelings and reveal their emotions. This helps them to better relate to one another through seeing the expressions on the face. Coaches don’t ask them to say ‘sorry’ nor tell them what to do.

In circle time at the end where we debrief the session with the kids, we ask them to share what they like and not like about today. They are honest, even naming another kid if they didn’t like something that he/she did. Coaches do not make judgements or add in our own opinions to these sharings. Coaches only share our own honest feelings in the same manner.

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We could go on and on – there are countless examples. And it happens in every single Forest School session. When the children come week after week, over a year or more, that is how they gradually build up a kind of maturity and resilience that is hard to find in most children these days. It’s not that coaches or adults are shirking their responsibilities. It’s more that we enable our children to empower themselves and know that they have control over themselves and their situations. This involves having a lot of Trust in children, for adults to be able to Let Go, and letting kids Make Their Own Mistakes. Not easy at all.

I have always felt so lucky to be able to teach children in different ways over the years. Be it in a classroom setting, as part of an enrichment lesson, through some physical activity, and the holistic nature of Forest School. As I gradually open up bit by bit, I start to see the world more and more through the eyes of the children. How open it is, how instinctive and intuitive it is, and how much more carefree and joyful it really can be. Perhaps it’s really the children who are the coaches in Forest School.

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