The fall 2007 saw the opening of the new Forest School in South Gillies, Ontario. The dream of a place where children can learn in ways that are exciting, fun, hands-on and inspiring is what gave rise to the Forest School. This dream is of an environment where children feel valued and respected, are a part of a community that supports their uniqueness, that is gentle and kind, that feeds their curiosity and love of learning, and that helps develop their self confidence and self reliance and so— with much support, potlucks, ideas and the helping hands of many --THE FOREST SCHOOL.
The Forest School is an alternative learning centre that believes learning can be a wondrous adventure, and that people learn best by doing. The programs offered are hands-on, and experiential in nature. They combine freedom with form and take place both indoors and outdoors. The Forest School facilitates learning opportunities that suit the developmental age of the students-- valuing play, exploration, creative expression and naturally including things like numeracy and literacy. The classes are mixed age and small in size. There is no testing or grading.
The Forest School curriculm is loosely based on Waldof Philosophy. It is largely directed by the children's interests and what is going on in their lives and that of the natural environment. It is grounded in a desire to nurture peaceful, creative, intelligent people with an ethic of environmentaly and social responsibility.
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The Students of the Forest School are many things - creative and imaginative, caring and compassionate, independent, willful, intelligent and inspiring. Each brings with them a unique view of the world. All are searching to learn, to be heard and understood, and to define their place in the natural order of things.
The Families of the Forest School are an eclectic collection of people who are looking for learning alternatives. Many are home schooling families, and some are attending the Forest School as a means of augmenting their children’s public school experiences.
The Staff of the Forest School share a love of children, a passion for their work and a faith in human potential. The staff comes with varied educational backgrounds and life experiences. They guide and support learners in exploring their interests; initiate interesting quests and invite students to come along, and arrange opportunities for play, discovery, adventure and “do-ing”.
The Facilitators of The Forest School are community members, parents, professionals, experienced educators and each other. The school values the knowledge and experiences of everyone.
The Forest School is located at 413 Palisades Road, South Gillies. The indoor space is full of light and air, is roomy and comfy and has an earthy and magical feel to it. The outdoor space is 130 acres with a pond, a field and forest all around. There is plenty of room for exploring, climbing, crawling, smelling, getting dirty … Although the forest is full of natural beauty and magical spots, we have dreams of debris huts, tree houses and other wonderful meeting places.
A Day In The Life…
If you were to take a casual glance at a Forest School day, you might wonder- what do children actually learn there? The question is understandable. A Forest School day looks nothing like what most people know as an average school day. The learning that takes place rarely happens in a formal fashion, with workbooks or a chalkboard, and definitely not with desks. Yet without all of these things, we learn.
Our mornings start outside with children playing on the clay hill, building forts, playing games, practicing primitive skills, hauling in firewood, etc. Learnings abound: communication skills develop as someone jumps on the invisible walls of a snow kingdom; problem-solving skills come into play when they discuss the issue of the invisibility of those walls; and conflict resolution skills, as they determine the size of that kingdom. Compassion develops as the littlest of the group tries to pull themselves up the clay hill, and problem-solving helps the knots on the pulling rope get adjusted to accommodate those little people. The democratic process is explored as they debate over the length of term the Mayor should hold office and how many times they can run for re-election.
The importance of heat for survival, the value of wood and trees, what materials burn well and clean and hot, all are learned as kids practice their firebuilding skills and help with the school chore of filling the wood box. The feeding of the birds in winter teaches us about migration, social hierarchies, survival, adaptations, flight, etc.
Time in our individual Sit Spots helps us gain appreciation and connections with the natural world. It allows us the chance to sit in silence, with this incredible person (self) and to feel peace.
All this learning happens while we are “playing” outside. Some of it comes through the questions and guidance of the facilitators; much of it comes through direct experience with the natural world and the successes and failures of interactions with the other group members.
Circle is our most formal setting for learning. (The rest is mingled throughout the day.) We gather to explore the theme of the term, which comes out of interests and passions of the group, what is happening within The Forest School community or the global community, and what is happening within the natural world. Themes have included such topics as food around the world, Lake Superior, puppetry, survival skills, pioneers, crime and justice, circus arts, magical creatures, peace and much, much more. Explorations may involve experiments, stories, skits, ceremonies, games, presentations, projects etc. They are interactive and hands-on.
One method we use for determining our theme with our younger folks is a “wonderings circle”, where the group lies in a pinwheel with all heads in the middle. We go around the circle and share what we wonder about -- how many children are there on the planet? How hot is it inside a dragon’s mouth? Why can’t there be enough Lego for all children to have as much as they want? So many incredible questions. We take a wondering and run with it. For example, "Why can’t there be enough Lego in the world for everyone to have as much as he or she wants?" What a question. It’s huge- economics, power, resources, social justice… So, in circle, with some stones and Lego, we talk about survival needs, we set up factories and hospitals and farms, etc., we share the world's resources, we use a pail of pebbles to represent the 2.2 billion kids in the world, and we see what we can figure out…
Each afternoon we head out to see what we can discover. It might be we find the most amazing mushrooms and decide that together we are going to create a Forest School mushroom book. We take the cameras and figure out how to take good pictures. We use the identification books to determine which mushrooms we have and what we know about them. We write poems about certain mushrooms and stories about a favourite. One of the older kids comes up with mushroom legends for the area. In the end, together, we have created an amazing book.
Or maybe, we follow the stream through the forest. We see what kinds of things we can make boats out of. What is important for a boat to float? What happens when we divert the water or create dams? What critters live in the water and how do they survive? Or we become chickadees, searching for the food we need to survive winter, finding the perfect place to roost with our flock, determining our pecking order, preening ourselves with our special oils to keep us dry on the cold wet days. The possibilities are fun, exciting and endless.
Our creative time, council meetings, community building days, service projects-- all reflect the same way of learning. We explore and discover, touch, smell, try, wonder, try again, question, argue, get the books out, play, get dirty-- and through all of this we learn. Not in a way that fits with a textbook, but in a way that fits with the kids.
And when I get asked, "How does a school like yours prepare kids for the workplace, where they must do what they're told and work within a certain system?" I tell them, a school like ours isn't focused on making kids fit into a system. We are about helping develop kids who are resourceful, courageous, open-minded, passionate and empathetic. Kids who will challenge what is for the betterment of all, and who will make conscious choices of who they are to become and what kind of world they want to live in.
Finding your Way
The forest schol is approximately 45 minutes from Thunder Bay.
Take Hwy #61 to Hwy #608 South Gillies. turn right onto Hwy #608
and continue to the end. Turn left on Hwy #595 (you are at
South Gillies), and then take your first right onto Pallisades Road.
The Forest School is at fire number 413 (approximately 4km down
Palisades). The driveway is 3/4 km long. Keep on the left road and
you will find yourself at the Forest School.