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FOREST THEATRE: A Lesson in Letting Kids Self-Direct

About the Author

Emily believes that exploration is what life is about. Whether with words, materials, actions, physical or ideological journeys, exploration and the sharing of our discoveries are what lead to growth. She has been leading art, wilderness and foraging programs for over twenty years, while also developing her career as a visual and literary artist. At her home on Bowen Island, she unschools with her two children, runs the Wild Art program, and makes creative attempts at self-sufficiency in her garden. She delights in creating space for open-ended creativity, natural and human connection.

The photo above is a shot of planning and rehearsal time, spread out among the ferns, in the shade of the maple, cedar and alder that shelter the enchanted forest.
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Children in planning and rehearsal time, spread out among the ferns, in the shade of the maple, cedar and alder that shelter the enchanted forest.

Editor’s Note: The term “unschooling” was coined in the 1970s, promoted by educator John Holt.  “Lately, the term ‘unschooling’ has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum,” according to unschooling author Pat Farenga. So-called unschoolers represent about 10 percent of more than two million homeschooled children. Faring adds that “unschoolers may be as philosophically separate from other homeschoolers as they are from advocates of conventional schooling.” Unschooling has its critics, and it’s not for everyone. But a study by Peter Gray, a Boston College professor and author of “Free to Learn,” concluded “that it is possible to take the unschooling route and then go on to a highly satisfying adult life.” For unschoolers, as for every kind of student, nature experience can be a powerful learning tool.

As an unschooling parent and a teacher, I often meet parents who tell me that they would love to unschool their kids, or sign them up for the programs I lead. But they’re afraid their children aren’t capable of self-direction. Many believe their children won’t learn “the most important things.” I am often presented with the question, “How do the kids learn without direction?

These are all good questions. A recent Forest Theatre camp I ran gave me a chance to think more deeply about some answers. Forest Theatre camp is part of the explorative art, science and wilderness program I run on the West Coast of Canada called Wild Art. Wild Art programs can be a day, a week, a month or even a year long, and often there’s a theme for the session, which is generally broad and can be interpreted in many different directions. The program is designed to foster collaboration among participants, so that they work democratically to determine goals for their time together.

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Our Forest Theatre program can range from social games to puppetry using sticks for puppets and ferns to camouflage the puppeteers, public guerrilla art to a full dramatic production in the woods. A Wild Writing program can develop into poetry, songwriting, bookmaking, activism or even magazine publication. And all of it happens either partially or entirely in the wilderness.

The Most Important Things

So what are the most important things? That depends on who you ask. Our governments typically prescribe a set of learning outcomes for each age group, but if you move to another part of the world, that prescription is likely to change. On the other side of the country, the continent, the world, children are all learning different — but important — things. They’re learning what makes sense in the context of their own cultures and communities. And if it turns out they want to go in a different direction than what they have prepared for? Well, then they’ll prepare. And all the learning they’ve done along the way will help them in that preparation.

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During the Forest Theatre camp, we read Cree works (Thank you Tomson Highway!). Not, perhaps, the most imminently practical language for this group of kids. But important? Yes! Learning to read and make sounds in new ways not only helps with linguistic and physiological patterning, but also creates new neurological pathways. Growing our minds is what learning is. And it’s fun! The next day we read in Dutch. Not everybody was equally enthusiastic. But that’s OK. I trust the kids to know what is right for them in the moment.

One Rule

Self-directed learning means that kids determine what they do for themselves. The first thing I tell kids is that we have only one rule: You can do whatever you want, but please consider the effects of your actions and words and help maintain a space where we all feel safe and valued. I emphasize ‘please’ because that’s a very important part of the rule. That is the place where I hand over the reins. This rule is up to them; not me. I respect and value them as responsible individuals. I don’t enforce. I only suggest.

Sometimes, when things are going awry, I gently ask if everyone is feeling heard, or if everyone feels safe. Most of the time, I say nothing because the groups are small enough that the kids are quite aware of the dynamic themselves and able to mediate their actions as a matter of course.

One of the most challenging aspects of this rule is the ‘you can do whatever you want’ part. Kids who are new to this philosophy feel, at best, liberated but, at worst, terrified. It’s a big deal to be expected to think for yourself.

Those kids who feel challenged in this regard usually respond by testing my limits, throwing things, asking me a litany of questions like “so can I break this pencil?”. They might feel absolutely uncertain about what to do, even stifled by the uncertainty. But it does get better. Usually, after a day or two of participation, as those kids see the others getting creative, they begin to open up as well. My response to those limit-testing questions? Yes, of course, you can break the pencil. Sometimes we make especially great things with broken pencils. And that truly is OK.

Opting Out

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This rule means that kids can opt out of things. In the production of their Forest Theatre, some kids decided to make a program for their play. They sorted out roles and got to work. The other kids opted out and either drew independently or played in the forest. Was one of these activities more valuable than the others? Not at all! We live in a diverse society. Some of these kids chose to make programs and some to work on drama and social interaction. All of those activities are valuable.

I know many people who are afraid that their children will opt out of everything important and be left behind. But what is ‘behind’? How can we trust our own path if we don’t know how to find it?

Giving kids the responsibility of self-directing means giving them the ability to find and follow their own paths. It means giving them our trust and support as they venture into the world. They begin this journey at birth. We cannot know where it will lead them or what skills they’ll need to discover for themselves along the way.

Back to the Forest Theatre camp…the kids I worked with didn’t keep up academically because there was no expectation to keep up with. During five days they met, learned to socialize and work with new people. They explored various wilderness locations, learned about local ecosystems, history, garbage facilities, mining and silicosis, time management, budgeting, creating and printing programs, conceptualizing, creating and bringing to fruition a play, supporting others and themselves, utilizing community services, giving back to their community, meditation, religious variance, linguistics and tolerance.

Some of these kids may go on to explore specific topics more deeply and some may shift to a whole new set of unrelated but engaging experiences. But deep within them, the idea that their own journeys have value has been nourished.

Additional Resources

How do Unschoolers Turn Out? Mind/Shift, KQED News
Free to Learn, by Peter Gray
Is Unschooling for You
Unschooling in Canada
Unschooling 101
Forest Schools: Fires, Trees and Mud Pies

Additional Reading

The School of Nature: Greening Our Schools May Be the Real Cutting Edge of Education by Richard Louv
Forest Kindergartens the Cedarsong Way, by Erin Kenny
Earth in Mind, by David Orr
Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, by Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley
Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell
Problem-Solving in the Classroom: A Case Study from Georgia’s First Forest School by Jas Darland

C&NN Resources

Encouraging play in the natural environment: A child-focused case study of forest school
Dramatic play affordances of natural and manufactured outdoor settings for preschool-aged children

Photo Credits: Emily van Lidth de Jeude


Commentaries here and elsewhere on the C&NN website are offered to inform readers and to stimulate new thinking and debate. C&NN does not officially endorse every statement in every commentary.



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