Play is the highest form of research – Albert Einstein

PLAY is how we learn. Schools seem to have forgotten this human fact and reduced all learning down to worksheets which can be downloaded from Twinkle (if Primary) and facts which can be read and regurgitated for fortnightly tests (Secondary). So let us engage in a dialogue about the value of play, in all it’s wonderous forms.

  • Imaginative play

Imaginative play allows children to explore the impossible, be creative and think in an unrestrictive way. “Bruner, 1972 stated that play had a major role of rehearsing, where the child rehearses actions pertaining to real life situations in a safe, risk-free environment, where the child is preparing himself/herself to face the difficult situation in a less stressful way.”

Doing this in the natural environment provides so much stimulation for the imagination.

Very often in Rachel’s sessions with the Steiner school, she collects a “story stick” on the way from collecting them from their drop off point and bringing them to the fire circle. The stick is always an interesting shape. We pass it round the circle saying out name and then telling the others what we think it looks like or what we re-imagine it to be. Rachel then often weaves this into the story she tell while they eat.

  • Social play (friendship and belonging, cooperative play)

Sadly, I think, children have very little time in their normal day the experience unguided social play. School is structured and the emphasis is on individual attainment. How can one assign a number to each child if two of them have produced the work? Shock horror! For me, when they reach me at secondary school, their entire social interaction can be all online. I would walk around in the year 7 block last year at break, and every single on was either on an i-pad or their phone. There was no conversation, laughing, touching, clapping, eye contact.

I whole heartedly believe this is the sole reason for the mental health crisis we now find ourselves in and while I see a practical place for technology and digital media, I think that it can never be a replacement for making real and physical connections to those around us. Feeling a sense of “Belonging” is crucial.

At Forest school, away from screens, and often with no phone signal, you are undistracted. You are looking people in the eyes and communicating in both verbal and non-verbal ways. Learning to cooperate and to compromise is an essential life skill, one which can be overlooked in a school context. It is often “resolved” by the adult, but in forest school, the learners have to develop those skills without adult intervention.

  • Rough and tumble play

In my house, I often find myself saying “If you are going to play rough and tumble, someone is going to end up crying.” I don’t stop them playing rough and tumble, but just point out that this is the parent of events. One of my sons have autism and one of the overarching themes with Autism spectrum condition is that they often have a low Proprioception ability. This means; perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body. He can hit harder than he means to, be extra clumsy and fall off and hurt himself more.

One of my favourite philosophies of forest school is about it being experiential learning. My son is not going to get better Proprioception, by sitting still in a chair. He is going to get better by falling, rolling, crying, trying again, and gradually improving. He needs more rough and tumble for his brain to actually make better neuro connections. And this all links to growth mindset. One does not get better at maths by never doing maths again. 

Celebratory & ritual play

A group of people standing next to a tree

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A strong belief of mine is that celebrations should bring people together. I personally embrace everything: Christmas, birthdays, Eid, Diwali, Chinese new year etc. I believe that historically they came about for probably  a practical reason. Winter is bleak. Christmas gives us hope and a chance to connect with our loved ones. Diwali, the festival of light, reminds us the even in the dark days and nights, we can come together to share good food and remember our ancestors.

Forest school is a lovely way to embrace all cultures, traditions and religions. One needs to have a conscious understanding of the beliefs of the families who participate, and so a degree of knowledge is required.

At my Autism class SENsory Forest school, we ensured that our one Muslim family felt included and that I would check if activities I had planed were in accordance with Halal law.

  • Storytelling and narrative play

Stories are the threads that bind us. “Storytelling is what connects us to our humanity. It is what links us to our past, and provides a glimpse into our future. Since humans first walked the earth, they have told stories, before even the written word or oral language.” Jon Ferreira, Director, Actor, Educator.  May 17 2015 ·

What has never ceased to amaze me with the Stenier kids, and some have some significant ADD or ADHD traits, even in the woods, is that when Rachel is telling a story, they are all listening intensely. When she then finishes, and begins to explain the session and options, two or three are chatting. I think that we really underestimate the power of story. It is in our soul.

  • Creative play

This is my area of expertise. Having taught design and technology, I feel that I can speak from my own experience of the value of this kind of play. When you create, design, problem solve or make something, a child’s sense of self worth increases incredibly. For many of the children who come to me through conventional education or through forest school work, this is the only time they feel free from the bindings of assessment and attainment. They have accomplished something, it is real and it is in their hands and no one can take that away from them. They have an immense sense of pride and are desperate to show their parents.

 This has been my way to have self-worth as a teacher, but now in my new world of forest school, it encompasses all that we do.

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