Natural Pathways Forest School takes children to nature

Ennis Liu
By Ennis Liu April 22, 2018 08:15

Natural Pathways Forest School takes children to nature

By Ennis Liu

The day begins with a song to gather the children in from their first explorations.

The children meet in their “classroom” without a room — in the forest. They arrive dressed to learn: to get dirty, explore, touch, engage the senses, ask questions and find answers, assess risk and even make mistakes along the way.

“Something I feel is a lot of kids nowadays have become more disconnected from (nature), and I also feel (that way) especially in our area, which is very much agricultural-based,” said Pat Andrews, the coordinator of Natural Pathways Forest School.

A forest school provides an outdoor education, but it is not just a simple outdoor education. It is defined as “an inspiring process that provides children, adolescents and adults with regular opportunities to learn by practicing in the woodland environment.” They can achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem.

Pat Andrews founded a forest school two years ago in Essex. When she retired from teaching, she worked with special needs children. Andrews noticed much of the work she did outside was beneficial, so she studied courses that might be used to develop an outdoor education program. She discovered forest school internships through the Children and Nature Coalition of Canada. Andrews had been a public-school teacher, so she was aware of many changes in the education system.

Forest schools originated in Britain in the 1990s and has since spread around the world. They advocate taking children back to nature, based on games, and having nature as the center to help children take risks, gain new knowledge, experience surprises and enjoy freedom from the adult world.

“Children have problems sitting still in classrooms. We don’t have the same access to play as we have in the past,” said Andrews, who was fond of outdoor sports when she was a child. Her family also shared outdoor adventures. Every summer, her family spends about two months in the wilderness cabin on an island in Georgia Bay. There is no electricity, no telephone. There are only battery-operated radios and nature — cicadas, sunsets, animals and the beauty of the unknown.

She used to teach at a Montessori school in Amherstburg with a group of children who would come out to the forest. They had a six-week program at Holiday Beach, which is part of the Essex Region Conservation Authority.

She said the children loved it “and so we kind of grew from there.”

“I wanted to be a (forest school) program that was accessible, I wanted to be a non-profit organization, because I want to be able to offer it at a reasonable rate,” said Andrews.

So, she modeled hers after the Ottawa Forest School and formed a board of directors and started moving through the process to become a non-profit organization.

Nature provides us with a holy place, a place where love and miracles can be found. Nature provides children with numerous opportunities in which they can venture, acquire new knowledge, experience wonders and enjoy freedom from the adult world.

Children have unlimited curiosity and a strong desire to explore the world around them. If they can provide them with opportunities, they will actively study and develop themselves.

Children playing on one of the jungle off-road projects. (Photo courtesy: Natural Pathways Forest School)

Now, the Natural Pathways Forest School has six part-time educators working with different groups. One of them, Jocelyn Mcneely, says Pat Andrews is an incredible person. Mcneely started volunteering and working with Natural Pathways in September 2016.

“She saw that many children in Windsor area had little or no time in natural spaces and instead of ignoring it, she decided to change the opportunities for children in Windsor Essex county,” says Mcneely.

She says Andrews works tirelessly for the non-profit organization that she created to better the experiences and mental and physical health of all those she works with. Mcneely thinks Andrews is a beacon of knowledge and experience and that she gently guides all those she works with, getting dirty and playing in the forest with children.

Pat Andrews encourages families to come. It is called a forest school, but, in some ways, it is an ordinary school.

“It’s called forest school but we are not a “school,” the way the normal school you will think as a every day thing. We were a school program. Forest school is as much a place as it a pedagogy, a way of thinking a way of being with children. So our programs right now are varied.”

Forest school courses focus on Tuesday and Friday mornings. They come for three hours every Friday, and it’s a six-week program. They have a family drop-in program on Tuesday morning, that runs every Tuesday in the spring, summer and fall months.

“Right now, we are going on a hike with kids, and they explore the different nature things. And Ms. Jocelynn helps them identify different things in the nature, the animals, the trees and they are going to pick up small things on the ground to make craft cookies and bring them back to the camp,” said Sara Grondin, one of the parents, whose children participated in the family drop-in day.

They first came here three years ago.

“We really enjoy coming here and being outside with the kids,” said Grondin, referring to the all-day activities and free play they are allowed here.

Pat Andrews has found that learning outdoors is very appealing to sensitive children. She thinks the connection between nature and children is “is very much about our natural ability to be wondering and curious about nature. But we don’t get that until we spend time in it.”

She encourages parents to create their imaginations with children.

“We might look like… myself or any of the teachers going over to a mud puddle and going with a magnification class. ‘Cool! Come look and see what is in this mud puddle.’ So the invitation’s to be curious, to play and then (experience) the nature around us.”

Teacher Jocelyn Mcneely teaching children how to use a simple, hand drill. (Photo courtesy: Natural Pathways Forest School)

These concepts can play out in lots of places; it doesn’t have to happen just in forests or in parks. They can be on a front lawn, they can be in the school playground. Andrews says parents should be joining their children and playing together is also a good idea. You can also strengthen communication between children and parents, face the unknown world together and perceive everything around you.

She also emphasized there is a big difference between a forest school and normal summer camps. Camps often have a “theme,” and there’s are defined structure for every day of the week.

“Forest School has a very… has a structure but it’s not curriculum driven, so kind of hard to explain, but basically, we are following what the children’s interests are. Here, we have natural materials. We’ve got our tool kit, it’s available for the children to explore,” Andrews says.

The school provide things like fire, so they can cook. Children mix up bread dough and cook with the fire. When it’s a rainy day, it’s also a muddy day, and the school will have mud kitchen. A lot of children love to dig holes. They love to explore with materials they might use to build things.

“We go with what we are given on the day, we provide them with some materials that might spark their curiosity and we follow their interests.”

The education goal of the forest school is to train students to become independent thinkers, so they can anticipate risks and take responsibility, to make correct judgments and choices.

Mcneely’s son has been coming to forest school since he was about one and her daughter was three.

“I have noticed a shift in my daughter since bringing her to forest school. She relaxes, and her frustrations are completely gone when she has regular unstructured time in nature,” says Mcneely.

Children on outdoor adventures. They are encouraged to stop and observe things that catch their interest. (Photo courtesy: Natural Pathways Forest School)

Forest schools also provide many opportunities for young children to receive sensory education; forests are full of physical objects. Children learn about the shape, taste, and colour of these objects through direct touch, smell, and taste. Everything in the forest can become a symbol of the game’s props with the child’s imagination. These games can not only enhance the child’s social awareness, but also foster the children’s imagination.

At the same time Pat Andrews does various risk assessments. Natural Pathways Forest School has devised safety procedures. They are concerned about fires and they know there are risks in nature, but they help children know how to stay protected. Parents want their children to play, but also want safety.

Meanwhile, kids will also learn to protect nature.

Pat Andrews is confident she can make her forest school even better. She also hopes to see more educators working together to think about different ways of learning and teaching — to help students realize their full potential.



St. Clair College’s international students at the Mediaplex (most of whom do not speak English as a first language) took on the enormous task of researching and writing feature-length stories. For their final projects ─ we call them capstones ─ they explored topics that intrigued them. They all brought unique perspectives to their stories. We hope you enjoy reading their work and seeing Windsor-Essex through their eyes.


Ennis Liu
By Ennis Liu April 22, 2018 08:15

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