Monday, 23 February 2015

A Reflection on Materials in Place and Time:
The Secret Life of Rocks

Forest School is a magical place where children are given time and space to play and imagine, where the learning is child-led and the will of the child is honoured.  The model for learning consists of repeated emersion in a woodland setting where the use of tools and learned skills foster autonomy.  The learning model is in no way linear and ever element of the learning process that takes place in a Forest School setting unfolds overtime, transcending seasons in an environment that is convivial, reciprocal, and filled with free-play and discovery.  

Fostering a participatory culture of learning where ideas are easily manifested, shared, and allowed to develop is an integral element present in Forest School ethos.  It has been said that three elements are necessary for a participatory culture to emerge, those being:  a low floor, a high ceiling, and wide walls.  The learning environment (the materials) must be easily accessible, there should be lots of room for growth where one idea is added on to another in order to allow for development, and you must be open to diversity of expression and diverse pathways to learning.  Well, Forest School has neither floors, ceilings, or walls but contain all of these essential criteria.  Dare I say, the sky's the limit in a Forest School setting?!!  

Materials in Place and Time

Diana Fedora Tucci
This face rock was found by the children and they used it as a place marker for a woodland hopscotch game.

The child's connection to the land deepens over time as they immerse themselves upon repeated visits to lush forest settings.  The materials that appear before the child are endless and the possibilities for learning lie beyond the boundaries of any predetermined curriculum as the child's imagination and will to learn is boundless.  This giraffe rock, named so because of it's distinctive markings, became this child's pet rock and spent the day with her at Forest School each and every day.  At the end of each day she would find a special spot on the forest floor for her rock to stay and wait for her the very next morning.
Diana Fedora Tucci
"This is my giraffe rock.  It's my pet." age 3
Playing With Patterns
The patterns on this rock inspired the children to use a type of typography whereby they began classifying different rocks in their collections into grouping of the striated ones, the speckled ones, and so forth noticing the different patterns that mineral deposits form on rocks at they are formed.  This method of reading the world through symbols expanded into imaginative play sessions using rocks, and many wonders and hunches about how rocks are formed, how they get their distinctive patterns, and especially how different patterned rocks end up side by side on the land.  They found baby rocks, mommy rocks, and big daddy rock, eventually calling them pebbles, rocks, and boulders. They chatted about which rocks were still babies and which ones still need to grow, which ones had cracks in them, which ones broke and why.  Many stories were spun and they became the subject of their creative play which was amazing to witness how this material in the context of the land imbued meaning to the child the then permeated their imagination during playtime.

Playing with Cracks in Rocks
The children's interest in rocks developed even further when they found a rock almost split in two and deduced that one rock can form into two rocks.  We chatted about how water can get into the tiny fissures and then freeze and expand in the wintertime essentially splitting the rock eventually into two.  This rock became their fissure 'mascot' rock as they connected to it because it had a distinctive "mouth" crack on it.  The children referred to it as the faceless face rock.  The children became increasingly confident in their exploration of this material in the context of the land as they noticed ever crack in every rock and the fissures about to break a rock in two.  Pirates slid down broken rock faces, ship mates jumped over splitting cracks and even warned each other of potential danger of stepping on rock surfaces that were just about to snap off.  Every crack and fissure spoke to the child. Big or little, they noticed them, jumped over them, ran their fingers along them, and even lay patterned rocks over their length (as seen below).
Diana Fedora Tucci
The Faceless Face Rock
patterned rocks on rock cracks

Expanded Learning
As time went by the children began finding different markings on a variety of other natural materials such as tree bark, leaves, stems, plant material, feathers, snail shells and so forth..... These materials were never presented to the children, they were never part of a lesson, nor did I coax the conversation out of them at any point.  These observations were made by the children of their own free will on hikes into nature and during play.  The children shared hunches and spun stories about how the marking got there.

The Story Inherent in the Material:  Every Mark Tells A Story
My role as a Forest School Practitioner came into play when I provided this group of children with a story.  I often tell this one.  I ask the children to compare the surface of their own skin to the surface of the rocks, tree bark, snail shell, leaf and so forth.  Locate a marking such as a scrape and share the story of how that marking got there.  I had a small burn mark on my arm that I got when I reached into a hot oven to remove the pizza tray.  I fell off my bike and scraped my leg.  Relating the idea of markings to the child's own life drew a fine line of connectedness between what they saw on the materials in the natural surrounding of place and then personalized it by reflecting on themselves.  

Searching For Story:  The Secret Life of Rocks

Me: "What is this you are doing?"
Children:  "It's our smushing station."  (smushing not smashing)
Me:  "What happens at the smushing station?"
Children: "The rocks line up and then we smush them."
Me: "Why?"
Children:  "We want to see what's in their guts."
Materials inherently carry meaning.  The children smush the rocks and then talk about markings found within, the story within the rock. 

It has been said that the true test of whether someone has learned something occurs when they take the knowledge given to them and use it in a new way.  In this sense, moving away from a copy and paste learning mode to embodying knowledge and using it to formulate and draw new conclusions.  The knowledge that is gained exists within the materials in the context of place and time.  Here the children are making meaning from direct experiences in a playful and tinkering sort of way.  But, this is by no means a mindless or trivial act as it demonstrates creative thinking at its best.  I'm currently reading, Distributed Creativity:  Thinking Outside the Box of the Creative Individual.  The premise of this book deals with the creative actions of many distributed between people, objects, and place and how the outcome of that collaboration is greater than the sum of the creative individual.  In their collaboration, through the free exchange of ideas and inspirations they become active participants in forging new paths to learning, paths that interest them greatly.  When they contribute their thoughts and ideas they shift from being passive consumers of information (being given information, memorizing it, regurgitating it as a measure of intelligence), to active participants who see that their thoughts and ideas affect change on the world, be it only in a small ways.  Through each tiny step real, independent, forward thinking begins to emerge.  Children make a shift from being the AUDIENCE to becoming CREATORS in their own learning process.  They move from someone who follows instructions and fulfills expectations to someone who has gained a new lens on how to think creatively.  The child' relationship with their environment then changes dramatically.

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