Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Emergent Learning, Heuristic Play, and Schemas 

 Leveraging the Natural Environment to Support Children's Interests

By: Diana Fedora Tucci. Forest School Practitioner, Founder TFNS.  Ritual Greetings:  The act of walking into the forest with children at greeting time is processional in nature.  By walking  alongside or in close proximity to one another and chatting as we go along we become increasingly aware of each other's presence through our movements in steps and breath and pace.  Every step makes us ever more present in place and a sort of rhythmic walking begins to take shape as our adaptive sensibilities align themselves parallel to our surroundings.  Our forest adventures do not begin because we say, "Go!" instead, we wait for the moment when nature welcomes us into its home.  On this day, a striking Ebony Jeweling Damselfly fluttered across our path and then from leaf to leaf to leaf seemingly toying with the idea of landing on one of our outstretched finger tips.  A playful welcome and a truly magical sighting, indeed!

Morning Rituals:  Editing time through the rhythm of rituals

Photo credit to the Flickr link above

A Bit on Emergent Learning and the idea of Order, and Chaos

In 2010 Sugata Mitra gave a  TED talk on Child-Driven Education.  Although his system of learning, which he calls The School in the Cloud, consists primarily of children gaining information via searches on the web by way of computers what resonates with me are his ideas around the changing role of the teacher. More over, he describes these child-driven learning environments as emergent where order emerges from chaos.  I came across this idea once again while reading Alexandra Horowitz's book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.  In her book Horowitz describes emergent behaviour by looking at it through the lens of the awe-inspiring starling murmurations.  She asks the questions how do these murmurations begin, who cues them to start, is there a leader in the group, how do the starlings fly in such a large group without colliding, how do they adapt and synchronize their movements, and why do these murmurations occur in the first place?  Are they a form of predator evasion, are they communicating something, or are these murmurations purposeless?  She proposes that this behaviour may occur for the sheer sake of play.  Take a moment to watch this starling murmuration.

In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown states, "I have long resisted giving an absolute definition of play because it is so varied."  (p.15)  As I delve deeper into Forest school ethos I often find myself in a state of flux between what my fixed ideas are around what play should look like in a Forest School setting and what actually manifests itself as play in the present moment.  I place myself on a transitional edge when I allow play to rest as it exists.  By doing so, I open myself up to a new type of freedom that allows me to see play as a fluid state that is shaped, evolves, and emerges through the relation of the child in accordance to his environment.
In his book, Stuart Brown outlines the properties of play as:

Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
Inherent attraction
Freedom from time
Diminished consciousness of self
Improvisational potential
Continuation desire    (p. 17)

Emergent Learning: What, So What, Now What

Heuristic Play: Exploring the Layers of a Tree
Exploring the properties of materials through the loose parts (and not-so-loose parts) of the natural environment.

The Layers of a Tree
Child notices beautiful wavy patterns on inner tree bark
Child notices lichen smattered bark on fallen tree

Milestone:  Child peels bark with knife 

 Child peels bark for new use as a building material
Child finds ant colony under peeled bark

 Expanded interest in cracking sound of peeling
Completed 'small world' creature habitat 
Child notices mallet is contains bark on it

So What: 
Mallet Making Session:  Scaffolding the child's urge to transform materials
The child explores the physical as well as the living properties of objects in the environment, namely tree bark.  Encounters and milestones evolve into playful creative play interactions which further evolve into a small worlds building project. The child observes original forms of materials and beings a process of mutation, and modification, peeling, repurposing, breaking, cutting, slicing...

-trees and tree bark in particular in it's living and decaying states
-discovers that tree bark consists of layers
-the patterns on the phloem layer
-the cracking sound it makes when peeling it
-the creatures that live within it's layers
-the lichen that grows on it (food for the child's snail)
-bark as a material for building
-the child then notices that his building tool (the mallet he is using) is made from a tree and that the mallet head includes bark on it
-the child starts peeling the bark on the mallet and finally asks if he can make a mallet of his own on our next Forest School session

Supporting a 'YES' environment my answer is: Yes!

Now What:
A Continuance of Learning:  Supporting a Transformational Schema
smashing, pulverizing, chiselling 
The child continues to play and encounter the environment outside of our Forest School sessions.  He finds to rocks and begins pulverizing them by smashing one against the other.  He wonders which one is being pulverized?  He brings the rocks and the pulverized material to Forest School on our next session and uses a chisel and brush to further investigate and experiment.


The Reggio Children book Children, Art, Artists: The Expressive Languages of Children, the Artistic Language of Alberto Burri

Let's see where the child takes this and how the learning evolves...



  1. Good luck with the outdoor classroom concept. Engaged students will learn better and be more interested in the subject matter.

    1. Thank you! Experiential learning is wonderful way to learn and our surroundings are a wonder to be in. We are awe struck every time!

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