Learning and Development in the Forest: Inspiration from Reggio Emilia

As a Reggio-inspired and Forest School-influenced educator of adults, I am finding the connections between these two great traditions to be inspiring to my practice.  Reflecting on the connections has deepened my understanding of theory as it relates to practice.

All_of_this_is_a_forest_Malaguzzi-JPG-30_SMALL.jpgWhen Malaguzzi wrote about the forest in this quote from 1994, the forest was a metaphor for teaching and learning. Metaphors are an excellent way to reflect on practice and Reggio educators and children use them often.  A very traditional metaphor for teaching in the early years is to visualize a garden. This is what Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) did in his influential writings on education. The metaphor is that the teacher is like a gardener and education should follow the order of nature. 

But what is the true type of education? It is like the art of the gardener under whose care a thousand trees blossom and grow. He contributes nothing to their actual growth; the principle of growth lies in the trees themselves ~ Pestalozzi

While the garden metaphor was also used by Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), the founder of kindergarten, it is still one that resonates today, especially with the rise of edible landscaping and gardening with children. The York Region Nature Collaborative is thrilled to offer an educators workshop in the fall to support gardening with children. I look forward to learning more about permaculture practices and how they relate to early childhood education, but in the past 12 months it has been the forest that has been calling me.

I have had many opportunities to spend time in the forest with children, educators and families. For me the forest, as Malaguzzi describes, is “beautiful, fascinating, green and full of hope”. One year ago today, I spent five days in the forest with Forest School Canada taking part in the Forest School Practitioner’s course and in June 2015, the same practitioner’s course is coming to York Region at beautiful Lake St. George in Richmond Hill. The York Region Nature Collaborative is proud to have sponsored the partnership between Forest School Canada and Toronto and Region Conservation, and we look forward to working closely with many new forest school practitioners. As soon as registration opened up, it only took a few days for the course to fill. Having taken the course, I can tell you it is intense and transformative and I highly recommend it to any educator wanting to infuse learning in and with nature into their practice.  However, the York Region Nature Collaborative is here to tell you that you don’t have to wait for another course to open up to begin to experience the joys and wonders of learning in and with nature. You don’t have to have access to a forest either. What you do need to do is take the learning outside, beyond the fence, so children can experience the natural world and all it has to offer.


With inspiration from Reggio Emilia, there are many reasons to bring together the approach with forest school practices.  The belief in children’s capacity to be intellectual theory builders as they discover the wonders of nature, along with a teacher’s role as researcher and learner within a play-based, rich and natural environment, are elements of the Reggio Emilia approach to pedagogy that can provide a foundation for practice to those forest school-influenced. The Reggio Emilia approach supports an emergent curriculum that is child-initiated and teacher-framed. It is a negotiated curriculum (Forman & Fyre, 1998). With Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and the concept of more knowledgeable other (Kashin, 2009) a Reggio-inspired educator can use the outdoor environment to build children’s capacity and enhance their learning in ways that can be documented and made visible. 



The York Region Nature Collaborative is pleased to offer a five-day experience for educators learning in and with nature at the beautiful Swan Lake Centre in Richmond Hill, that is both Reggio-inspired and Forest School-influenced.  Educators will have an opportunity to observe and document a forest school program, as well as participate in a documentation studio and experience an indoor Reggio-inspired environment. Yet, we suspect it will be the forest that beckons for all it has to offer in learning with and in nature.

When I am in the forest, I find great joy in messing about with the abundance of loose parts that are naturally there.  In our summer session, we will also be introducing the philosophy of Frances and David Hawkins.  I see them as a point of entry for my journey of teaching and learning in the forest. I was first introduced to Hawkins while reading Edwards, Forman and Gandini’s seminal work “The Hundred Languages of Children” (1998). David Hawkins, who along with his wife Frances, were “committed to the idea that in order to best serve children, teachers need to be dedicated learners as well" (Lynch, Shaffer, & Hall, 2009, p. 54). Teachers, like children, need to mess about to learn.  By messing about in the forest, we can learn the value of inquiries emerging from nature.


David Hawkins was a famous scientist who devoted much of his life to helping adults see the value in messing about. His partner in life, Frances, was a kindergarten teacher. In the words of David Hawkins …

There is a time, much greater in amount than commonly allowed, which should be devoted to free and unguided exploratory work (call it play if you wish, I call it work). Children are given materials and equipment – things - and are allowed to construct, test, probe, and experiment without superimposed questions or instructions (Hawkins, 2002. p. 68).

There is so much to play with in the forest.  So many interesting and intriguing things! These materials from leaves, to sticks, twigs, rocks and logs encourage messing about. This will be an opportunity to use existing resources as a starting point for learning experiences. By adding other materials such as ropes, baskets (for collecting) and clay, the possibilities expand. This is where we will begin in the forest during our five-day professional learning experience. David Hawkins had a big idea which he termed Eolithism, which is engaging existing resources and interests as the starting point for learning experiences.  We will start by messing about in the forest! Messing about as an adult to understand the properties and potential of the learning environment is something we are able to do in nature. As adults in the forest, we will first observe closely and inquire. We will play together. During the process, the interests that will emerge will lead the direction of the focus for further experiences in the forest over the course of the five days. This is how we will begin. 


On April 25th, the York Region Nature Collaborative had the honour of hosting a workshop by a team of educators from Emmanual Brighton Child Care in Waterloo, lead by Kelly Birch-Baker, whom I first met in the forest during the practitioner’s course last May. This workshop on integrating forest school practices into licensed child care programs was sold out in a matter of weeks. It was inspirational and we hope to offer it again in the fall.  I could see the opportunities that the forest provides for learning. I could see while there are many possibilities for learning in the forest, there are different philosophies, approaches, models and ideas. As with the Reggio Emilia approach, which sees itself not as a model to be duplicated but as a philosophy to inspire, I find it helpful to think of the forest school movement in the same way. There is not one right way to bring outdoor learning to your practice. Do what is right for your context and where you are on your journey. 


The forest school movement is not new and it is not a flash in the pan. It will continue to grow in Canada and around the world. It will inspire and influence. It also comes with opportunities for rich discourse about ideas that have long been discussed in early childhood education. “Child directed”,  “teacher directed”, “unstructured play” and “structured play”, to name a few. I believe that we have to avoid dividing these terms using “versus” and I invite educators to find a balance in their practice however, I do lean towards unstructured play that is child-directed because of the many developmental and learning benefits.

The value of free outdoor play for child development and learning is widely accepted, not least because the outdoor environment provides unique opportunities for children to relive their experiences through movement and learn about the natural world. Natural play, free choice activity, and other experiences in the natural environment such as growing plants, making dens, and dam building on streams provide opportunities or children to act independently in the environment, modify it and develop understandings, skills and values (Barrett, Barret-Hacking & Black, 2014, p. 226).

 Please join the York Region Nature Collaborative as we learn together in the forest


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