The forest is beautiful, fascinating, green, and full of hopes; there are no paths. Although it isn’t easy, we have to make our own paths, as teachers and children and families, in the forest. Sometimes we find ourselves together within the forest, sometimes we may get lost from each other, sometimes we’ll greet each other from far away across the forest; but it’s living together in this forest that is important. And this living together is not easy.
Loris Malaguzzi wrote these words in an article titled “Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins.” In the larger context of his publication, these words provided a metaphor for navigating the constantly shifting dynamics of a learning community and the sometimes unpredictable nature of working in the Reggio Way. And while it does serve as an excellent description of the work we do, our Reggio-inspired nature school has come to take it much more literally than he probably intended.
Taking children on adventures into the woods is one of the most beloved activities our program has to offer. To our students, the forest is a magical place for a myriad of reasons. It contains a wealth of living creatures, both flora and fauna, that children can experience with the full array of their senses. The woods are a place for children to let their bodies move unfettered; they are free to create their own opportunities to run, jump, climb, swing, fall, and meander as they see fit. To many students who live in suburban areas or apartment complexes, its mystery stems entirely from being a realm wholly and completely overrun by plants the likes of which many of them have never seen nor experienced in their young lives.
While each of these aspects is worthy of a blog post in and of themselves, one of the greatest and most overlooked assets the forest can provide to young learners is often what we fear most as educators: the possibility of being lost. Deep in the recesses of every teacher’s mind, especially in the minds of nature educators, there is an awareness that at any moment a child could wander outside the confines of what we deem to be a “safe place” for them. Across the country, adults and teachers expend tremendous amounts of effort and time building barriers to create these safe places, their labors including everything from erecting metal fences to installing self-locking gates to teaching the children to form neat lines.
Although it comes from a desire to insulate them from danger, the consequence of this unending drive to keep children completely safe and accounted for is that we accidentally label wandering as dangerous, and being lost as undesirable. To me, that could not be farther from the truth. What we sometimes forget is that at its core, real discovery can only happen in the presence of unfamiliarity. Outside the fence and off the trail, students have the ability to feel a sort of unbridled, primal stress that necessitates an incredibly valuable and almost completely forgotten set of social-emotional skills. Children need to be exposed to places and experiences that are uncharted, untamed, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. These spaces, not the artificially constructed safe zones, are where children blossom.
When romping in the woods with students, there is always a visible moment in which children begin to understand that they no longer know where they are. Each child articulates this moment in a different way. Some that aren’t used to exploration express it in the form of panic or tears. Those that are practiced in the art of wandering look over their shoulder at where they came from, then look up the hill at where they are going, then don a goofy grin as they romp on. This moment of realization is pivotal for both teachers and students.
To children, the moment they realize that they are lost is also the moment they understand that they have a limitless number of choices. Without a predetermined goal and a set of instructions, children can go wherever they want, a fact which is both freeing and terrifying for those who are experiencing it for the first time. In this context, students have the opportunity to defeat their own analysis paralysis, flex their executive functions, stay calm, and make a decision. Without a trail, there is no right or wrong answer. There is no playbook or code of conduct or series of rules that validates or refutes the decisions they make. At its core, the experience of being lost is valuable to children because it brings them face to face with a swirling cloud of infinite, chaotic possibilities. And it affords them the opportunity to take that cloud and transform it into a single, concrete choice using nothing more than their own agency.
From a social-emotional perspective, being lost is incredibly important to children because it creates a circumstance in which our sympathetic nervous system and our higher brain functions come in direct conflict with one another. When they feel lost, children simultaneously feel two opposing sensations: fear and excitement. As educators, it is our job to help students understand both and make a choice. In much the same way that we should strive to provide a context for children to take acceptable risks, we have to scaffold the art of being lost with children so as to properly prepare them for this dichotomy of feelings. It is perfectly acceptable for children to feel scared, and the sympathetic nervous system often wins out the first few times. In that sense, being lost is a risk-associated skill that children need to practice, much like climbing or big-body play. But over time, with the right language and strong relationships, students can begin to let excitement take hold and propel them into a world of endless curiosity, investigation, discovery, and fun.
For teachers, being lost with students is an invaluable experience because it strips away every ounce of meticulously constructed safety until only the foundation of learning remains: the relationships that exist within a tight-knit community. In the wilds, children help up their friends that stumble. They pat each other’s backs and dust each other off. They hold hands with their peers and the adults that they trust and depend upon. Just like an anchor is the only way to find footing in the open ocean, trustworthy friends are the first and only place children find safety and security in new and sometimes frightening natural places. Being lost creates a context in which teachers can both observe these preexisting relationships and facilitate the development of new bonds of trust and interdependence.
In short, fear of the unknown is natural. But it is important to remember that more often than not, we aren’t actually afraid of unfamiliar places themselves. As adults, we are scared of the potential for disaster that we see lurking around every corner. There is a fine line that we have to tread between vigilance and complete insulation, and it is our responsibility to constantly redraw that line in an effort to provide students with what they need to grow. Being lost in the great outdoors can be scary, but as the comforts of our four walls fall away, we can find a place for children to gain a better understanding of themselves, the possibilities the world has to offer, and the true value of companionship.