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Reflecting and Responding is part of a Pedagogy of Play

Updated: Jun 2, 2023


Part of facilitating a “Pedagogy of Play” is in reflecting and responding to observations and wonders.


Recently, after a day of Forest School: wet feet, multiple changes of socks and at least 2 hours of creekside play characterized our first half of the day. We noticed a persistent interest in water, worms and soil, even though our lesson plans and invitations/provocations were designed to emphasize flowers, pollinators and seeds. In a compliance-based and rigorous standards-based mindset we could have continued to interrupt the natural curiosity and forced compliance to “follow the teachers’ directions” and hunt for pollinators, flowers and seeds. However, our bodies were responding to the weather, and an emergent curriculum surfaced: to center the elements and creatures (Water, Worms and Soil) that give support to the original plan of Flowers, Pollinators and Seeds.


Some families and parents might be conflicted with whether to enroll their student in an Outdoor Nature-Based Preschool (which may be perceived as radical, new or extreme) or to have their kiddos attend a more “regular” indoor-based preschool.


On this wet day where pollinators were nowhere to be found, we followed the students' learning and supported them with questions and enthusiasm around worms, mud and living soil instead. Along with these regenerative ecology topics, the students still learned the social skills, speaking and listening, letter sounds, consonant blends, and even some ASL signs that were part of the original day’s lesson. When we reflect on the Colorado Early Learning Development Guidelines when we allow for this emergent curriculum to guide us, it is easy to map out the correlating competencies. We make notes for our next session to deepen skills, or invite curiosity and learning into new ideas not yet uncovered.


All of this behind-the-scenes teacher/guide level planning is often under appreciated on the surface. To an untrained eye it might still look like “cute nature play” and some might wonder, “when is school going to start?”.


To developmental psychologists and trained Forest School practitioners, school “starts” as the first curiosity and play begins. The reflections by student, teachers, guides, practitioners and families is how the learning is crystalized to give foundation for further learning.


A licensed psychologist, Dr. Jessica Reyka of Grass Roots Healing, observed our Nature School Cooperative outdoor preschool because she wanted to experience what nature play and learning can do for all of us. We are part of the steering committee for the Colorado Collective for Nature Based Early Learning, a statewide advocacy and training network that promotes Peer-to-Peer learning and training, so we are used to supporting these types of site visits. A Peer-to-Peer training network similar to the Forest School Association in England promotes a place-responsive quality improvement culture. This culture hosts and travels to site visits within the Collective network to support any aspects of Nature Based Early Education and a culture of Regenerative Learning Ecology within the early childhood field. Part of Regenerative Learning Ecology is to find mutualism within our fabric of programming (even when it seems we would be in competition with each other) to help support a culture that is not only life sustaining, but is also giving back more than we take.


Dr. Reyka writes:


“I cannot thank you enough for allowing me to witness and engage in the nature school and with the kiddos today. It not only brought so much lightness and creative energy to my system, it also reminded me of how beautiful the world is and how we aren’t always given the opportunities to see and explore it.


What you are both doing is absolutely profound and beyond needed. I watched you both light up with love, care and curiosity with the kids and any (and everything) that they brought to you.


Here are some of the things I witnessed them learning while I was there:

- how to greet others and ask them to engage in play


- how to set and respect boundaries with personal space and preferences


- how to be patient and respectful of the land and the creatures that reside there


- how to honor big feelings and to take space for yourself if feeling overwhelmed


- how to ask for help; on a deeper level, with hard things and emotions


- how to trust in your peers and to build communication that feels safe and direct


- how to honor privacy for others and for self


- how to honor each others differences


- how to care for each other in terms of emotionally and physically


- how to roam free yet check in, how to feel safe in body and mind while playing and learning, and how to communicate your needs with words


- how to ask for permission, how to ask for consent, how to share using words and not aggressive behaviors


- how to compromise with one another


- how to care for yourself, your body and your belongings


- how to respect the items that are there to engage with, while also staying creative and open minded with how you can use them


- how to be inclusive with peers and adults; how to accommodate for others needs so things can stay inclusive”


These outcomes and types of learning are not unique to Nature School Cooperative and also not only achieved through Forest Schools or Outdoor Preschools. Any school following a Play-Based Pedagogy where “Learning is the Outcome and Play is the Method” is likely to unlock the deep learning found below the “Tip of the Iceberg”.





While we "follow their lead" in student lead and student initiated learning or “discovery”, we also model and facilitate deep learning with our language, modeling, and support with everything from conflict to transitions. This aspect of the Pedagogy of Play is what helps us unlock the “below the tip of the iceberg skills” such as broad vocabulary, interest in language, curiosity, persistence, attentiveness, incidental learning, drive to learn, predictability, memory and self control.


In reflecting on what we do that leads to the outcomes described by Dr. Reyka above, here are a few common practices:


  • We model language with complex vocabulary (which even young students understand when spoken in context of an experience and given a few ASL signs and body language);

  • We demonstrate genuine, authenticity curiosity for the world around us;

  • We exercise persistence and attentiveness;

  • Incidental learning is fully embraced as we move from pre-planned lessons of pollinators to emergent and spontaneous lessons of worms and living soil;

  • Our own adult excitement, curiosity and drive to learn (as opposed to knowing everything) combined with rituals and songs that support predictability, memory and self control are then spoken (or signed) back to us with student language and reflection.


Caylin Gans one of our mentors and coaches who runs Forest Schooled based in Ottawa Canada highlights a quote from Richard Irvine in one of her reflection training tools:


“[It's] worth bearing in mind that reviewing/reflecting can be on prior experience (where we are at), current experience (what am I/are we doing), and future potential experience (what are we going to do?). It can be at many levels, descriptive (factual), delve into emotional response to an experience, ponder the consequences of an experience etc. etc. etc. It can happen on your own without sharing, in a pair, in a small group, in a big group (I'll do pretty much anything to avoid the slow death of circle time). What is important is that it happens. Dewey supposedly said that, ‘We do not learn from an experience ... We learn from reflecting on an experience?


It's probably a bit more complicated than that but there is never an excuse for leaving out reviewing even if the participants are totally unaware that is what they are doing.”


- Richard Irvine


Since Nature School Cooperative has small groups (Typical ratios are adult to student 1:5 with max group size of 15 and occasionally 1:6 with the max group size of 18), the possibilities of following an emergent curriculum, supporting student voice in reflecting on the learning along with the depth and comfort with reflection are expanded.


We know each student well and we are able to modify and adapt learning plans with dynamic weather, natural cycles and even sudden changes in student behavior or interest.


At Nature School Cooperative outdoor preschool we know that the combination of play with worms, soil and water as well as roots, shoots, flowers, pollinators, and seeds will likely lead to a culture that like the founders of Rewilding Education suggest:


“Those who are part of a rewilded generation are healthy, confident and secure in themselves, without any tendencies towards self-destructiveness. They would then be less likely to inflict destruction onto the planet.”




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