Recently I observed a group of outdoor educators discussing “play-based” and “child-centered” learning. I noticed an almost dogmatic and singular interpretation of how these concepts relate to forest schools—even how we parents should raise our kids.

For those not familiar with these terms, they can mean many things. Frequently, play-based learning refers to free play and exploration, especially in the outdoors. Child-centered learning is more vague, ranging from curriculum-based on each student’s individual needs and interests to children wholly choosing the subject and scope of their learning.

I’ll begin by affirming that play is absolutely essential to learning (and life) and working with students beyond a standardized educational model should be the baseline. Yet both concepts of play-based and child-centered learning are not often well integrated into the whole picture of how children learn to value nature or become adults who contribute to their community and the Earth.

The option to always (and only) play through life, even as a child, is a contemporary luxury and a toxic privilege that leads to self-centered adults. Unfortunately, parents or educators can often feel driven to make everything entertaining through “play”. This fearful obsession is fueled by modern culture’s inability to provide work infused with joy or play aligned with responsibility.

In order to grow into competent, healthy humans, children need to see adults “adulting” well. Relative to other great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, we humans possess an incredible capacity for intersubjectivity—the ability to quickly theorize what others are thinking based on information such as body language, expression, and more. Intersubjectivity is how humans evolved into master trackers: able to predict the whereabouts of their quarry with a mix of simple clues, knowing their landscape, and “thinking” like the animal they are hunting. It is also why children are so adept at learning by imitation, especially from their elders.

In the ancestral past we all share, children had time to explore the land where they lived. Certainly, they played, but they also engaged in vital responsibilities during such explorations: harvesting and cracking nuts, foraging tidal pools, gathering wood for the fire. When they wandered further from the family hearth or village proper, they might be relied upon to bring back berries, fish, or small game. Their caregivers would provide them with the physical tools and materials needed to carry out these expected tasks: baskets, knives, or hunting weapons. Or these elders would show them how to craft their own, sometimes through direct instruction and storytelling, sometimes through unguided imitation and trial and error. As children grew, their responsibilities became more complex (and more interesting), and ever more essential to their family or village.

They were not doted on by adults pandering to every precocious question. Rather, practicality, mindfulness, and resourcefulness were expectations as they walked with their parents, tending to the day-to-day needs of their family and the land they were a part of. With familial and communal survival directly at stake, there was no hard and fast rule for learning the “how-to” of a task. It was whatever mixture of methods reliably guided the child to be truly helpful.

This “work” of survival did not lessen how much a child intrinsically valued nature (the more-than-human-world). Instead, this “work” of livelihood provided a daily reminder of their dependency on and connection to the Earth—going far beyond what distilled recreation and play can ever hope to reach.

Explorations of our ancestral past and evolutionary assets can offer profound implications for the in vogue concepts of play-based and child-centered learning as applied to outdoor education and forest schools. A healthier and more balanced approach to child development should encompass the well-being of the community (village) and the more-than-human-world, even shifting the notion of child-centered to a multi-generational scope. Meanwhile, our play can involve meaningful work that reinforces and provides for these greater ecological and communal connections.

When we venture into the out-of-doors, give our children duties and responsibilities with meaning. Expand upon those opportunities with sage advice and, even more important, sage role-modeling. Then, with access to these cultural tools, physical tools, and the wilder world, let them play and explore. Responsibility to community informs their play. In turn, play informs their responsibility to community. Treat this as a never-ending cycle and you will discover the true school of the forest.


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