Negotiating Professional Learning in Place: Vygotsky Influenced Forest School

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. A year ago I wrote a blog post about the volunteer work I was doing with the York Region Nature Collaborative and I liken it to a dream. Last week at the Rhythm of Learning in Nature #Rhythm2015 dreams were realized, slightly altered, but nonetheless meaningful. I am so grateful for those 20+ educators, 8 children and 2 forest school leaders who spent five days at Swan Lake in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada, engaging in an emergent professional learning experience that was Reggio and Hawkins inspired as well as influenced by Forest School practices. The intention going into this week was that we would learn together in place within a loose and flexible schedule but one that was framed by inquiry and social constructivism. One of the facilitators, Laurel Fynes put together this collection of articles and links shared during and inspired by #Rhythm2015 that gives some idea of the thoughts and theories that went into the design of this five day session.

Articles and Links shared during #Rhythm2015

I believe that the social constructivist paradigm and an inquiry framework supports empowerment, self-actualization, relationship building and community. It involves a certain amount of risk because the week’s activities were not set in stone but it is through the process of co-construction that the experience and subsequent learning evolved or emerged. My last blog post was inspired by Jean Piaget and so it is fitting to pay tribute in this blog post, to Lev Vygotsky who believed that cognition is always socially mediated or influenced by others. Higher mental functions, such as memory, attention, and self-regulation, occur in the context of shared experience between individuals. Thinking begins on the interpersonal or social plane before it is internalized as intrapersonal knowledge. Unfortunately, Vygotsky died with his work largely repudiated and ignored. It wasn’t until the political situation began to shift in Russia in the 1950s that his influence began to be felt. Last week in the forest I felt his influence in a profound way.

Learning at Swan

Learning at Swan

Reflection was a concept that was essential to Vygotsky’s idea of how individual cognition develops. It is is not only through interaction with others, but also importantly through conscious, purposive reflection on the significance of what has been experienced and learned that we integrate new perspectives. I am thankful for the time to reflect and to read the reflections of others as they too begin to integrate those special moments in the forest. One of the participants, Anamaria Ralph wrote a beautiful post about the experience of #Rhythm2015 and others too have taken the time to reflect. I received an email from one of our Michigan attendees after she internalized the experience:

I am still basking in the wonder of last week.  I believe that this initiative has  set the “bar” for professional development for me.  Of course the setting — Swan Lake — was perfect but I wonder how the sort of ambiance that was established among the 25 or so participants could be established in a larger group?  The learning method was so organic, authentic and, well, “Reggio-esque”.  We were not being “talked to” — we were all involved and engaged.  At any rate, Diane — it was a stellar experience for me personally — and I want to say “thank you” again.

Throughout the five days the participants were invited to record some of their “aha moments”. There were many … I have included a selection below:

The forest is a magical place – it inspires creativity ~ Jacqueline

When an educator says to you (in a moment of doubt) “You’ll get this. Just follow your instincts” You are freed ~ Erin

It is liberating to share and learn and listen in a room filled with like-minded educators with no pre-determined agenda ~ Renae

Slow down and give  yourself and the children, time to arrive ~ Heidi

Children in the forest camp are building trust, respect and relationships in only a few days ~ Rosalba

LISTEN and a whole new world opens up ~ Alynn

“Small worlds” would be a wonderful way to bring families into the outdoor space and create with their child ~ Jocelyn

Having a supportive group of friends/colleagues that share your vision/philosophy is what helps to keep you moving forward on your journey ~ Laura

The magical mystery the forest provides each and every visit ~ Bonnie

We already know that we will have #Rhythm2016. While the date will be determined I have already lined up the amazing Suzanne Axelsson who will join us as a facilitator all the way from Sweden! We hope to replicate but not duplicate the design of #Rhythm2015.  We hope to have a small forest school camp lead once again by Sinead Rafferty and Jennifer Wainberg. Observing these two amazing educators working together in the forest was inspiring. While both Sinead and Jen are working towards their forest school certification, they had never worked together before. Sinead, an early childhood educator and Jennifer, a grade three teacher demonstrated and modeled collaboration. Professional collaboration involves negotiation and mediation. The forest school experience that evolved for the children involved negotiation and mediation. It was incredible to see the community and friendships that evolved for the children as they came to know the forest and the meadow at the beautiful Swan Lake as well the beautiful indoor Reggio inspired indoor environment that Rosalba Bortolotti set up.

Indoor creations

rock mandala

Vygotsky wrote about negotiation and mediation. A powerful form of learning take place when we are working within a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Vygotsky (1978) described ZPD as the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (p. 86). It is a negotiated and mediated learning experience. There were many opportunities for crossing zones of proximal development in the forest. One of our participants, a forest school homeschooling mom, spent much of her time observing the children during her five days at Swan. Her comment about the week was that “It was life changing. My social interactions have changed dramatically….mostly because of the way I observed Sinead approach collaboration, problem solving, and risk”

FS collage

It was just over a year ago that I was introduced to Sinead. Marlene Power, Executive Director of Forest School Canada and Child and Nature Alliance of Canada sent me an email introduction. It is really amazing how Marlene could see into the future as to what could be.

I’d like to take a moment and introduce you to Sinead Rafferty. Sinead is based in Toronto and is one of the most thoughtful, engaged and intelligent educators I’ve come across. She is very passionate about this issue, has just completed her Masters on this topic, and is looking to dive deeply into Forest and Nature School within the Toronto region. She is already doing wonderful work at her current workplace, but I feel she could be integral to whatever unfolds on your new site with the TRCA.

A year later, the stars aligned, and Sinead’s dream is realized concurrently with my own as illustrated here in a screen capture from Facebook. Right after I replied, Cindy, also one of the participants at #Rhythm2015 expressed her gratitude for the experience.

Sinead's dream

Diane and Cindy comment

When Nancy McGee from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) introduced Swan Lake to me a few years back, she talked about the “stars aligning” so that this majestic, magnificent and magical place could bring together partnerships to develop relationships to nature and each other. Nancy — the stars are aligned, dreams are realized, and future possibilities are infinite! I want to thank Nancy and the TRCA, the facilitators, children, participants, and visitors who shared this place called Swan Lake for five days of learning that will live on in the memories of all that were there.

5 thoughts on “Negotiating Professional Learning in Place: Vygotsky Influenced Forest School

  1. It is so interesting how passion can move an idea forward. Our journeys have meandered along many paths over the years since Diane first took me on a tour to Swan Lake. It is very exciting to see and experience your ideas and vision coming to fruition. Kudos to you, and on behalf of children, their families and early learning educators near and far, we thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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