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Forest & free – an out-of-school experience and the power of risk

There are few places left where kids can use knives, climb trees, navigate forests, tend fires, sit in circle, speak their story, and generally get scratched up and stung by being participants of life. This is why we re-established a children’s forest group this year and why we volunteer our time to run it.

Forest & Free not about setting challenges that are too great for children, and we don’t encourage an overtly competitive or risk-taking culture, rather we encourage children to meet their own challenges and learn from others around them, and of course from the forest. We are observing, however, that the broader cultural narrative of ‘safety at all costs’ is harming children, making them less resilient, less mobile and suffering more health problems at an increasingly early age.

Forest & Free is about embodying resilience, meeting difficult (at times) challenges, and allowing uncomfortable things to occur – cutting oneself, standing on a Jumping Jack ant nest, putting all your weight on a rotten tree branch while climbing, taking off from the group and getting lost, and generally playing around with life.

Our culture, up until recently, used to see breaking a bone, receiving stitches, getting lost and a myriad of other uncomfortable things as ordinary rites of passage for 7-12 year olds – the pre-initiation age – necessary for the development of children. In the past few decades the possibility of embracing and learning through discomfort has been almost completely eliminated. This doesn’t serve children.

While we don’t wish on anyone any great pain – and we explain each skill, challenge, game or wild food in terms of the risks involved – adversity is the underlying, ever present flip side of enabling such learning and growth. That’s why we ask parents, carers and children to share the risk with us. This is the community model of organisation, which is a powerful antidote to the culture of fear and risk aversion that so greatly limits and incarcerates our children, and therefore inevitably our society.

As adults we come to understand that our greatest learnings come through some sort of discomfort, pain or suffering. And it’s how we respond to these things that really matters in building resilience, wisdom, freedom and bouncebackability. Overcoming fear is liberation!

In allowing a child to attend Forest & Free we ask parents to accept that some learning occurs through risk taking, that sometimes adversity will present itself as part of this risk, and in turn this presents itself as a gift of learning for everyone. When we go through adversity we gather in circle and share our story.

Children choose a forest name when they participate in Forest & Free. That is, when their forest names avail themselves. Sometimes this is a rapid process, sometimes a slow one. We have in our mob Echidna, Plantain, Blackberry, Deer, Silva, Blackwood, Jumping Jack, Thistle, Silent Night, Raven, Black Thorn, Fox, Black Cockatoo, Gum Tree, Huntsman, Brown Snake, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Pine Cone, Kangaroo and Kookaburra, amongst the dwellers who gather on a Wednesday afternoon.

Brown Snake’s mother: “I have watched such growth and confidence blossoming in Brown Snake recently, in huge part because of what you are offering – this space of adventure, risk, freedom, resilience, learning and cooperation. He holds himself slightly taller, prouder because he inhabits this space and can carry it with him. Without risk in the equation, as cliched as it is, there wld be no such reward.”

Huntsman’s mother: “There’s nowhere where the skills you share are offered in this manner & we are extremely grateful to be a part of it. Each week Huntsman is ecstatic when we meet up and can’t wait to tell his family and friends about the adventures you’ve been on.”

Pine Cone’s mother: “Thank you for all you do, for encouraging, empowering and enabling our children to rewild and connect with nature. We all try to avoid our children’s suffering at times, even when it’s beneficial for them to go through the process. It’s good to reflect upon this.”

Kangaroo’s mum: I love how much extra perception Kangaroo has of what’s going on in nature. That a tree has fallen on its own, or has been cut down, which [plants] to use for ailments etc. Probably most importantly, he has developed a better sense of his limits. So when he is climbing a tree, or a cliff, I feel more comfortable knowing he can make decisions for himself about how to stay safe and still take risks.

Black Cockatoo’s mother: “Forest & Free has given our child a sense of belonging and place at a time where he has been challenged to find that. It has reinforced and amplified his joy of being a part of a group and the relevance of safe behaviours in risky settings. Our child has been put down by educators for his engagement in “risky behaviours” such as jumping from things or climbing things that are “too high”, for questioning and pushing boundaries with a desire to understand. He has been made to feel like he is bad and naughty for wanting to explore and push the edges of his curiosity which has led to his exit from the education “system”. Through beautifully held mentoring where he feels respected and therefore chooses to be respectful… What is more, he is learning [to be in] a space where his intelligence, silence, ideas AND his wildness are ALL embraced. At F&F the world makes sense and therefore the boundaries are respected and embraced (because they make sense). Best of all, he feels like he is a part of something, something special, it is a place for belonging, a place to be his wild, loving, risk taking self and it grounds him, fills him up. Every week upon returning from forest and free he returns in the dark, dirty, beaming and bright eyed. He gets in the car and shows me his wet feet, scratches and cuts with joy from a good time well had. When asked how it was he always says it was awesome, or the best, something he never said about school.”

Many thanks to all who have contributed to the fun, adversity and adventure of Forest & Free this year. A big thank you to Blue Tongue and Thornbill who have both assisted us with the children. It doesn’t take much to organise a bush group, and the forest has so much to teach us, it’s just about getting children into forests, deserts, grasslands and any other non-mediated environments, and not placing too many restrictions on how they engage in these places so they can keep connecting to the living of the world’s worlds. Here is a short video made by Thornbill Fizzy Mitchell that gives a little more insight into how children connect if they have the opportunity.

Sending much love out to you, Dear Reader,

Magpie and Blue Wren

 

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