Often on training courses, when I ask what people want to get out of the day the response is that they want to know the names of more things in the woods. Inside there is a part of me that baulks at this. I love learning and sharing the names of flowers, trees, insects and birds with my adult friends but if we wish to stimulate children’s curiosity, interest and excitement about the natural world we have to be mindful of the adult habit of naming. Finding the name is not the end of the discussion. Names are fun and interesting, revealing stories and descriptions. For a child however, interest is stimulated more by the senses and the habits of flora and fauna; what does it smell like? how does it feel? what do you think it eats?
Imagine you were at a party and all you were told about the other party goers was their name, could you be expected to feel like you had developed a relationship with all of them? What you do at a party is find out more about the other people, ask them of their interests, their likes and dislikes.
We should treat nature like a party and learn to mingle.
This does not mean that a Forest School leader should not have knowledge and identification skills. We should try to act like a good party host who assists the mingling process; “meet Jeff, did you know he can balance a chair on his nose?” is the equivalent of a child centred approach to exploring nature, our role is to develop fascination and interest; “have you seen this insect? If we touch it gently it will jump, that’s why it gets called a froghopper.”
Knowledge and identification skills aid a Forest School leader’s ability to expect and anticipate the woodland as a resource for further discovery. If you know what a certain tree is, you will have a better understanding of its properties. This allows the children to succeed in tasks you set them. For example if you ask a child to split a piece of wood with a billhook and give them a piece of seasoned elm, you are setting them up to fail. But to give the same child a piece of green ash will give them a satisfying experience will have a positive impact on their learning, self esteem and understanding.
The ability to identify species also aids our ability to keep the children safe. If we can recognise a nettle we are able to point it out to another as something that may cause harm. A child who walks too close to a nettle will pretty quickly learn how to identify one again. If we know the difference between a horsefly and a hover fly we can reassure children is they have nothing to fear.
Everything in nature has different properties and habits and can stimulate learning, through the discovery of these habits, but we don't always have to name it to know it.