When I first thought of starting a “Forest Kindergarten” (I put this in quotations because I still haven’t fully convinced myself this is what I am doing) I was overjoyed … I was absolutely smitten. Then, reality hit and the fear was overwhelming! But, I attempt to live life rationally and not let fear run my life. As well, I teach my students to face their fears, if they are willing, in a caring, loving, and supportive environment. So, there we were: 1 teacher and twelve (I know, I know, I was so lucky to have such a small class!) 4-6 year old children in a caring, loving, and supportive environment all ready and willing to face their fears … what next?
I researched local animals, particularly those that could be potentially dangerous: bears and cougars. I researched their tracks, behaviour, local sightings, and local human-animal confrontations. I ensured that I was well-informed on how to react if we did see a bear or a cougar and what not to do.
I then proceeded to have discussions with the class about animal safety in the forest. These discussions went on well over a month before we actually ventured out into the forest.
Awareness of one’s surroundings is a topic that we discuss and revisit continually in my class. This is something that is vital for successful relationships, communication, safety, and survival. It can be as simple as “before you move your chair, please be aware of what is around you to ensure you don’t accidentally bump your classmate” to “when you are walking through the forest, please watch for tracks to ensure that you are safe in your surroundings.” Awareness is a skill required for exploring and making observations. When a student is aware of their surroundings they note the smallest and most beautiful things: a bird feather clung to a leaf, a recently departed robin’s egg, a trail left by a slug, tracks left by a deer… Awareness by all individuals (not just the teacher) is a vital component to being animal safe when exploring and playing in the forest.
I think the greatest advice (I say “advice” because the #1 comment I receive is “Aren’t you afraid of the animals?! Don’t you think it is dangerous?!” … not because I think I am an expert!) I could ever give in regards to animal safety is to inform yourself and your students, provide your students with the necessary skills, listen to your instincts and, most of all, be aware.
My safety precautions:
1. Scout out your potential play areas before bringing children into them.
2. Provide your students with boundaries (“you can play within this area”). This boundary will depend upon your comfort level, but don’t ever let your guard down and let the area become to large, this is when it can become dangerous.
3. Inform your students that they must be within sight of you at all times! This is a hard lesson for some children and I am extremely strict about this. I inform children that if they do not follow this rule they will lose their privilege of coming outside to play with us. I follow through, and several children have been left behind at the school with their book bins in the office. This is my number 1 rule and my students know and understand this well.
4. Make a lot of noise. This isn’t hard when you are with a group of very excited children, but make sure that you don’t provide periods of prolonged quiet. Let the animals know you are there and coming.
- I incorporated this into my outdoor classroom management strategies. I learned this strategy from a marvelous outdoor educator (never reinvent something that is already fabulous?). When we are hiking a trail or playing in the forest and the students begin to run too far ahead, I will caw like a crow. I have taught my students that when I caw they should caw in return and then head towards me. It works like a charm and the students love it! Not only that, but it makes an absolute RACKET!! I like to think that any bears or cougars in the area are absolutely frightened of us when we caw.
5. When hiking, always have an adult in the front and back of the group. This way, if there is an animal around the corner (or coming up behind you) it will be faced with one of the largest people first and not a small child.
6. Always carry a noise maker to scare off potential animals (I carry an air horn). I also teach the children that if they hear the air horn they are to immediately vacate the forest and meet me on the school field. I will also be getting a bear banger next year.
7. I have yet to do these two things, but you might find them reassuring: have your students wear safety vests (they will be highly visible) and/or a whistle around their necks for emergencies.
Sites that I found extremely useful: