Forest Friday on the Fly: Lessons From an Improvised Forest School Lesson

It was going to be an awesome Forest Friday: we were scheduled to help plant seedlings as part of an effort to return native plants to the Presidio. There were guaranteed to be ample opportunities to dig in the dirt, find all manner of creepy crawlies, and experience the unparalleled joy of placing a baby plant in the warm, wet earth.

Then we looked at the weather report: 90% chance of thunderstorms on Friday. The volunteer coordinator waited until Thursday afternoon to make the call, but make the call he did, and with that our forest planting adventure was postponed indefinitely. I notified all our parent volunteers and told them that unfortunately their services were no longer needed and they could go ahead and reschedule that Friday lunch date with a friend. I resigned myself to a long Friday afternoon stuck in the classroom with my restless first graders.

Come Friday morning I woke up and looked out my window, expecting to see clouds. Instead, I was greeted with a beautifully blue sky, not a cloud in sight. I figured the rain would start later, but no, it appears the meteorologists had gotten it all wrong. The gorgeous weather lasted all day, which made for an awkward conversation with my students when our normal Forest Friday departure time rolled around.

“Natalie, why aren’t we going to the forest?”

“Well, uh, it’s supposed to be raining….”

The widespread disappointment and confusion from my class was nothing compared to the annoyance that I felt about having needlessly squandered a forest school lesson.

By the time lunch was over, I had made up my mind that we were going to get outside that afternoon, no matter what. If we couldn’t go to the forest, then we would bring the forest to us! With little more than one short activity in mind, I told my class to head outside because we were DOING Forest Friday!

Miraculously, no other kids were on our school’s play yard when we got there, so I quickly gathered my students in a circle on the wood chips in a somewhat desperate attempt to “claim” the space. I was met by many bewildered looks from my first graders, and more than one student commented, “What are we doing here? This isn’t the forest!” Undeterred, I quickly initiated our Opening Routine and started racking my brain for activities we could do here in this concrete jungle.

The first thing I came up with was a leaf hunt. I instructed my skeptical scientists to find three different leaves in the yard and bring them back to our circle. They obediently ran off and scoured the far corners of our small yard. Back at the circle, each student proudly displayed their three leaves and I invited them to discuss what they noticed about how the leaves were similar and different from each other, where they came from, and why they might look the way they do. There was a particular fascination with the leaves’ color varieties, which led to an interesting conversation about decomposition.

Feeling emboldened by the somewhat unexpected success of my first attempt at an improvised forest activity, I decided to press on. The kids had seemed to particularly enjoy the hunting aspect of our first challenge, so I continued with that theme and asked them to find a collection of four different kinds of natural items and make a representation of them (which happened to be a nice tie-in to our current math unit on data and graphing). Instead of sharing as a whole group I instructed the students to gather in groups of three and go on a gallery walk to each other’s representations, and I have never seen a child speak so passionately about a pile of sand.

The students were still engaged at this point, so I quickly thought up one last task: create a representation of your name using only natural materials (leaves, sticks, sand, pebbles, tree bark, etc.). Within seconds of releasing them to work I began seeing letters take shape, and I have to say, their finished products wildly exceeded my expectations. Such creativity and enthusiasm for such a seemingly-simple task!

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that by now almost an hour had passed, and the students were just as engaged as they usually are in the genuine forest. Despite their being no creek, no large branches to use as fort walls, and a noticeable dearth of insects and small amphibians, my young scientists were happily connecting with nature in just as authentic ways as they do when we make the trek down the hill to our local park. And after all, isn’t that the whole goal of outdoor education and the forest school approach?

I don’t plan on making Forest Fridays in the schoolyard a regular occurrence, but I did learn two important lessons that day:

1. Don’t trust the weather report.

2. Forest school can happen anywhere! No fancy forests required.

Post Script: I am happy to report that our planting expedition was rescheduled (for Earth Day, no less!), and the first graders are looking forward to being proud plant parents to approximately 120 seedlings!