This Too Shall Pass: How a Little Pain Will Offer Students a Lot of Gain

I hated hiking as a kid. It was hot, it was dusty, and it was always a forced family activity that I was required to complete. Fast forward a few decades, and hiking is now one of my favorite pastimes. I am grateful to my parents for ignoring my complaints and guiding me to push through the “pain” all those years, because once I was ready to embrace hiking on my own, I immediately fell back on all the lessons I had learned from family trips about my personal limitations and the tremendous rewards of spending time outdoors. 

It can be hard for teachers and parents to tolerate seeing their students and children uncomfortable or upset. The instinct is to immediately jump in and fix whatever is not going smoothly and to relieve the child of any pain or suffering. My advice? Let them struggle (within reason). Barring life-threatening situations or extreme danger, it’s healthy and good for kids to face challenges, and the benefits of letting them muddle through are immense. Here are just a few of the many ways that the saying no pain, no gain pans out in natural play. 

They will learn to tolerate a bit of discomfort. I once had a student who refused to sit on the ground for fear of getting her clothes dirty. One Forest Friday in September, she was blissfully running next to a creek when she lost her footing and SPLASH! she fell on her bottom into the water. The tantrum that ensued scared off all the wildlife for miles, and once it became clear that she was not physically hurt, she switched her attention to being upset about how wet and muddy her clothes were. I assured her that this too shall pass, but no amount of reassurance from me would appease her. Fortunately we had planned ahead and all the students kept a change of clothes back at school. I figured she would stay away from the creek from then on, but the next week, and every week after, she was the first one to jump into the creek. I never heard another complaint from her about her clothes.

They will learn their physical limits. Tree-climbing is a favorite activity at Forest Fridays, and I am careful to never set a limit on how high they can climb. Have I had to climb up into a tree to help an ambitious student who has climbed too high? Yes. Have I ever had to help that same child again? No. 

They will increase their endurance. The first walk back from the forest is always the same. “Are we there yet?” “I’m hot!” and “I wish we could fly back!” are a constant refrain. The next week a bit of the complaining is replaced with gushing about the awesome millipede we uncovered. With each ensuing week, the joyful chatter about the day’s discoveries gradually drowns out the whining about the hike. You’ll always have a few kids who can’t help but mention how long the walk feels, but for the majority, the trek becomes easier with each walk and seems a small price to pay for the chance to spend an afternoon in nature. 

They will venture out of their comfort zone more often (including in the classroom). Learning occurs when we brush up against things we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. We put children in this position of confronting their discomfort all day long in the classroom. We tell them, “I know this math problem looks hard, but we’re going to break it down and solve it together.” We say, “Yes this is a word you’ve never seen before, but we’ll look at the parts of the word and that will help us figure out what it means.” It’s no different in the outdoor classroom. When children are pushed to do unfamiliar activities, such as tasting a wild edible plant, or letting a garter snake run over their hand, they learn from that experience. Perhaps the most important lesson they learn is that they can do things they’ve never tried before, and they just might enjoy it.

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!