Anichka, a five-year-old, smiles sweetly and grabs my frozen hand, leading me toward a tiny house heated by a wood-fire. Before I open the small door, another child named Fafa hands me a soft broom and points to Anichka’s—and his own—dirt-and snow-caked clothes. My stiff hands grasp ahold of the broom and they both giggle as I brush the snow and dirt off of their snowsuits. A few mild tears spill out Anichka’s wide eyes as her face begins to thaw out from winter’s chill. We just spent the whole morning playing in the forest.
Other than for a warm lunch meal, naps, and an occasional local children’s theater performance, the students at Marianka Forest School in the southeastern Czech Republic spend their days playing and learning in the forest—year-round. As a weekly volunteer during the spring of 2016, they welcomed me into their world and taught me far more than I expected to learn from four-and five-year-olds who didn’t speak the same language as me. My role as a volunteer was to come from 9-10 am on Tuesday mornings to open up conversations, songs, and games in the English language to the little ones. Each week, I stayed past lunchtime—during my short stay in the Czech Republic, this tiny community became like home.
In forest school—rain, snow, hail, or sunshine—the kiddos play outside, and they play hard. They run up big hills, climb around trees, and slide down frozen dirt chutes with a running start. They learn about navigation, they use their imaginations, they become students of life—and teachers. In a natural environment, children learn more about themselves and their bodies, their relationships with others, and life then in any school I’ve ever attended. Here are some of the lessons the forest school taught me:
If we give kids responsibilities, they can learn how to be responsible.
On my first day at forest school, I walked past zlatá brána—the “golden gate” that marks the entrance to the school—and saw three children playing as they cleared the snow from the little walkway with their mini shovels. They were happy and playful in their task to help make their place a little better. It was such a small task, but their smiles told of their big feelings of accomplishment.
These young people aren’t helpless—they’re full of help! Kids love to feel needed and appreciated. When we give them little tasks and the tools to do the tasks, they learn how to take care of themselves. Even though it takes some up-front work and supervision, delegating responsibility is the key to educating and empowering others.
There is a universal language.
Even though few teachers or students spoke English, we felt the same sun radiate through the forest trees, we felt the same dirt beneath our feet, we played the same games, and we all shared the fresh air. I did learn some Czech language and they learned some English words and songs, but mostly we communicated through smiles, snacks, and snowballs. Rather than focusing on all our differences, we focused on all the amazing human things we had in common.
When the sun comes out, sometimes you just need to run around in the forest with your buns out.
On the first warm day in a while, we all couldn’t get enough sunshine. Since trees weren’t yet in bloom, most of the group played as the sun radiated down through the branches. The three girls in the group wandered off toward a sunnier area. From a small distance away, I saw them taking off their snow-pants. Giggling, they ran between the trees and danced in the warmth.
When we stay present in our environment, we become more sensitive to all the changes happening. When we’ve been cold, we feel early-summer warmth deeper in our bones. When we’ve been present in sadness, we notice when joy returns. While most people can find something to complain about in any situation—these children are paying attention to their internal and outside environments and making the most out of any weather.
Small hills are as important as the mountains.
On a race up a small hill in April, four kids ran as fast as they could, all barely making it to the finish because of all the spring mud. The youngest child of the group kept sliding down to the start. She tried many times and became upset. She was very small and the task seemed too impossible. I walked behind her and encouraged her on. Determined and slow, she made it to the top by her strength.
The little victories teach us about our capabilities and help us discover the courage to do big things in life. Each struggle we face, no matter what size, can strengthen us.
Breaking some branches and picking flowers in nature is much less damaging to our environment than never experiencing it.
I’ve been too many places where I see a parent scolding their child for playing in dirt or picking a flower. Yes, a flower will continue to grow better if left with its roots, but what’s the harm in trying to capture a bit of beauty? If kids fear touching nature and getting dirty, the activities and things they will use to entertain themselves with will be far less enriching and potentially far more damaging to their lives and our natural environment.
One sunny winter day I saw a child named Honza staring deeply into the skeleton of a leaf. When he saw my curiosity, he quickly invited me over. This little explorer revealed the perfect similarities between the leaf and the palm of my hand by placing the leaf in it and tracing the lines in both. He showed me that we are all connected, and some unstructured time during our day gives us the freedom to explore the mystery of it all. We can discover all the little treasures surrounding us when we receive the gift of time and slow down.
Whether they’re examining a leaf or a bug, playing red-light-green-light, picking wildflowers, sliding down hills, drawing a map of our surroundings, gathering sticks for firewood, or managing a fight with a friend—these kids were connected to the gift of the present at each moment I was blessed to spend with them. Under the forest trees we grew from the dirt, together, as the seasons changed before our eyes.