Forest Instructors: Mother Nature’s Support Staff

By Kelli Hanson

I truly cannot recall a time in my life when I did not dream of being a special education teacher. I’ll spare you the long and winding story explaining why it took me a while to get where I am now, but I finally completed my degree in Early Care and Education in 2015 and started working as a special education teaching assistant in 2016. I also have known for quite some time that my ultimate goal is to work in an alternative education setting, though I was not sure of exactly where my place in the world of education might be… until I saw a post online seeking “Forest Kindergarten Instructors.” I clicked the link, read the job description, and submitted my application as quickly as I could type. Today, having completed two full summers and two fall sessions as an instructor with the Friends of the Fells Youth Programs, I can say without a doubt that I have found my place in the world of education.

This program has obviously had a huge impact on me and my life. I am sure, however, that you really want to know whether I have witnessed any impact it may have had on the children who have attended. In a nutshell: absolutely! I could tell you a story for almost every child I have met since June of 2016. The best examples, though, as someone who works in special education, have occurred very recently. We have had several children with Autism Spectrum Disorder attend our program throughout this summer and fall. One struggles with being flexible when things don’t necessarily go as expected; one has Sensory Processing Disorder (in this particular case, life is never enough – never loud enough, never fast enough, never stimulating enough); one lacks an appropriate level of impulse control. Every day I watch children with ASD try to navigate a classroom, a playground, a gaggle of peers and teachers and therapists. And then I go to the Fells and spend two hours in a glorious setting with my co-instructor and a very small, integrated group of children and it is a completely different world. There is very little structure, and absolutely no “instructional materials.” Just the sky, the wind, the pond, and endless amounts of sticks and rocks and leaves. We build forts. We throw rocks in the water to see how far they will go and what kind of sound they will make. We search for the perfect hiking stick. We walk. There are no barriers between the children with special needs and the typical children. There is no “us” vs. “them.” There is no natural or manufactured segregation. We all play together in the forest and discover whether a certain stick will float or sink. We all (to paraphrase an old adage) just get along.

In a perfect world the Friends of the Fells Youth Program would be a full-time, year-round entity (and in an even more perfect world there would be similar programs all over the country!). Children would learn math, science, social skills, life skills, and so much more in a natural, relaxed atmosphere. “Classes” would be small and lessons would be primarily child-led and the instructors would really just be Mother Nature’s support staff, as she would be the primary teacher. And, because we all have a bit of a selfish side, I would finally be in my own perfect place in the world.


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