Positive relationships

The Famly Interview: Marina Robb and Jon Cree

Nature pedagogy and forest school in the Early Years
Photo of Jon Cree and Marina Robb during the interview
July 29, 2022
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Marina Rob and Jon Cree: The key interview takeaways.

  • Jon and Marina describe a Nature pedagogy as a reciprocal relationship, where leaders 'walk alongside learners in the natural world'. They explain that we're part of nature too, and so are a part of the give-and-take engagement that supports learning in the natural world.
  • Getting going with nature pedagogy doesn't mean doing years of training or moving your setting to the middle of a forest. A short walk to a local green area, where children can experience nature with a variety of senses, is a great place to start.
  • Move at a speed you feel confident with. Making a move towards a forest-school ethos or nature pedagogy doesn't mean taking the children camping in the woods on the first day. Progress at a speed where you feel you can manage safety confidently.

Jon Cree is the director (and was the founding chair) of the Forest School Association (FSA) in the UK. He's worked in outdoor learning for over 40 years, including as a member of the Forest School team for Worcestershire County Council.

Marina Robb is an author, teacher and forest school leader, as well as the founder and managing director of Circle of Life Rediscovery CIC and The Outdoor Teacher Ltd. She has over 30 years of experience in outdoor learning and Nature Pedagogy.

You could say, they're both nature education experts.

Marina and Jon presented a seminar about outdoor learning in the Early Years at Nursery World 2022, based on their book "The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy." Luckily, Famly was there too, so we sat down with Marina and Jon for a chat around the campfire.

What's Nature Pedagogy?

To start us off, I asked Marina and Jon for a brief overview of what Nature Pedagogy really is. Hint: It's not just taking the children outside.

"The definition we use in our book is 'walking alongside the learner in the natural world'," explains Jon, "That's it in a sentence. But it is more than that."

Marina goes on to explain that Nature Pedagogy is about the different roles that each participant plays - the learner, the teacher, and the natural environment. But also the deeper relationship between those three.

"We see the natural world as a teacher," adds Jon, "It's a reciprocal relationship."

A part of us

When you're working within a Nature Pedagogy, the lines are blurred between 'us' and the rest of the natural work. Essentially, we're part of the natural environment too.

"We're working with and alongside the natural world," says Marina, "But we don't see the natural world as different or separate to us. We're part of the to and fro, or serve and return, when we're having an experience in Nature. It's like a conversation."

Marina gives the example of playing in a puddle. A child will be 'with' the puddle, in the puddle, having the sensory experience of being in a puddle, and leave the puddle where is it in the environment once they've moved on.

"We see ourselves as part and parcel of nature," explains Jon, "According to Piaget, you develop a sense of self after the understanding of other objects, but we're trying to get back to that time where we don't see ourselves as separate from the natural world, so we can have a really strong relationship with it."

Pre-school children playing in a shady, wooded area

Take a walk

You can begin to embrace forest school approaches simply by adopting free-flow access to the outdoors.

And, if you only have a tarmacked playground, you can still adopt a nature-based practice by finding a local woodland site or park to visit. You don't need to be a dedicated forest school to embrace nature education.

"The right question is, 'how can we?'. We're advocating for teachers to build the confidence they need to manage safety and to take children to a greener space," explains Marina, "It doesn't need to be a wild space, it can be ten minutes down the road, but just somewhere with living material."

So what should you look for? Marina explains that children's senses should be stimulated as they're exploring the natural world, to support sensory development. Therefore, when you're choosing your local 'nature spot', check for:

  • Trees, plants, and flowers
  • Loose bits, like sticks or stones, to collect
  • The possibility of getting 'dirty'
  • Natural things to smell (like flowers, grass, mud)
  • Natural things to touch (like bark, stones, soil)

Everyone's an outdoor teacher

Jon advises that settings can invite parents down the forest school path, by talking to them about embracing the outdoors on the walk to your setting.

"It doesn't have to be anything more than staring at the clouds on the way," explains Jon, "They're making a connection together while being outside. Notice the trees you can see. Listen to the birds."

Jon and Marina also suggest 'taking the experience inside' by talking about the changing seasons and tuning into the changes throughout the year. Where parents and some staff may not feel comfortable jumping straight into building campfires, climbing trees, and having life-changing outdoor experiences, they can begin to embrace a nature pedagogy slowly, through these conversations.

Make the leap

Joining the nature pedagogy movement can be as simple as finding a magic stick. Marina explains that we can use the natural materials around us to guide and inspire the children in our care, simply but offering a prompt.

"Particularly after the pandemic, where we've all been inside so much, we do need to use those little ways of helping children tune into nature," says Jon, "We can use natural props to focus their attention."

But it does end there. Jon explains that it goes back to the relationship at the heart of nature pedagogy. Of course, you're there to support learning, but it should be reciprocal.

"We're feeding off each other," he says, "You might be the springboard and then the children take the queue. You might stir up the curiosity and the children run with it."

A young girl sitting in a shallow stream, feeling the water

How do I get started?

For settings looking to increase their nature connection, but who don't yet have any forest school experience, Jon and Marina have some practical advice.

  • Try to visit other settings that already have forest school provision and nature pedagogy, and learn from them. Real-life examples of how they do their forest school programme, time with extremely experienced practitioners, or even sample session plans can give you some ideas.
  • Don't worry too much about completing the full forest school leader accreditation to start with. Do some lighter training first and go from there.
  • Get all the essential policies in place. That means risk assessments and risk-benefit analysis, permissions from parents, and any other essential paperwork for your setting.

And start small. Marina quotes a colleague, Juliet Robertson, who explains that you don't have to go straight to a bonfire - start with a candle. Move that the speed that you feel confident with.

That being said, Marina adds that it's the benefit of the risk that counts.

The big ideas

Jon and Marina's book "The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy" is essential reading for aspiring nature pedagogues looking to gain a deeper understanding and underpin teaching (or just educators who want to expand on their own learning).

Marina runs The Outdoor Teacher which offers online training in Forest School Activities: www.theoutdoorteacher.com for a free course.

If you would like to know more about Forest Kindergarten: Local Nature Play training: Follow: https://circleofliferediscovery.com/cpd-training/forest-kindergarten-level-3-training/

If you want to learn more about forest schools and forest school ethos, how nature stimulates sensory development, and sharing nature worldwide, you'll find detailed guidance in a warm and inclusive tone.

"We cover the history of forest school, a range of practical 'how-to's , mental heath, physical and emotional wellbeing, and the underpinning theories of nature pedagogy," explains Marina.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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