Educator series: #2. A teacher who brings the forest to her classrooms
Shannon Foley was the director and founder of Red-tailed Hawk Forest School (RTH) when Beanie attended in 2020-21, but at the time, we didn’t have a chance to discuss her teaching philosophy and what led her to create a forest school. I’ve always wondered, and this summer I got the chance to sit down with her.
Shannon started her teaching career at the private school Pretty River Academy in Collingwood, where she worked with a local environmentalist and another educator to create their outdoor education program. In 2014, she left to start RTH—the first forest school in the area—and pioneered a local outdoor education movement that now encompasses many schools, camps, and programs.
Shannon sold RTH last year and now substitute teaches with two local school districts, covering Collingwood and many of the surrounding towns. I was curious to find out why she decided to change course and bring her forest school lessons to public schools.
What do you think the students get out of forest school that they don't get out of a traditional school?
I think they get a way more balanced education.
Unfortunately, over time in Ontario, a lot of programs that children really benefited from—particularly in the arts, physical education, and outdoor education—have all been cut for financial reasons by the government.
They're no longer getting a well-balanced approach unless they have a very passionate educator and they're lucky enough to be in that classroom. What I tried to do when I started RTH was take all of those programs that were being cut by the government, and just load my school up with those programs.
So they get one day per week that's filled with music, that's filled with hands-on science and art. As an educator, the way I was trained in education philosophies, it should be based on a multiple intelligence model. Not every child learns by sitting at a desk with paper and pencil and reading. Some of them thrive on it, but most of them don't, so I think education programs should be balanced with all areas of intelligence.
That's what we did at forest school, but that's unfortunately what is being cut out of public school.
What else do you think forest school gives, that a private school with arts and those other subjects doesn’t?
Forest school gives a major confidence boost because kids who may struggle in a traditional classroom setting are now thriving outside. They learn to assess their own risks, and that builds confidence as well. It's also an extremely important skill for kids to have, to establish their own risk assessment.
In theory, if they don't, they are going to start to take extremely unhealthy risks when they're adolescents, because they haven't had that opportunity. The forest school philosophy is if you support children to take healthy risks, in the long run they'll manage unhealthy risks on their own.
I think it's also essential for their physical development. No child should sit at a desk for seven hours a day. I think forest school supports their physical, emotional, and social development, because they constantly have to navigate social conflict. At forest school, it happens in a very supported way, with educators who help kids have difficult conversations to navigate social conflict.
Whereas if they're in a public school yard and there's three teachers on duty for 700 children, those social conflicts escalate into physical conflict. That doesn't happen at forest school because there's immediate interception that’s facilitated by an educator. I don't see that happening in a traditional classroom setting.
What has surprised you about kids who have gone through RTH?
The biggest thing that’s surprised me is when I look at a child who's been through a forest school program, they hold on to play and play-based learning so much longer. Which is amazing. I would have days where the original crew [of RTH students] would come back, and I would pitch it to those kids as, “Now you're a leader of the group. You're going to help supervise and lead the group.” Those kids would slip back into play so quickly. It was really amazing to see and I think that's really important too.
Even as adults, you still have to find your inner child and channel it, and those kids have that skill. They can just go back to the forest and find the fort they built—it's still there and they're so excited about it and trying to see if they still fit inside it. They don't lose that spirit.
That makes me wonder—those kids that started in 2014, did they have a good foundation for public school or wherever they went?
For sure. I've never had a parent come back and say to me, “My child transitioned back to public school and it was a nightmare.” It's not hard for them.
What about not being able to go outside all day anymore. Is that a hard transition?
No, because usually by the time they graduate from the forest program, they're mature enough and their academic expectations have grown enough that they realize, “now I have to really focus on this part of my education.”
But also, living in this community, they're fortunate because after school, they're still getting outdoor time. It's just not happening during their school day.
How did you get interested in outdoor education in first place?
I think it’s just because I've always loved being outside. And my childhood happiest memories were times I was camping or outside. So it's just in my blood.
Then working with the environmentalist at Pretty River was a magical experience, to watch children who were enrolled in a private school getting this awesome balance to their education where half the time they're in the classroom and half the time they're outside.
My mom gave me an article in Toronto Star Dispatches. It was called Forest Kids [the article is here, but mostly behind a paywall]. I read it and I was immediately inspired.
Was it about the Scandinavian model?
It was about the Scandinavian model and these little forest and nature schools popping up across Canada. It probably referenced Forest School Canada, which is where I trained for a year before I started RTH. I became a forest school practitioner, which I didn't know existed until I did the program.
What were some things you learned through training?
They had a really strong emphasis on risk assessment—assessing your site, documenting risks, and your action plan for how to manage the risks.There was a huge focus on safety, which was really helpful starting up an outdoor school. There were also requirements I had to be trained in first aid and keep that training up, as did my staff.
There was a really big emphasis on effective ratios of educators to students. They highly recommended one educator to every five students, so I always maintained that ratio, even though it made the business model a little bit difficult.
I’ve always wondered about that, actually, how the school could even afford to run with this many teachers.
We would break even during the school year, and then we would make our money during summer camps to keep our doors open the rest of the year. The camps are the moneymakers.
The year you were with us, because we only had 15 students, that was stressful financially because if one family pulled out, then all of a sudden I can't pay a staff member.
But people were coming and going the whole year…
I know. I had to manage that and I found it very, very stressful.
Is that part of why you wanted to leave and do something else?
It was. Also, I got stuck in this administrative role and I didn't want to be in the administrative role. I wanted to be outside teaching kids.
That's why I started the school. That was my passion. I'm stuck inside and looking out the window at everyone, and I'm like, oh my gosh, I did not get into this to be stuck inside behind a computer.
It was even more so to get through that year of the pandemic. When we had to switch to online and our educators just weren't comfortable with being online and—"Look, nobody's comfortable with this right now, but it's what we have to do to get through.” So then I was academically advising constantly and supporting the staff, and families weren't always 100% happy.
This week we were asking Beanie whether she liked Collingwood better in the summer or winter; she said she loved the winter. Even an indoor kid like Beanie— you can't budge her from her books usually—she loved it.
That's awesome. We’ve had so many children with that same sort of personality, and once you work with them to push through being a little uncomfortable at the start, and they realize we're not gonna put them in a situation where they’re extremely exposed to weather…it's just a lot of trust-building with the educators.
Also, I found with the amazing staff I had, who were trained really well—they could just tell by keeping an extremely close eye on the kids. We weren't waiting for kids to come to us to say, “We're uncomfortable.” We can tell by looking at them, so then we ask them, “What can we do to make you more comfortable? I can tell by your body language that you're upset about something.” Lots of conversations like that.
Whereas I'm working for public schools now, and those conversations can't happen just based on the numbers.
Bringing the outdoors to public schools
I was just thinking that it's impossible at public school. That's another thing we loved about RTH. You basically tutored Beanie one-on-one for math. That could never happen anywhere else. So does it frustrate you working in a public school in that sense?
Sometimes it's heartbreaking. You're looking at kids who are really struggling and they're not getting what they need. But from my perspective, I feel like now I'm doing everything that I possibly can to reach those kids and I am reaching more kids. I'm also able to talk to multiple educators in these settings when I'm going into different schools, and they know who I am and what I've done because it's a small community. I can have conversations with those teachers and they can implement some of these practices, and then all those kids are benefiting from it too.
I get frustrated sometimes, but I think no matter what you're doing in your career, you're going to have frustrations.
What is your curriculum like? Do you have set lessons that you teach at all the public schools?
I think over time and with experience, I've been able to on-the-fly implement because I know the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum like the back of my hand. I can implement it pretty spontaneously, as well as blend it with Forest School Canada's philosophies.
In the public school students you work with, do you see the result of a lack of certain things that they're not learning at school?
100%, particularly for students who are kinesthetic active learners. They really suffer in this traditional classroom model where they're forced to sit at a desk. Developmentally, they can't understand why this is happening. And their educator’s getting frustrated with them, and they're getting in trouble constantly. They don't understand why.
Overall, has it been gratifying or frustrating or otherwise, working in the public schools?
It's been both, because I'll go into a classroom and I always make sure that we cover whatever curriculum the teacher leaves, whatever lessons they have planned. But then I'll say to the class, if we can focus and cover this lesson quickly, then the rest of the period, we can go outside and learn together.
And the kids are so excited and they're cheering. And I'm kind of heartbroken because why are they not getting outside? It's a pandemic. This is what should be happening. It's like the best day of the school year for them, because we're going outside for 40 minutes together.
It's sad, but at the same time it's fulfilling that when I go in, they're getting that opportunity. Those kids get, even if it's just one day, a forest school experience.
Most people aren’t lucky enough to go to forest schools, so do you have any advice or suggestions for families who want to incorporate something like that in their own lives, but can't attend a forest school?
I do. You can implement these lessons on your own: just grab your backpack, put field guides in it. Do a little bit of research, look up some fun outdoor games and activities. If you don't have an outdoorsy child, just put some candy in your backpack and bribe them, whatever you have to do, just get them outside on the trail. Eventually the kids will fall in love with it.
Do you have any resource suggestions?
[A list of resources Shannon recommends is at the end of this article]
The Forest School Canada website is filled with resources, ideas, research. They offer courses for parents and teachers throughout the year.
Last Child in the Woods is a must-read for parents. It’s by Richard Louv, and he also wrote Vitamin N. Those are two to start with, but Vitamin N is way more practical than Last Child in the Woods. Last Child in the Woods is a deep read, more philosophical. Vitamin N is filled with ideas for parents and educators.
Oh, I remember a book that was good for parents, called There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather, written by a Scandinavian author and parent.
Since you’re working in public schools now, I wanted to get your thoughts on how else we can incorporate more outdoors, more art, all those things into public education.
I think it's the responsibility at the government level and at the Ministry of Education level and school board level to make sure that educator workshops are happening to support regular classroom teachers, to implement these programs in their everyday teaching. The programs have been cut, so now it's the responsibility of the classroom teacher to implement art, music, outdoor time, just through the school day. I think that needs to happen through mandatory workshops for educators.
Even at the new teacher training levels, there should be more of an emphasis on integrating alternate programs into regular teaching.
Do you think educators will be receptive or will they think it’s a burden?
Some of them do push back, but the best ones are very receptive and they can do amazing things. Unfortunately there's always gonna be a small population that will push back. From my experience, it's usually teachers who are at the end of their careers and they're just set in their ways. They're frustrated with the parameters they've had to work in for their entire career. But that's a small percentage; your child might have a teacher like that one or two years throughout their education. I think for the most part, teachers are realizing things need to change.
Thank you, Shannon, for taking the time to share your knowledge and teaching philosophy with us.
Pretty Good Things
What Adults Don’t Know About Art
In Montreal, we found a book for Beanie called What Adults Don’t Know About Art, that explains in straightforward language why art is important. Under the chapter “Why Art Galleries are Boring”:
Maybe it’s not surprising that a lot of people are very quiet in art galleries: they’re worried someone is going to ask them some very hard questions they don’t know the answers to…It feels like just because you don’t know all the names and dates on the little labels, you’ve no business looking at pictures.
But there’s good news here. Because actually none of this matters very much at all. Remember, you are trying find something for your room—something that you love and that you want to have around you for a long time.
The organization that publishes this book is intriguing; it’s called School of Life, and it produces books and other content around self-knowledge and connection— connection with people, work, our greater world.
Flamingo milk is pink
Two facts Beanie learned at forest school:
The sex of some reptiles, such as turtles and crocodiles, depends on incubation temperature of the egg at a certain point of development.
Also, flamingos produce a special type of milk, and it’s pink.
Outdoor education resources
Here are some texts Shannon recommends to better understand forest school philosophy:
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv - research
Vitamin N by Richard Louv - practical guide
Let them be Eaten by Bears by Peter Brown Hoffmeister
Coyote's Guide to Connecting with Nature by John Young, Ellen Haas, Evan McGown - program guide
Sharing Nature with Children by Joseph Cornell
Play the Forest School Way by Peter Houghton, Jane Worroll
The Nature Connection, An Outdoor Workbook by Clare Walker Leslie
A Little Bit of Dirt by Asia Citro