Lessons In Self-Regulation From A Tree

February 25, 2016


Nature has a way. Winter has a way. I sit still on a felled tree that slowly decomposes under me in my ‘sit-spot’. The still air carrying the slowly descending flakes of powder, landing gently on my sleeve makes me breathe intentionally.

These moments of reflection are perceptions in my brain that carry me for only but a wrinkle in time, but last an eternity. It is how I feel in the moment and how I regulate myself for the rest of the day. Just that small five minutes of uninterrupted time allow me to re-frame my thoughts and needs for my afternoon. I get so much for so little. This is how we start or end our sessions.

Rewind the clock back 15 minutes in time. A group of 12 junior kindergarten students loudly trudge along a beaten path leading to a serenity of sorts, it is our forest. They deem themselves ‘Forest Kids’, not unlike superhero’s that can “scale tall buildings in a single bound.”They can climb trees in the wink of an eye. These now 4 and 5 year olds have become tree climbing aficionados that enthusiastically share their joy of success. After all it has taken some serious patience, courage, empathy and above all, self-regulation to get where they are, from where they have come.

The ultimate self-regulation, I have determined, has got to be teaching oneself to climb a tree. The first approach as you look upwards towards a snarl of branches seems thrilling. You step back, look up and begin to examine whether or not this activity is for you. The decision is made and an attempt will begin post haste. You grab upon a branch littered with protruding bumps of needles and new growth then pause to grip in another spot that feels better. Now your other hand must follow and bring along behind it a foot. But where to place the foot? The lowest branch perhaps? It is only fractionally off the ground, you raise your leg and then the other, while both hands are clinging to an upper branch simultaneously! You feel a small twinge of fear and decide that is all your body can account for today. You climb down and feel exhilarated and exhausted all at the same time. You go off to play with your friends at the log.

The following day you return to the tree and repeat your steps. Only this time you have decided you will climb right to the top and be declared the highest tree climber ever. You make it another 2 branches higher than last time before descending for the day.  Each day you progress until you declare that you are now the worlds highest tree climber, and each day sees you make a goal that sometimes is completed and sometimes defeated. It is always on your own terms. It is never with encouragement from adults or peers but instead, a labour of accomplishment that you took your time, to conquer your fears one step at a time and only when you were ready. You had to listen to your brain messaging you of fear and you had to decide if the threat was perceived or if you were in real danger. Your body had to cooperate and resist the temptation to quit, or run from the challenge. It became important to challenge yourself and try your best. Some days you weren’t ready and your friends supported you as you did for them when they weren’t ready. You had to monitor your surroundings, track and estimate your footing, determine your tolerance and what to do if you couldn’t manage. You had to listen to your body and any signs of stress you placed on it, by every snapping branch, blowing breeze or slippery step.  Every step of the way you self-regulated, no one else did it for you but you. You take great pride in your accomplishments.

Children climb trees regularly in the forest. The climbing tree has proven to be a tool of self-regulation that some students choose and others do not. It is self-determined learning that develops life long learning. Risky play and a growth mind set help children to understand and manage stress. Like self-regulation they are fluid processes and not programs that can be instructed.

Gail Molenaar is an RECE,  Forest and Nature School Practitioner and a Self-Regulation Advocate who is  currently studying under Stuart Shanker at The Mehrit Centre, TMC.


2 Replies to “Lessons In Self-Regulation From A Tree”

  1. What a beautiful interpretation of a child’s view. Thank-you for sharing. My thoughts are directed to my own practice, where the “climbing tree” is a focus for many of the children. Each with their own unique abilities, they push their limitations and honour their inner voice. Some educators feel internal pressure to “help” children move up the tree to keep up with the others, a kind gesture at best, however it undermines a child’s ability, self regulation, and understanding of the self. Your thoughts?


    1. Fran I could not agree more. Seeing the child as capable and competent are keys to understanding self. It is through these moments of try-fail-succeed that we should be moving back to observe so that the child may also see themselves as capable and competent. The help that educators offer really is a unconscious statement that says they do not trust the child.


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