Linking The Forest To Self-Regulation


Linking The Forest To Self-Regulation


As the school year ends and another torch is passed, I can’t help but think about all the lessons the forest has taught us, and all that we have taught each other. It goes without saying that children grow physically, but seeing growth in the other domains of development takes some observation and listening, akin to the slow growth of a forest and the cyclicality of the ever changing seasons.



A child grows, muscles develop and balance is challenged. Children who are offered ample opportunity to grow, stretch and challenge their bodies are better able to focus and see the world around them. All senses are optimised by the rich earthy scent, uneven terrain, a cicada shell, prickly juniper, bright sun and rich tones of green and brown, The call of the Blue Jay, the hammering of the Pileated Woodpecker and the constant rush of the water below, stimulate their auditory sense. Even the odd lick of a leaf or a taste of a developing apple fires the synapses to make new connections. Growth is in discovery.



A child sees through all their senses and learns to learn. Why does the water almost run dry? How does the tree make flowers and then make apples? How does the rope stay tied when we swing upon the tree branch? What are galls? Do the fairies ride the ladybird beetles, the butterflies and the crickets too? How can I make a fort with these sticks? Why do the green inchworms like to stick to my hair? And why do the grey tree frogs stick to my hand? Without these interactive lessons children would not wonder how the world works. It is only through hands-on experiences that learning comes to life, and each child learns at their own pace, in their own time and at their own level.




A child deals with many traumas and excitements in life. The birth of a leaf, or a caterpillar, the vandalism of a tree, the birth of an apple, the death of a creature and the connections of life in the forest make life around them authentic. By making connections to the physical world they discover outlets to their emotional needs. Conversation is a segue for daily interactions that naturally offer co-regulation. Children that look closely do so calmly. This takes some practice but the rewards are a gift.




A child engages with their peers and their supporters on many levels. A gentle nudge to move forward along the path, a soft lens of encouragement for climbing the next rung of the tree, a speak of advice on how to tie a knot to hold the sticks together, solving conflicts over a change in ‘sit-spots’, showing everyone what you have found, understanding that sharing is sometimes about being patient, and fair is when we all get what we need. Learning how to get along, how to be a friend and how to engage with others is only learned when opportunity to socialize is offered. When adults intervene with children’s communication it teaches them that someone else will solve their problems for them. The open air and space of the forest gives children a comforting space to play and interpret their own world in their own words.



A child learns to see what others are thinking and feeling. Sitting and looking closely affords opportunity to see what they hadn’t seen before. An inchworm makes its way up the tree, a squirrel pauses to scan the area. The resident mallard waits for his mate to wade along the trickling creek bed. We remember that we are guests of the forest and are only invited to stay a while. A ‘Sit-Spot’ session affords us the opportunity to show empathy and what it might feel like to be that someone or something that we have taken the time to observe.


Looking at Forest and Nature school through a self-regulation lens is new. In fact it is unique and innovative. We look at stress through a 5-step model, (Shanker Method™) and put on our self-regulation goggles. Through this new lens we see what may be the stressors and try to help find ways to deal with it. Yet what I am finding is the stressors for the students in the indoor class become virtually nonexistent in the outdoor forest class. What exactly do we see inside the Kindergarten room that perhaps might be considered stressors?


Inside Stressors for many students:

  1. Noise-

This could be anything ranging from the HVAC to the P.A system, bells to transition to lunch, loud children playing, music, blocks banging against the hard floor or the teachers singing a clean up song.

  1. Lighting-

The harsh fluorescent lights actually flicker and make a humming sound, not to mention the excessive brightness.

  1. Temperature-

Sometimes the lack of air movement with the beating sun on the windows creates a rather high temperature. Along with 27 bodies, it can get rather hot.

  1. Crowded-

With 27 small bodies vying for 2 teachers attention, it can get overwhelming for both teacher and student. We all require some personal space, which is rather difficult to procure in a classroom.

  1. Smell-

Bodily functions and small children are a given. There is no escape when encapsulated in a Kindergarten room!

  1. Transitions and Dictated schedules-

Being swept up in play and then forced to clean up and attend gym when you are 3 years old is not very child honouring. The gym alone with its sound reverberation and echo are enough to cause stress. Calisthenics for Kindergarten is not age appropriate, nor does it have any benefit to physical well-being. Play is what builds large muscles and the proprioceptive, and vestibular workout that children need.

  1. Bright Colours and Visual Overload-

In an effort to make classrooms appealing, teachers tend to decorate their rooms with brightly coloured bulletin board trims, paint in primary colours, order red, blue and green topped tables and store items in bright coloured plastic totes. Our eyes are never sure where to glance and become overwhelmed.


Overall we are creating a sensory storm that may be causing our students more harm than benefit. Consider calming colours, opening windows, turning off overhead lights and using soft glow bulbs in table lamps. Provide headphones, fidget toys, smell jars, yoga cards and a quiet space to calm.


But what about the forest? Let’s reframe


The forest offers hidey holes for quiet reflection, mother nature has created the perfect light bulb amongst the trees and she always wears the perfect scent. Sometimes it gets quite hot outside but it’s always significantly cooler under the tree canopy. We are never crowded as we frolic on hills and fallen trees. We climb those same trees and make new discoveries about the flora and fauna and ourselves. Our ears hear so many sounds that soothe us and sometimes rock us to sleep. We see such a variety of green and brown that never overwhelms us but instead offers a familiar colour scheme that makes us feel calm and alert. The forest is the best gym class that was never taught.


Self-Regulation is a paradigm revolution. I see it everywhere I turn and with every move that is made. As educators we tend to be driven by management, management of behaviour and management of time. Every minute of every hour must be filled with something new, exciting, educational and thought provoking. After all without this what would we need teachers for?

We must begin by looking much more closely in what we want to accomplish, where we see the future of education and what our students are missing in their lives. Granted some are missing much more than others, but what is every child in Canadian schools missing? I can say that all children are missing out on nature. Some are getting more than others, but collectively as educators, we are neglecting the lessons that nature can provide and the deep learning that cannot be duplicated inside a classroom. As a Forest and Nature School practitioner, I can say that in general, children who are not self-regulating in an indoor classroom miraculously can bring themselves to calm, happy and alert within a short amount of time in the forest classroom.

There is no better time than now to go deep into the forest to experience some of the best self-regulating calm, and beyond that, be on the look out for all those stressors in your life.

  1. Reframe the behaviour.
  2. Recognise the stressors.
  3. Reduce the Stress
  4. Reflect
  5. Respond

(The Mehrit Centre-

When you take the time to balance your own wellbeing, it pays forward to the students under your watch. As Dr. Stuart Shanker might say, “Stay Calm and Self-Reg on.” And I add to the sentiment by taking it into the forest!


Gail Molenaar is an RECE, an Early Years Consultant, a TMC Self-Reg Consultant  and a Forest and Nature School Practitioner.


Follow Gail on Facebook- Wander Wild Wonder or Twitter- @wildwander1





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