Tuesday, May 17, 2016

how and why to use technology in a forest school

One of the draws of forest schools is the fact that many are 'unplugged'. At a time when our culture is becoming exponentially more digitally connected, we're noticing some pitfalls of being too connected. We are seeking ways to ground our thoughts and experiences, often literally by going out on the land and leaving technological devices behind. I think this is great, but I also think technology has a place in forest schools.

At Wild Art you'll definitely notice fewer electronic devices, which isn't even so much of an expressed rule as a matter of practicality when we're traipsing around over logs, through creeks and swamps, and up and down trees. We're too busy using our senses to bother with devices that require hands and mental focus. But there are exceptions.

It's important to me that wilderness is not just an escape from the rest of our lives, but that it is integral to our lives. That means that we have to let wilderness into our homes and technology from our homes into the wilderness. This way our thoughts and learning have no boundaries.

At Wild Art, a whole-world view and self-direction are paramount. Of all the things I hope people will learn at Wild Art, I hope most that they leave with a sense that their own engagement with the world matters. And technology is a part of our world. Banning it would be futile, and worse still, would force it into dark corners, where there is little support. So just as I welcome any conversation topic during the time we share together, I welcome technology.

Watches, visual aids, cell-phones and cameras are by far the most common devices among the kids I work with. Watches allow the kids to keep track of their own time, and sometimes help them understand the world around them (movement of the earth; weather, and even reflection and light as they play with the sun bouncing off their wrists). Visual aids are usually brought by me. I have a nice pair of binoculars, and flashlights are sometimes helpful, but the best of them is a pocket-sized 60x microscope that I carry around for looking at anything and everything that suits our fancy. Cell phones aren't that common. Many kids have them, but leave them behind for fear of damaging or losing them in the woods. I don't have one myself, and although occasionally someone pulls one out to check the time, take a photo or arrange a ride home, I rarely see them. I think that reception is pretty poor when we're in the forest out here, anyway. And cameras.

I love cameras. I document Wild Art days myself at least once a month, and sometimes the kids get involved with cameras, too. Getting new perspectives on the things we look at is always a great way to engage, and using cameras can be an excellent way to find and explore new vantage points. Camera-use also often means thinking about communication: Not only does it matter what we are communicating with our photos, but how does the photo-set up influence the viewer, and how does our own perspective influence the photo? All of these questions (and many others) come up and scatter widely into other areas of life. Even just the social interactions that arise from sharing our vantage points, our technological ideas and understanding, and our creativity are valuable. And this is all when the technology is on the side. What about when it's at the core of the group's inquiry?

Recently one of the Wild Art groups made a movie. It was a natural path to take, since their engagement had been mostly social, comedic, and with a lot of talk about video games they had been playing at home. So I embraced it and suggested movie-making. They spent the next four weeks developing and filming their funny idea, and this is the result:

(Thanks to these wonderful teens for allowing me to share their movie!)

They also presented their movie in the woods, using a projector, a king-size sheet, about a hundred and fifty feet of extension cords, and some ropes, sticks and rocks to set it all up. It seemed to me like a fabulous combination of technology and wilderness.

But what about the wilderness? Doesn't all this technology take away from our engagement with it? Maybe. But it also deepens our engagement. When we work and live in the wilderness, we can't help but be deeply familiar with it. Just like you know the feeling of your favourite pillow under your head, you know the different feelings of sitting on various types of moss and bark if you've spent enough time doing so. You know what species of tree branches will work best to hold up your bed-sheet movie screen, and what age of fern-fronds will be strong enough to tie a knot with. You know which twigs you can break off for convenience, and which are still alive and better left alone. You not only become familiar with the species of plants, insects and other animals that you cross paths with in the wild, but you become aware of their habits, their habitat, and the way these things matter and intersect with your own life. You will be an integral, engaged, and conscientious part of the world. And after all, isn't that what we use technology for?

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