Foraging: A Natural Education

“... Anything you teach in an indoor classroom can be taught outdoors, often in ways that are more enjoyable for children...”

Foraging: Key Skills Development

The outdoors is an amazing classroom for a child, offering so many fantastic opportunities for learning and development. In a similar vein to Forest School, foraging allows for the growth of a number of key developmental skills, including, risk-assessment, lifelong learning, communication and language, and personal and social development. Additionally, foraging also opens up other learning avenues to explore through experience and discussion, such as gaining an appreciation of the natural world, ecology, botany and mycology, and even theistic or spritual understanding. Collectively, this offers children a superb and engaging learning experience, separate from the confines of a traditional classroom, that takes place in a natural, stimulating, and most importantly, a fun, family-orientated environment. Foraging can help develop the following key skills:

Risk Taking

A foraging experience manages the positive elements needed for risk taking. This includes:

  • Supportive adults making risks apparent to children, setting boundaries, and not denying them the space to explore or intervening too early.
  • Encouraging children to make their own choices.
  • Opportunities to keep themselves and others safe within acceptable boundaries.
  • Encouraging children to assess their own risks.
  • Providing small achievable tasks.

Risk-taking is an essential element in liflong learning.

Lifelong Learning

Through a balance of both supported and self-initiated activities during a forage (such as searching for plants, and playing), children are encouraged to stretch beyond the usual boundaries set by the classroom and to eventually take risks safely by learning to assess the dangers of activities independently. This aids their decision making processes and their problem solving abilities. Additionally, the unstructured freedom that a forage brings ensures that the six key thinking and learning skills of; enquiry, hypothesis, information processing, decision making, communication and vocabulary, review and evaluation, are experienced regularly by children that forage.

Arthur saw a struggling bee on the floor and decided to help it, by placing it on a nearby flower.

“... When children play in natural spaces, they’re far more likely to invent their own games than in more structured settings – a key factor in becoming self-directed and inventive adults later in life ...”

Communication & Language

By incorporating fun and a child’s individual interests, foraging provides different starting points and appropriate content for individual children. Through interacting with parents and siblings regarding special interests children become motivated to use real language in real contexts, ensuring that language is meaningful. As learning occurs, children’s questions will change over time, becoming more focussed. For example, they may start early forages by exclaiming "Look at this!", but as time progresses and their knowledge grows, questions will become more complex and specific, such as "Why do the bees like this plant's flowers?", "How do plants grow?" or "Are these mushrooms poisonous like those others we saw last week?".

After identifying this Dyer's Mazegill, Arthur asked what dye is and what it is used for.

Personal & Social Development

By engaging in shared activities with adults, siblings and friends on a forage, children develop confidence and independence, which provides them with a sense of personal success and raised self esteem. Children also develop more focussed relationships with their family and peers through a shared learning experience, helping them grow their ability to work as part of a group and considering the needs of others, as well as themselves. Children also gain in confidence through adapting to new situations and in trying new experiences. This also impacts their ability to choose activities independently and their confidence in self-initiated tasks, which enriches the quality their educational experience.

Transferring Skills & Knowledge

Foraging provides children with a broad range of transferable skills and experiences. The diverse natural environment fosters a child's undertsanding of their own strengths, abilities, and weaknesses, and allows them to learn through the use of all five senses - sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. This, coupled with discussion, and the use of ID reference books, apps, and/or the internet, utilises a broad range of learning styles to further engage their interest. Foraging effectively allows learning to become creative, active and personal to the child and, by ensuring the activities engage and involve them, children will be more ‘disposed’ to learn.

We explore finds using our five senses - especially touch, allowing Arthur to feel textures.

“... Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves ...”

Educational Benefits Summary

  • Foraging is child-led and learning evolves from the the child’s interests.
  • Children develop good self-esteem in a climate of small achievable steps.
  • Provides a real context for language.
  • Provides parents with an alternative view of their child, and further insights into his or her particular development.
  • Foraging is beneficial to a child’s all-round development, particularly in the areas of personal, social, emotional, language and communication.
  • Underpins the principles laid down in the foundation stage guidelines.
  • Provides opportunities for children to take risks, problem solve, and use critical thinking skills.
  • Complements learning in the classroom and can be transferred.

Some of Arthur's Learning:

Understanding Plants and Mushrooms

A primary element for Arthur's learning has revolved around basic botany and mycology - understanding the shape and form of plants, flowers and mushrooms. These fields of study go hand-in-hand with foraging, as learning to identify plants and mushrooms is a primary skill. Arthur has learned very basic concepts, for example, that plants have stems, leaves, flowers and roots, and a classic-shaped mushroom has a cap, gills or pores, and a stem. He has also learned to identify many plants by sight, noting their colour, shape and smell. When promted, he can state the common names of many plants and mushrooms, particularly ones that have some meaning to him, such as "Gypsy Weed", which we collected to make a wash for his sister's eyes when they were gunked up, and chanterelles, as these are his favourite mushrooms to eat.

Exploring Different Habitats

Our foraging adventures have taken us to many different habitats, from deciduous, coniferous and mixed woodland, to farmland, grassland, waterways and beaches. In every location, we always take time to look at the trees, plants, mosses and soil that surrounds us to help Arthur understand that different environments will harbour different wild foods, insects and wildlife.

Understanding the Changing Seasons

As we regularly forage throughout the year, Arthur has learned about the changing seasons and how these affect the growth and lifecycles of trees, plants and to some extent, mushrooms. He has learned that certain plants only appear in Spring, such as daffodils and bluebells, and that different plants become available as the year progresses into Summer. Through playing in the fallen leaves he has also learned about Autumn and the changes to the landscape that it brings, and how the onset of colder days and darker nights signals the arrival of winter, when many plants "go to sleep". Experiencing the changing seasons has also given us the opportunity to learn about the pollination of flowers by bees and other insects, and the growth of fruit, berries, nuts and seeds, and how these then go on to produce new plants.

Recognising & Assessing Risks

One of the most important things I wanted Arthur to learn was that some plants and mushrooms are poisonous. What I certaintly didn't want to do though, was scare him into thinking that the mere sight of these species was something to be afraid of. A healthy respect is essential for a forager, so we explore these plants and mushrooms together carefully, comparing them with edible species that they may be confused with, such as the deadly Foxglove, with the edible Rosebay Willowherb - both tall green plants with purple flowers. Allowing him to touch and explore them, whilst explaining the danger that they present, removes the fear-factor, but still allows him to understand the importantance of knowing the difference between them. Together, we've explored many toxic plants and mushrooms, such as Fly Agaric, Death Cap, Sulphur Knight, Foxglove, Tansy and Yew and I am so very happy when he points these out to me on a forage, and tells me I shouldn't eat those!

Arthur also explores and assesses risks during play, by climbing trees or balancing on logs, puddle-jumping or wading in streams, or rolling down hills and leaping off rocks. Whilst I don't encourage reckless abandon when he's doing these things, I do encourage him to explore and conquer his own fears and trepidations, offering encouragement and support if he needs it, and obviously stepping in if he's over-reaching the limits of his personal safety! We always celebrate his achievements too, whether that's climbing higher than he ever has before, making the biggest splash, or releasing the stinkiest fart, ever - if it's important to him in that moment, then it's important to me, too!

Exploring Life Cycles & Death

In learning about the four seasons of the year, Arthur also started to gain an apprecition for the life cycles of plants, from shoots and flowers, to berries, nuts and fruit. This was reinforced and underpinned by the fact that we collected various wild edibles in these forms over the year, from Wild Garlic in Spring, Bilberries in the Summer and Fruit and mushrooms in Autumn. After finding some Puffball mushrooms at the end of their life cycle, we also explored how mushrooms release spores (by "puffing" the spent puffball sacks), which, after being dispersed, can later form new underground mushroom networks, just like the seeds of plants.

During a Summer forage, we also came accross a number animal bones in the woods, which we explored together and identified as a fox and a Northumberland Wild Goat. This promted Arthur to ask about death and how and why things die. Whilst this isn't the most pleasant of conversations to have with a child, it was apparent that he already had some understanding of death (from watching documentaries about predatory dinosaurs and other wildlife), but we also tentatively explained that all living things eventually die, sometimes from being very ill, sometimes by accident, and sometimes just from being very old. We had to reassure him that (as far as we could tell!), it would be quite a long time before we died and a very, very long time before he did, but it was an inevitable thing that always happens, eventually. We also explained that although it is sad when things die, it is a normal part of life that everyone, and every thing, experiences.

Discussing Sprituality & Belief

After finding the animal bones, the dicussion about death did open-up further questions about what happens and where we go after we die. We haven't raised Arthur with any specific religious beliefs, but we do have numerous religious and non-religious texts on the family bookshelf, including some about science and evolution, Buddhism, a Bible, a Quran, and a Torah, and we also acknowledge and celebrate numerous festivals at home, such as Easter, Christmas, Eide, Persian and Chinese New Years, Divali, Beltane and Samhein. We do this to give Arthur an appreciation of the diverse nature of belief around the world, and should he choose to follow one or more, or indeed, none at all, that is a decision that is purely his to make. Because of this, we felt that being honest and offering examples of "what some people believe" was the best course of action so as not to unduly influence his own opinion on any belief structure that he may choose to follow, or contradict any family members who wish to share their views with him. As such, we talked about some people believing in Heaven, in ressurection and re-birth, in becoming energy, or even becoming ghosts that watch over the family.

Exploring Weather Systems

One of Arthur's favourite play activities during a forage is puddle jumping, and one day he asked "Where does rain come from?". This led to a discussion about how water droplets rise up from the ground and into the clouds, before being carried and released back down again as rain in a perpetual cycle that provides all of the plants and animals in the world (and us!) with water.

On another occasion, after being caught in the beginnings of a thunderstorm on our way home from a forage, we also explored the origins of thunder and lightning whilst watching the beautiful natural lightshow on the hills from our back doorstep. We talked about how clouds can rub together when passing each other in the sky, which creates electricity. This electricity fills up their tummies the more they rub together, and when they become too full, they release it down to the ground from their bottoms as streaky lightning trumps, and a few seconds later, they grumble and groan about it. He then asked why they groan about trumping as it's lots of fun! The only thing I could think to tell him was that if he trumped out a lighting bolt, he'd grumble about it, too!

Identifying & Discussing Wildlife

Although Arthur's most favourite animal in the whole world is the Tyrannosaurus Rex, followed closely by Crocodiles of any variety, he does have a deep love of wildlife in general. We've been very lucky to have had numerous close encounters with some wonderful creatures out in the woods and forests, including newts, frogs, toads, lizards, adders, deer, red squirells, hedgehogs, owls, ospreys, and all manner of creepy crawlies, from spiders and ants to butterflies and moths. Occasionally, we do sometimes spot rare or uncommon species, which we report on scientific websites that monitor their distribution in the UK. Last year, we encountered the magnificent Sabre Wasp and the stunning Hummingbird Hawk-Moth, two beautiful insects that really captured Arthur's imagination. We also rescued and rehabilitated a Pipistrelle that had become trapped in one of our outbuildings - we gave it plenty of water and fed it hand-foraged insects before releasing it into the night sky from our garden.

Some Fun Learning Experiences for Arthur

Discovering our first Death Cap Mushroom, Amanita phalloides, on a foraging holiday in Scotland. This was quite monumental for the both of us, and I could see the cogs turning in his head as he considered that this tiny little mushroom could kill someone.

Discovering why the Sulphur Knight ...

... Is also called the "Gas Agaric"!

Exploring the beautful, but deadly foxglove

Discovering bones and exploring death

Learning about lifecycles, seeds and spores

Learning about the changing seasons

Close encounters of the toad kind

Rehabilitating Percival the Pipistrelle

“... Don’t wait until your child’s school understands how important green time is for their growing minds. Today, leave the homework untouched, in favour of outdoor play and real-world learning ...”