What is a 'Forest Educator?
While most people can probably imagine or infer what someone means when they say the term 'forest educator', the exact definition can be tricky to pin down.
For some people, a 'forest educator' might be someone who specifically works in a certified 'Forest School' using a very specific set of program guidelines and curriculum model, based on the forest schooling movement.
However, this definition is perhaps too limiting and narrow in scope, as it leaves out so many others!
I believe 'Forest Educator' can be applied to a broad spectrum of people who range from nature crafts counselors at a summer camp, to wilderness survival instructors, to scouting troop leaders and even nature homeschool program facilitators. That is a very large family of people who are working with youth or adults and share about nature, skills and creative expression, in a variety of program models and settings.
These professionals share several things in common in their work, that weaves several key elements together that can help us include them in this large and growing family:
One: They work in nature, or include nature and natural materials in their curriculum as a dominant theme.
If a program is set outside, working with gardening, or nature art, it applies. If it is a wilderness canoe trip sharing low impact camping and travel, it applies. If it's focus is on making hand carved wooden spoons, it applies.
It might NOT apply if nature only is included in a tiny percentage of the overall program, so, some programs might stretch our imagination to call them actual forest educators, so it's a little subjective, but probably not that difficult to discern.
Two: They work with students in age-appropriate activities, carry and have adequate first aid equipment, gear and training to insure the program is safe. They also are well staffed for the number of students present and the educational setting for the program or activity has been inspected to insure that it is secure and in good working order.
I believe that being an 'educator' is a term that implies that the individual is a professional, and is therefore taking care to include these important logistical details. This is how educators take responsibility for the program outcomes and help their students by giving them an orientation to any new features or changes.
Story: I remember leading a 'Boy's Rite of Passage' program in a remote section of a county park, in their 'group campsite area' where the park staff let scout groups and other larger parties camp along a popular river. The actual area was difficult to find, with almost no signs, and when we did reach the small parking area, we found aging water supply systems, ancient picnic tables that were starting to come apart, and places where poison ivy was encroaching on the tent locations.
We had wisely gotten to this site and reserved it a day before the program, and we took some time to get oriented and find the campsites that would be the most beneficial for our curriculum and privacy needs. I got started putting up the tents for the students, and getting all of the cooking gear and food for the weekend in place, and my staff helped me with most of the big stuff. When I got done with my chores, I looked around to see what my staff were working on, and it made me so happy to see their progress.
One of them had gone down to use the primitive 'restroom' and found it filled with unclean spider webs, no toilet paper, and trash left blown around by the wind. I inspected it, and saw that they had put fresh paper in large ziplock bags to keep them dry, and everything had been swept and cleaned with some sort of organic surface cleaner and sponges. He had also hung a sign asking people to keep the toilet seat down to keep things smelling better, and he had sprinkled some baking soda in the pit as well.
My other two helpers had finished putting up tarps over the picnic tables in case of rain, to keep our tools and craft materials dry, and it looked fantastic. They had hung up some turkey feathers along the tarp lines to help people avoid them in the night, and they were actively cleaning broken glass and melted metal and other trash out of the fire pit with a shovel. They reset the stones and removed the ashes and charcoal, and created some benches and comfortable places for the students to sit and work on crafts around the fire.
We put up some string with orange flagging on it where we saw poison ivy, to help everyone both learn what it looked like, and also to avoid it throughout our camping trip. On our trip into town later that evening, we bought some poison ivy 'scrub' so anyone who did contact it could wash it thoroughly and minimize it's reaction.
We then explored all of the trails around the campsites, and we had brought hand saws and clippers, so we could trim back some of the branches and logs that had fallen or were in the way. There had been no meaningful trail maintenance in several years, so this was really helpful in making travel to the river and other teaching areas quick and easy.
As we sat around the fire that night, I realized that every one of my helpers was a dedicated, positive 'forest educator', fully committed to creating a powerful program and seeing how all of the details we addressed contributed to that goal. We didn't lose anyone to a poison ivy allergic reaction, and we survived and thrived despite a few sudden thunderstorms, and a few of the students said that they were surprised that the outhouses 'weren't that bad'!
I've been in many other programs as a guest instructor where these values and practices were not taught, and I've heard program leaders laugh at children who were afraid to go to the outhouse, telling them to 'Get Over It!' or 'Man Up'. When those students balked at the facilities, they were labeled 'troublemakers'. Multiple students got poison ivy or ticks, and where a mess by the time the parents picked them up from the program, which was problematic in so many ways. I've learned from great instructors AND from the not so great, and they have both taught me well!
Three Forest Educators are dedicated to helping students learn and grow 'where they are at', and not where they wish or imagine them to be, in terms of development, ability, or enthusiasm. They adapt their curriculum when necessary and know how to manage their own emotional response to situations to stay focused and effective.
I'm sure there are many other more specific ways to define a 'forest educator' and separate the wheat from the rye, so to speak, but for now, I like this big umbrella where we can all agree and find shelter and support under, and share our passion for helping our students get the benefits of learning in nature!
As always, I look forward to your responses, your ideas and your insights. -Ricardo