Prosocial Behavior in the Forest

Working at Forest Kindergarten is a fantastic opportunity to observe what I have read in the research on environmental education and nature play come to life. This week, I was struck by the many instances of prosocial behaviors I saw among the children. Whenever I attend a conference or read a blog advocating for nature play for children, evidence of how nature play promotes cooperative behavior amongst children and reduces conflict is almost always put forth. For example, a recent research article I read about how children play and use natural schoolyards found this:
”The young elementary school students overwhelmingly chose wooded areas over a playground for play during recess. Reported benefits include physical independence, supportive social relationships, and imaginative play. Children learned physical and social competence, formed complex cultures and alliances, and developed autonomy. Teachers and parents observed enhanced attention and decreased anxiety among the children.” You can read the full research summary here.

What I thought was especially interesting about this article, was how children chose the wooded areas over playgrounds. Play is important and when children play on traditional playgrounds at school, they do develop prosocial skills. Yet, when given the autonomy to choose their play, this research shows children prefer the woods.  How exciting for us at Forest Kindergarten to have evidence that the environment we are offering children for learning and experiencing the world honors a choice that children seem to prefer.

Of course, what is also exciting is seeing the research in action- and there was ample evidence this week to support everything I have read!!  From simple acts of helpfulness to the formation of new relationships, the children’s actions together showed how our regular time in the forest has provided opportunities for children to develop prosocial skills. One small story was between Will and Larkin.  Will kept losing one of his boots this week, and needed help getting it back on. Teachers try intentionally to encourage children to seek the help of other children, instead of always relying on us for help. We also encourage children to notice when someone in our group needs help. In this instance, when Will’s boot fell off, Larkin was very close by. Amy asked Larkin if she could pass Will his boot. Instead of just passing it to him, she picked it up and told him she would help him put it on. She then gently pushed it on his foot and helped him stand up in it. From our experience with lots of rainy and muddy days, the children know how important boots are to playing comfortably in the woods. Larkin took an extra step of helpfulness that made sure Will could keep playing easily with the group.

Forest play also offers children opportunities to challenge their physical abilities, and develop physical independence that they are deservedly proud of. The pride children have in mastering a complex physical challenge that they chose for themselves is something they want to share, and this can also lead to prosocial behavior. On Friday, Luke wanted to move across a steep slope, a task made even more difficult by the slippery mud coating the slope. Luke asked Amy for help, but Wendell was nearby and had just made the crossing. Wendell was very proud of his skill, and offered to show Luke how to do it. Wendell took on the role of teacher, and told Luke how he used a root to hold onto and talked Luke through how he moved his feet to keep from slipping. Both children were able to cross in this way, and share a sense of accomplishment together.

The many different components of the forest also provide children a chance to develop new relationships, based on shared interests. Not every child will be interested in mushrooms, but two children who have not played together much before may find a new way to share play based on an interest in mushrooms. The same goes for acorns, leaves, squirrels, sticks, and the many other natural provocations we find and could not replicate in an indoor setting. During small group this week, Sammy chose not to play with his regular playgroup and picked doing a mushroom hike with a few other children and Kylie. Margaret also enjoyed finding mushrooms and this shared activity created new bonds among children. By lunch time, Sammy and Margaret wanted to sit next to each other!

We don’t get to see every instance of children cooperating, helping each other, and building new relationships but we keep watching each week to see what happens between and among children as we play in the forest. New opportunities for children to work together will arise, and as spring progresses over the next 3 weeks, changes in the forest may provoke other children to play with new companions and celebrate shared interests together!