I arrived in a hurry, it was already late and I hadn't even started getting my space ready for a days 'teaching', thirty excited and expectant children would arrive very soon and I was feeling very unprepared. Many teachers may have encountered a similar experience to this,
however the 'readying of my space' takes a little more effort than sharpening pencils and pushing a few chairs under tables.
My 'classroom' is a one acre forest, each day I build a safe boundary, erect shelters, chop wood, light a fire, set up a toilet and prepare a kitchen. Occasionally I pick up dog poo, remove litter, extinguish smouldering wheelie bins and I once found a group of sixteen young adults asleep in the very space where I tell stories, a music docking station still gently vibrating to the sound of the latest RnB hits! Yet, on other days I'm greeted by a woodpecker drumming on a dead tree, a friendly robin, a cautious deer or a guilty squirrel hanging from my bird feeder again.
On this particular day though I was greeted by something totally unique; a dead animal. A dead wood pigeon to be precise! As I spotted it I was filled with sorrow then under closer inspection sadness at the poor birds stupidity. If you know anything about pigeons you'd be aware that they are very intelligent creatures, only one of six animals outside of mammals that can recognise their reflection! Its a real shame that this pigeon had failed to recognise the huge oak tree that it lay beneath.
I picked the poor bird up to find it was still warm, there were no marks on it and the cause of death was clear as its broken neck hung loosely. Immediately I thought how amazing it was to be able to look so closely at this beautiful bird, I fanned out its wings, and its tail to reveals a myriad of colours and shades. For a moment I became lost in the wonder of this fascinating creature. Then suddenly realised that the clock was ticking and I had a lot to do. At this moment I paused, and encourage you to too...........what would yo do if you arrived at school and found a dead animal in your classroom?
In my mind I quickly checked a few things:
The pigeon is dead: CHECK
The pigeon died of a broken neck: CHECK
The pigeon is not disgusting: CHECK
The pigeon is not diseased: CHECK
Its very cool get to see a pigeon this close in its natural environment: CHECK
In its death the pigeon has the opportunity to teach and inspire: CHECK
So with very little risk to the children and massive potential for engaging the children with a very unique and memorable natural experience, I placed it back on the ground where I had found it and continued frantically rushing around the woods setting things up, nimbly manoeuvring to avoid any large oak trees! Maybe the children would find the wood pigeon, or maybe they wouldn't only time would tell.
And, of course they found it!
Within 15 minutes of the children 'heading off to play' they discovered the wood pigeon at the bottom of the oak tree. To my glee they were as inquisitive and curious about the bird as I had been. We gathered around it and spoke about its breed, its habitat and how we thought it had died. We looked carefully at its body, put on gloves and examined its wings, tail, head and breasts. The children were amazed by the colours and intricate design of its body. I was beginning to wonder where we would go from here when one of the children shouted, "the wood pigeon needs a name". Another child cried out "lets call him Woody". And in a strange twist woody the dead wood pigeon was born. What transpired over the next hour took me completely by surprise and could only have happened in a child-led environment.
Together the children decided that Woody needed to be laid to rest in the proper way. One child took the lead role in organising the proceedings. There would be a coffin made from cardboard and tied together with twine, some children would be responsible for digging the grave. Two children who were experienced in lashings volunteered to square lash a cross and scribe the name "Woody" on it with charcoal from the fire. A number of children then offered to write a poem about Woody, while some picked up the djembe drums and tambourines and began composing a goodbye song for him. The children pulled out all the stops and held a full funeral for Woody, a truly magnificent send off.
At the end of the session we gathered around the campfire to discuss the session. Many children spoke about their sadness at Woody' passing but also at their pride of giving him an honourable 'send off'. A child-led discussion then began about where Woody would now go, some children spoke about 'heaven' while others believed he'd become another bird.
Welcome to Forest School, welcome to my classroom. During that day I witnessed a wonderful learning experience: we studied the anatomy of a bird, we discussed habitats, we spoke about how a bird flies, the children showed empathy and compassion toward a creature, we experimented with music and poetry and we discussed the spirituality of life and death. Forest School is a holistic approach to learning, each day is totally different and we are guided by nature in our practice, on that day I'm so pleased that I left the dead animal in my classroom!