Instead of “No”, Try saying “Oh!” By Lynn Coalson

Greetings from sunny, beautiful northeast Florida. In preparation for St John’s tide, I am remembering the festival we had during my LifeWays Training in Milwaukee, many years ago… According to some traditions, a bonfire was built to celebrate midsummer and the birth of St. John the Baptist, and as the fire burned down to embers, adults and children enjoyed leaping over it! At first, I was a little taken aback ….Thoughts of someone falling and getting burned flooded my imagination.  Second, I thought of Cynthia Aldinger’s words, “When experiencing something new, instead of saying ‘No,’ try saying ‘Oh.'”  “Oh, that looks fun. I want a turn!”  What I experienced was a joyous release of negativity and a triumphant receiving of possibility!  I almost let fear and that inner “should not” and “What if?” rob me of this moment of joy. Preparations for the festival included safety precautions: buckets of water were placed near the fire; someone had a first aid kit; and fire safety guidelines were clearly explained in a friendly manner to all who attended the bonfire, before it was ignited. Parents guided their own children in the leap of faith over the embers, and … everyone had fun and nobody got hurt.

At a recent First Aid/CPR training class, our instructor explained that putting safety protocols in place actually allows for greater enjoyment. This was certainly the case in our St John’s festivities, and a model we follow at the Seaside Playgarden Forest Kindergarten. Our Forest Program takes weekly field trips to a local park on Mondays and Tuesdays.  The park provides the perfect setting with its pristine Florida scrub hammock, forest, wetland, dunes, and beach all in one location. The parents drop off and pick up their children at a designated area within the park.

We have just completed our second year of offering this 3-day program, with 2 days off campus in the Forest, and 1 day on campus. The program quickly grew from, ”Did you say Forest Kindergarten? What’s that?” to a waiting list and the addition 2 more Forest programs! This upcoming school year we will offer 3 Forest programs, with 2-, 3- and 5-day options. 

Five days in the forest is a dream come true, and “Boy Howdy,” are we ready!  Five days completely out of doors, every day, no shelter, no kitchen, no toys, just trees, creeks, wild flowers, sticks, stones, shells, critters, alligators, snakes, spiders, bees, wasps, scorpions, extreme hot humid weather in the fall, and cold enough for down jackets and long Johns (oops, I mean “base layers”- showing my age…) in the winter.

The first two years were an education in preparedness, developing safety and weather emergency protocols, parent education and communication, community relations (the police and fire departments and the park rangers know our schedule), and developing plans B, C and D. A car seat is installed in my vehicle, which is kept nearby, in case of a snake bite requiring quick transport. We made sure we addressed every variable and “What if?” we could think of with a written protocol, to reassure parents and board members that their children would be as safe as possible.  Our “Forest K Parent Handbook” was a joint effort, and several of the board of directors helped write our “Severe Weather and Emergency Policies and Procedures.”

Emergency response time in our city is 9 minutes, from a 911 call to arrival on the scene. Our Forest field trip location is 10 to 15 minutes away from both the ER and our “alternate location in case of severe weather.” The Seaside Playgarden is in Jacksonville, Floriday. Severe weather in Florida means hurricanes and lightening and, since we are a coastal community, this is a “What if?” we can count on.

In light of all this, our forest program is fun based and not fear based. I believe this is a result of providing families with clear information and lots and lots of exposure with pictures and newsletters that highlight our Forest experiences.

I host a Forest Information Night for our families in January, shortly before enrollment for program offerings for the next school year begins. I explain how an all-outdoor everyday program must be a good match for both parents and children, if it is to be a positive experience. Otherwise, it will not work. When a parent said to me that she thought it would be really good for her child, but that she was a proud helicopter worry-wart parent, I knew that this was not a good match and, in fact, could be a detriment to the success of our program. Happily, we had availability in an on-campus programs, which turned out to be a perfect match for this family.

I am open and honest, and even frank with parent questions. I want them to know exactly what they are signing up for. I also explain the commitment level I require of them when they choose an all-outdoor program for their children. This commitment includes providing proper clothing and gear for their child, regular attendance, punctuality and being informed.  The Forest Kindergarten parents will become advocates of outdoor education, so it’s important that they can confidently speak about its benefits.

Commitment requires trust, and trust is something we strive to build between teachers and families. I made it well known that our Forest K teachers and assistants are well trained. In addition to First Aid/CPR, our teachers also attend Wilderness First Aid training, and Red Cross Life Guard training and Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten teacher training.  I feel it is important that parents and community members feel confident in our competence. This helps to strengthen the bond of trust.  Unfortunately, no matter how well we anticipate and prepare, accidents happen. Yes, a little girl fell from a tree and broke her arm. Yes, a little boy got several stings while hiding near a ground yellow jacket nest and, yes, we often fall in the creek while crossing a log bridge. Each time we were prepared and immediately administered proper first aid, per our protocol. Sometimes we get hurt, stung, scraped, bumped and bruised, but we always come back for more. The benefits of this free range outdoor experience outweigh the risks, and the risks are minimized due to strong safety protocols and training.

Putting secure safety guidelines and protocols in place helps secure a trusting relationship between parents, caregivers and teachers.  As our First Aid instructor Rachel Austin told us, having safety procedures in place allows for greater enjoyment. She should know because she has been a Kayak Adventure outfitter for many years! What a great match for our Forest Kindergarten and Seaside Playgarden, where outside play, every day, in all kinds of weather, is what we do.

Submitted with Joy, by Lynn Coalson, Seasideplaygarden Forest Kindergarten Teacher and LifeWays graduate. Seaside Playgarden is a LifeWays Representative Program in Jacksonville, Florida.