Into the woods! Church toddler groups and forest school

Catherine Masterman shares her experience of setting up a forest school church toddler group – and the vision of church and mission that lies behind it.

Toddler groups bring more families into contact with churches than almost anything else, except perhaps food banks. Beyond grasping gratefully at the offer, does anyone wonder why churches provide them? Are they an outlet for nostalgic public-spirited housewives? Does the church think that coffee, toys and a chat will lure people to fill empty pews on a Sunday? Are they targeting vulnerable people in the hope they will be ‘get’ religion? And, by adding forest school into the mix, are we just following a fad?

My experience has gone from wincing inwardly when friends with kids before me enthused about the nursery rhymes, to finding them a lifeline with my first child, followed by starting one abroad with my second. Back home, I’ve structured my working week to launch one with a forest school element. They are a massive investment of time and energy. We need to know why we do it.  

At its best, any outreach by the church (and its members) is there to provide a signpost to the Christian story of humanity – a story of hope that offers a glimpse of the possibility of life, lived in all its fullness; where anxiety can be met with peace; fear with love, and isolation with acceptance and companionship – and none of this because of anything that has been earned or bought.  By modelling aspects of this, any church activity has the potential to be an insight into how the world could be (see postscript).

“Any church activity has the potential to be an insight into how the world could be, if ‘Love is the way.'”

Bishop Michael Curry, Royal Wedding 2018

Is this too much to claim for a malted milk and some duplo? I don’t think so. Without reaching the mucky details, any vision remains wishful thinking. Jesus lived in mucky details; restoring sight with mud and washing dirty feet. The details are messages are conveyed: All are welcome and valued – no one should be left to themselves unless they want to be. Companionship with other families is a great benefit, but introductions help friendships develop quickly. Inter-generational friendships with the volunteers are not easy to find outside family – yet give perspective to the daily worries and fears. Time freely given underpins the affordability of the group and emphasises how much it matters. These details, that convey the love for young families, draw people time and again.  

The forest school aspect builds on all these connections. This relationship with the natural world is as important part of the Biblical story as our relationship with ourselves and with each other. Providing forest activities builds children’s resilience and their own connection with nature, which will play a small part in restoring the connections we have lost as a society. It provides huge scope for exploring Biblical ideas – the stories of Jesus are full of references to nature and the changing seasons, and also the significance found in unexpected places, people or creatures. There are obviously practical challenges- not least the need for an experienced forest leader to develop appropriate activities, manage the risks and to sustain interest through bad weather. That means charging more for the outdoor element. But it is also providing so much more. Forest school builds children’s resilience. It caters for older pre-schoolers long after indoor settings are outgrown, making it easier to manage different sibling needs. This gives longer continuity of group relationships.   

A signpost can point in a particular direction, but it must also name the destination. Our group is advertised as a way to build connections – between local families, between church and community and between children and the natural world. We name the church connection through song and story time – the moment of collective interaction that is important for any community. Nursery rhymes are key for young children and it is straightforward to include a simply told, interactive Bible story relevant for the season or the activities on offer (always consistent with the Early Years Framework principles – I have 30 such stories I can share and will be adapting).

Without the clear connection to the church, there is a risk either of stoking suspicions of ulterior motive, or becoming entirely invisible and taken for granted. No one is being hoodwinked – particularly not if you include in the Bible story in publicity. Families attend of their own choice and any reaction or follow up is theirs to choose.

Any group or outreach will be flawed, however much we hold its vision to be true. But I am excited for the next stage. Do get in touch if you are already exploring this or would like to know more about what we learn as we go ‘into the woods’!

A Postscript on the Christian story – a vision of restoration

Why does anyone want or need that vision where ‘Love is the way?’ It is not the way in the world as we know it. The history of humanity, as told from Biblical times to today – is one of brokenness (to which the church and those who claim to follow Christ have contributed). Today, that brokenness is evident in our troubled sense of who we are, in our interpersonal and immediate relationships, the flawed functioning of our economic and society, and the destructiveness of our relationship with the natural world. The essence of the message is that if our divine Creator is the source not only of life, but the ‘love’ that could heal this brokenness, then a reconnection to this source of healing is what offers the possibility of all other forms of restoration.

“Brokenness” is more than just suffering. It implies there was/is something that needs restoring – and that there are pieces from which something can yet be made whole. These are the pieces that speak of love, wonder, beauty, imagination, trust, joy, compassion. That vision of restoration, of mending, of creating and forging anew comes from the heart of God and is what, above all else, characterised the life and works of Jesus Christ. He was living out the vision offered by a Divine Sovereign who not only made the world, (and displayed mastery over natural forces by the miracles and resurrection) but has promised to re-make it in a way that restores all those relationships – a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. Until that time, the work of the church is to cherish and piece together the moments that point to this possibility – albeit as imperfect people, working in an imperfect institution. Within the church this might have different names ‘outreach’ ‘Ministry’, Building the Kingdom’, Marks of Mission but however defined, all are an attempt at signposting this vision.

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