A Forest School Kind of Democracy…

Growing up in the US, democracy is a principle we're ingrained with.   Being an immigrant to the US, it also becomes a principle that is not easily taken for granted. Democratic values are in the core of who we are, almost from the beginning.  We're taught the importance of choice and of exercising that choice.  We're taught the importance of voting and the act of doing so.  We're taught the importance of taking part in the process that determines leaders and rights and ways of life.

Because we live abroad and are questioned on these American principles of democracy so often, sometimes in a curious way, and sometimes in a challenging way, I hold them dear.  And it's something that I want my children to hold dear.  It is after all, the main force behind why my parents would leave their own home, and language, and family, to start all over... But I assumed that in order to keep our cultural definition of democracy, our household would be the only place to teach it as we travel the world in little bits at a time.


The brochure for the school caught me by surprise.  It was in Danish, a language I don't speak.  After running sentence by sentence laboriously through Google Translate, I learned more and more about the Danish Forest Schooling system.  My daughter would eventually end up there, though initially, I had the same skepticism that any parent my had upon hearing that there are no books and no pencils in this school.  Only the promise of full day walks in the forest where the day would present the opportunity for lessons based on the environment.  Yet, the brochure promised, one of the foundational principles of this system of schooling, was teaching children to live democracy.

“How can that be?”, I thought.  Democracy was about individual choices and freedoms, and the right to be part of a process to move forward.  At least, it had become so in my mind. How could this principle really be so foundational in a forest school?

On my daughter's first day, I tagged along, to help her get settled.  The more I observed, the more I realized I had perhaps been missing something from my own definition of democracy all along.  Democracy here wasn't necessarily about the rights of the individual in a process, but rather, it was about taking into account the success of the group.  When 20 toddlers walk for six hours in a forest, some are bound to get tired, some are bound to fall down, and some, like my daughter, are caught unaware by new terrain.  Whereas she might otherwise be quick moving and independent, these new circumstances made her slow and clumsy.  In the democracy of the forest school though, no one gets left behind, including the new girl.

Without making her feel like an outcast, the group made sure she had a place in it.  When she navigated tree trunks and branches, the other girls took turns staying back to hold her hand to help her through it.  When she couldn't open her lunch box, someone showed her how to do it herself.  When she wasn't quick enough to catch her own frog, one of the boys gave her his.  No one asked the children to do these things, they just did them.  And no adult did these things for her, the children themselves did.  And that is indeed a different kind of democracy.

It's not that our definition of democracy was wrong; it’s that it was somewhat incomplete.  I still strongly believe in choices and freedoms and process.  But in order for those aspects to work, I lost track of the fact that part of our job in protecting democracy means that everyone needs to have access to those same choices and freedoms and processes.  Democracy isn't about one party or the other, or about how much is spent on an election...In order for democracy to work, what it should be about is the equal right to participate, and the equal right to have a voice. There will always be my daughter's equivalent in our broader group - some who are weaker, who are unfamiliar, who don't speak the language, who don't know the terrain... Democracy isn't about leaving them behind, or leaving them out.  Democracy is about making sure we reach the destination together.