Nature As a Teacher? Of Course!
Let’s see…IF a connection to nature is important for our children, do you think like I do that we can couch most, if not all learning in the palm of the natural world? In my next several posts, I want to explore that question because it gets me riled up! Through natural experiences and materials, I think it is not only possible, it is a magnificent alternative to the plastic and uniform lessons well meaning parents and schools work so hard to create.
In fact, how could any of us possibly believe that we could improve on the beauty and symmetry lying at our feet and shining down on our heads wherever we are?
Research Affirms What We Already Know
The research is clear. Of course it is! Volumes of studies affirm the value of nature for well-being. Regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors supports development in every major way: intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical. Examples that only touch the surface: Even being near nature or having a lovely view enhances focus and the ability to learn, and can lower blood pressure. For many children, senses and sensibilities are significantly improved through the variety of sensory stimuli experienced outdoors. Movement in nature not only strengthens the muscles but also offers a chance to challenge and refine balance and agility. Children given a choice to play on a playground or in green or natural spaces choose the latter. Green areas support creativity, problem solving, and cooperation more than man made playgrounds. Inner city children, and especially girls, who were given some time outdoors around plants and open spaces showed improved self-discipline, self-control, and peaceful feelings.
Along with all of the Why described in research, we also have the How figured out. There are inspirational books and blogs and clever Pinterest boards literally at our fingertips that spell out exactly how to dramatically improve outdoor play and work spaces for children. In fact, the sheer number of creative ideas can make some of us weak in the knees!
All of these valuable scientific findings and resources have resulted in what? Cuts in outdoor recess, field trips, and opportunities for physical movement in general. More prescribed pills to improve lack of focus and self-control. More video and online electronic learning that disrupt attention spans, and hardly anyone even walks or rides a bike to school anymore. Huh??
Is There a Middle Ground?
So, there is the charming bliss of the very young unschooled, unhurried puddle splashers and their parents who believe in the spirit of childhood. Check out this sweet video!
Beyond that, I think many adults feel kind of stuck about how to cross into more formal learning without losing that spirit of freedom and wonder. These adults ask a very good question, because the hardest part of this is to try and figure out a way not to ruin nature for the child with all of our rules. (After all, what could possibly go wrong when an adult gets between a child and the natural world?)
Whether it is us individually as parents, or the Board of Education, once we decide to teach something, we tend to make a mess of it. We need schedules and a syllabus. Then we create objectives and assignments. Then textbooks and evaluations. Soon “Outdoor Education” becomes more of the same, and we have killed it’s spirit. A bad lesson is bad, whether it is given inside at a desk, or outside in a forest, right?
Oh, and you know that sooner or later, the State Health Department gives day cares and schools new regulations for handling earthworms, eating fresh snow, and the length of sticks children can hold without eye protection. Of course we understand that sticks pose a certain level of risk, but should we really be that worried that an eyeball will be poked out? We do allow children to use pencils after all, and who hasn’t experienced the dreaded paper cut in the safety of their own classroom? We trip, we crash, we skin our knees, we pinch our fingers, get sand in our eyes, bite our lips, and occasionally choke a bit on food or drink, but we also live and learn. Usually.
Not to make light of the unfortunate “one in a million” being blinded by a stick, of course, but all of those experiences listed above are almost always more effective than taping a safety checklist of “Don’ts” to read aloud on the classroom wall. Just let me say…the risk is worth the reward when it comes to playing in nature, and I don’t want to be the adult that teaches a child to be afraid to experience new things, create with real sticks, dirt, and rocks, or try their hardest (aka risk) while they are outdoors.
Connecting With Sensitivity and Knowledge
We know that Nature makes us feel better. Outdoor play is good for our souls, minds and bodies. (Please read Children and Nature: Why It Matters by P. Donohue Shortridge who reminds us that direct experience in nature frames the child’s references for all future understanding about what is real and what is not). While we nod in agreement, and say we understand the importance of natural experiences, we still worry about…How our children will ever “Pass The Tests” or “Learn To Read” if they are outside playing instead of studying?
Adults Are the Key
With deep understanding of the child’s sequence of basic needs, how young children learn best, the value of time and play for learning, and the importance of sparking initial enthusiasm, adults can design joyful and meaningful learning that will inspire more questions. I truly believe that an adult who can provide the right fuel at the right time can then stand back and watch the child’s imagination and wonder capture the gifts of nature on their own. Children will connect and apply what they learn to become healthy, creative, social, and scientific in their daily lives.
But first…Before any wise adult can provide this fuel and begin to teach, there has to be a particular groundwork laid in respect of the young human before them. It is groundwork that many educators take for granted, and occasionally even try to skip over because they are crunched for time. Children must to be both physically and emotionally ready to learn.
That’s what I want to think about next…Can Nature Give Children Emotional Support? Please join me for more thoughts centered around the theme of “Children and Nature.”