Nature as a Catalyst for Learning

False Creek Community Garden beside Vancouver Seawall August 2018

There is no teacher like direct experience to engage the head and heart in the process of learning.  Data about students becoming less curious as they move through the school system, is heart-breaking.   It begs the question – Why?  When my children were preschoolers, the day revolved around playing in the backyard, discovering new backyards of playmates and going to the park.  On sunny days they were dressed in  clothing to protect sensitive skin and exposed bits were slathered with sunscreen.  Other days included sweaters or “muddy buddies” or rubber boots or snowsuits.  Bottom line, those preschoolers were going outside for an adventure filled with fresh air and exercise and access to the wonders of the natural world around them.  Awe, curiosity, delight and question upon question were the standard of the day.

Richard Louv (2006) raised the alarm about our students who are increasingly demonstrating a “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods.  The nature deficit is something being experienced on a much bigger scale.   Baby boomers are perhaps the last generation to be pushed out the door to “Go play outside and be home by dinner”.  Accessible hand-held technology, less green space and a heightened sense of fear fed by the media, keeps  adults as well as children inside with repercussions for engagement with nature, physical fitness and mental health.  Some doctors are writing park prescriptions to assist patients in dealing with depression, high blood pressure and stress.  Groups like Wild About Vancouver, have initiatives to encourage people of all ages to get outside and get active.  The Japanese started a movement called “Shrin-yoko” or “forest bathing” in the 1980’s to improve physical and mental health.   It has taken the world by storm.  Regular “forest bathing” opportunities were scheduled in Vancouver’s 400 hectare rainforest, Stanley Park,  this summer and many other forested parks with around the world because going outdoors, looking, listening and breathing needs to be taught.

Engaging with nature is a catalyst for curiosity and the learning that comes with it.  The first time I saw a “Bear in the Area” sign in our local park when we moved to Coquitlam a suburb of Vancouver, I did the research to find out what I needed to know.   I went online, got books to share with my family, and talked to neighbours and friends and even the police officer sitting doing his notes in the parking lot.  Sailing, biking, skiing, snowboarding and  hiking, all come with required background knowledge and a skill set to keep yourself safe.  Every time we try something new, we learn.

The Child and Nature Alliance is astute in pointing out that the best way to get children outside, is to go with them.   My husband and I now have adult children.  However since their pre-school years, some of our best memories and best laughs are beach, park, biking and ski/snowboard adventures or the times just after, like reading Harry Potter aloud with hot chocolate by a fire.  Of course, developing relationship during outdoor activities necessitates putting the phone away and giving your family and friends your undivided attention.

Scott D. Sampson in his book, How To Raise A Wild Child:  The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature (2015) identifies three pathways (EMU) as being most critical to promoting nature connection based on published studies in anthropology, psychology, education, neuroscience, and biology.

  1. Experiencefirst hand knowledge – experiential learning, multi-sensory opportunities, unstructured times, emotional connection
Black Bear searching for blueberries in Minnekhada Park, Port Coquitlam, B.C. Sept. 2018

“American kids devote more than seven hours daily to staring at screens, replacing reality with virtual alternatives” (Sampson, 2015, p.5).  As with the advent of any technology, humans benefit from the advanced development of their prefrontal cortex, and the thinking skills to decide how best to utilize the technology.  I am a huge fan of using phones, iPads and computers as tools to access information and communicate learning to a wider audience.  When I’m outdoors, I use the camera on my cell phone and my iPad to focus my attention and capture things I find interesting or beautiful or memorable or that I want to explore more later.  However just as I was instructed to turn off the television and go play outside as a little girl, parents and educators need to assume responsibility for the amount of screen time they allow for the children in their care to growth and lead healthy lives.

Germany is well-known developing a love of the outdoors.  I remember hiking with my family in Schliersee.  We were so proud of our stellar progress upwards on our hike, when we rounded the corner and not only had someone been there, but they had installed a bench.  Britain is also well known for a population that engages outdoors.  The British outdoor kindergarten movement is growing.  Italy is known for the Reggio Emilio discovery based school movement.  There is widespread recognition that children benefit from learning outdoors in the places they know well.  It is outdoors that they can access the materials, solve problems and feed the curiosity that form the basis for important learning.  This is the reality of place based learning.

The outdoor classroom does not close because it’s raining.  I have recently adopted the slogan I learned from Scott D. Sampson’s book, How To Raise a Wild Child (2015): “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”  The rain in Vancouver  does present different opportunities for learning. while extending our understanding and appreciation what is is to live in a temperate rainforest.  When my daughter was 6 years old, we were travelling in Venice.  The rain started to fall and everyone ran for shelter.  Our family was quite delighted with the break from the heat and we splashed puddles down the centre of the street.  My little Vancouverite looked up at me, smiled and said “Oh, Mommy.  It smells like home.”  This is what the poet W.D. Auden (1947) must have been referring to when he coined the word “topophilia” which translates to a “love of place” to describe the bonds people form with the places where they live.  When you care about the place you live, both your heart and mind are open to the lessons they provide.  This necessitates outside experiences.

  1. Mentoringside by side exploration, mentors listen more than they talk, observe closely, inspire curiosity, “pull” stories from their mentees by asking questions that push the limits of awareness and knowledge
Ms. Phoenix discovering the mysterious appearance of tomatoes in the Butterfly Garden     University Hill Elementary School, Vancouver, B.C. – September 2018

I have been fortunate to be a teacher in British Columbia.  Teaching in Abbotsford meant the farm was in close proximity to learn about mammals, and the smell of manure in the air impacted learning about food systems.  In Coquitlam, spawning salmon at the end of a playground provided input for learning about life cycles and perseverance.  My current school is located in the Pacific Spirit Park.  Teachers are able to take students into the forest to discover more about the “wood wide web” and The Hidden Life of Trees, to the beaver dam to learn about our history and science, and down the beach to investigate yet another habitat.  My previous school was not surrounded by untouched wilderness, but it was there that we were able to follow the newly released butterflies to discover one of the best butterfly gardens I have ever seen cultivated by a local resident with a green thumb.  The best weather forecasters were the students who had learned to go outside and use all of their senses to make observations.  Those students had well-developed background knowledge about clouds and could tell you about the best weather APPS.   In all of these school contexts, what makes the biggest difference to student learning is the skillful mentoring of educators.  The questions they ask, and the student questions they reflect back to the group, helps students to hone their observation skills and risk asking questions about the things that matter to them personally.  The innovators who have mirrored nature in their products have spent time outside studying, observing, hypothesizing and experimenting.

           3. Understandingponder and learn about big understandings before mastery of  discrete pieces of factual knowledge

When I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who closed the curtains when anything particularly interesting was happening outside.  It could have been a first snowfall, a heavy downpour or the clouds dropping down to make the mountains nearly invisible.  Her intention was to eliminate distraction.  She was a conscientious teacher who was committed to our learning.  It was not an effective strategy for me.  All of my attention was directed to what was happening outside and why.  My imagination took me far away from the lessons of the day.   I would have a story worked out by the time recess and anxiously focused on the grand opening of the curtains.

Scott Sampson talks about using the power of learning from Indigenous culture that is grounded in nature and creation stories told from the perspective of animals, plants and landforms.  He uses the term “Going Coyote”  to reference using “the trickster coyote of Indigenous lore (creator with magical powers as a transformer, shape shifter, hiding in plain sight) to inspire caring and empathy for nature.  “The Coyote Club” at our school is grounded in active outdoor learning experiences that provide a model for respecting self, others and the environment.  It is embraced indoors and outdoors on a continuous basis.

By pre-school age, students have developed inquisitive minds and a skill set to find answers.  Children don’t need to be taught to ask questions.  They need to know that their questions matter.   They need to know that engaging in the world around them is what good learners do.  We want our children to continue to be inquisitive and identify the possibilities, to make observations, connection and ask new questions when they are outdoors as well as indoors at school.    Our challenge as educators is to redefine ways to feed the inquisitiveness of children coming into school while we broaden their opportunities to access information, to work collaboratively and to hone skills to find answers.  The outdoors provides not only an opportunity for physical activity but an opportunity for incredible cross curricular learning and mental health.  This is a place to observe and ask questions and learn through play.  To make connections with book learning.  To use technology to document and access new knowledge.  It is a place to be in awe and celebrate curiosity.

For ideas to engage children in nature activities, online information and lesson plans, please see:

How To Raise A Wild Child:  The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. by Scott D. Sampson (2015).

i love dirt – 52 activities to help you and your kids discover the wonders of nature by Jennifer Ward (2008)

Sharing Nature:  Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages by Joseph Bharat Cornell (2015)

The Nature Conservancy

The David Suzuki Foundation

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