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

Advertisements

The Science of Art

Dana Mulder, one of the Tecumseh staff members, gave us the opportunity to experience the Science of Art last week.  She has developed a considerable amount of background knowledge through her work providing programs at Van Dusen Gardens and provided an after school session for interested staff members on dyeing wool from natural materials.  My experience to date with dyeing anything has been Rit dyes out of a package.  It felt like a whole new world was introduced.

Dana not only taught us about the natural dyes used historically but also the stories and collection of the plants and insects that they were derived from.  The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay, Wild Color  and Quilt History also provide a plethora of information for further exploration.  We learned there are three types of natural dyes derived from three different sources.  There are natural dyes obtained from plants (indigo), those obtained from animals (cochineal), and those obtained from minerals (ocher).

We used ALUM as the mordant to facilitate the chemical reaction that takes place between the dye and the fiber so that the dye is absorbed and brightens the colour slightly.  Other common mordants are: IRON (or copperas) which saddens or darken colors, bringing out green shades; TIN to brightens colors, especially reds, oranges and yellows; BLUE VITRIOL which saddens colors and brings out greens and TANNIC ACID used for tans and browns.  Some dyes like walnut hulls and lichens do not require mordants.

I chose the cochineal dye, not for the smell, but for the story and for the rich, red colour.  Historically cochineal was a valuable commodity, only beat out in trading popularity in Europe by silver and gold.  These dead insects, hence the smell, are ground with the mortar and pestle into a fine powder that is mixed with the alum for a beautiful colourfast dye.

As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers.  Knitting, crochet and embroidery projects were clearly enjoyable but also had a specific utilitarian purpose.  Creating clothing, decorating pillow cases and saving money were a driving force.  I learned to appreciate these endeavors and continued to pursue them and teach them to students as hobbies.  Dana’s session provided us the opportunity to consider the cross curricular connections implicit in the craft. Her dyes included crushed marigolds, dandelions, leaves and the cochineal insect.  Dana also provided information on respectful harvesting, although I have grand aspirations of our students stripping the ground of all traces of dandelions in spring to deal with this pernicious weed on our school grounds and use them for something purposeful!

The new curriculum in British Columbia gives educators the opportunity to consider the things that we do in schools through a new lense.  Dyeing wool no longer belongs solely in the realm of arts and crafts.  It becomes part of science, the stories of history and Indigenous practices, as well as outdoor education.  It also provides a high level of engagement that was able to keep educators at school after a week of parent-teacher conferences and preparing for professional development sessions the following day.  It continues to hold our attention as we shake our jars daily to distribute the colour and imagine the final outcome.  Special thanks to Dana for opening our eyes.  My Nanny Keenan would be thrilled .  She had fond memories of this long-haired sheep on the farm in Brandon, Manitoba.  I can only imagine what she could have done with these dyes!

 

Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine

imageInvestigating Our Practice Conference in the Faculty of Education on Saturday, May 14th.  The day was filled with poster presentations, talks and interactive experiences by undergraduates, grad students, faculty and alumni.  It was particularly exciting to see the level of engagement of the student giving up their very sunny Vancouver Saturday to consider a range of ideas and questions.  For those of you who are not Vancouverites, when the sun comes out in full glory, we go outside – never quite certain how long it will be around.

I had the pleasure of presenting The Outdoor Classroom:  Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine with Claire Rushton, Alli Tufaro and Ali Nasato.        We were pulled together by a common interest in the opportunity provided by outdoor learning.  This one interest was able to pull together so many elements that have been embraced as key ideas in the Redesigned Curriculum in British Columbia, such as:

  • The social emotional benefits of engaging with nature
  • The natural way in which we can engage students in practicing and understanding the First Nations Principles of Learning, including:
    • experiential learning
    • patience and time required for learning
    • exploring one’s identity
    • everyone and everything has a story
    • history matters
    • there are consequences to our actions
  • Ways to engage students in cross curricular learning opportunities
  • Connecting classroom lessons to the larger world
  • Using resources in the classroom to answer our questions about observations made outdoors
  • Reporting back about the things we care about to authentic audiences

Of course, the list goes on.  Another interesting aspect of our collaborative group was the power of inquiry in developing our professional practice as educators throughout different stages of our careers.  Both student teachers have found a way to focus their  professional learning throughout the practicum experience.  Claire Rushton, as the coordinator of the Social Emotional Learning cohort has used the outdoors to bring  Richard Louv’s work to life and introduce the power of “nature … as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life..” by integrating the experiences in nature to frame discussions of social – emotional learning. I have engaged in a personal inquiry of how to use iPad APPS  (photos, Drawing Pad, Book Creator, Twitter) as a way to access information, document and share outdoor learning.  I’ve also been able to support the staff I interact with on a regular basis in their own inquiries.  Inquiry, as framed by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser in Spirals of Inquiry, has provided a framework for beginning teachers as well as a school administrator and university instructor.  The learning has fuelled more questions and future inquiries.

 

I very much hope our collaboration continues…perhaps after the frenetic pace of the end of practicum, final observations and reports and end of year demands and celebrations!

UBC Students Support Outdoor Learning in Schools

imageI met Hartley Banack’s Faculty of Education (EDCP323) class outside the Botanical Gardens at UBC.   The class is a diversified group with some students completing Bachelor of Education requirements and some practicing educators working towards a diploma in Outdoor Education.  Several Vancouver schools are actively engaged in working with teachers and their Community Schools Teams to provide outdoor learning opportunities for their students so I was thrilled to be a part of this class.  We chatted about outdoor learning opportunities, challenges and goals at my school under the pagoda. We continued the discussion of possibilities and considerations en route to the amphitheater. Student presentations and discussion of articles focusing on experiential learning continued in a shaded area  of the amphitheater.  Discussing outdoor learning WHILE we were outdoors was a perfect.

imageIt was inspiring to be part of this class because it provides a model for outdoor learning that is currently being explored in many schools with a clear understanding of the merits of outdoor learning. In some cases, outdoor opportunities to learn are specifically focused on the sphere of P.E.  When I first started teaching in the Abbotsford school district, there was a P.E. specialist in every school.  The calibre of the instruction was high and I learned a lot from teachers with extensive background knowledge.  In my current context, I am still learning a lot from teachers with well developed background knowledge in Physical Education who are classroom teachers.  Mr. Wan has a passion for physical education and organizes equipment for classroom experiences, extra-curricular sports and outdoor opportunities at lunch.  His class each year  is trained  to set up badminton nets, the ping pong table and equipment for outdoor play at lunch time.  Ms. Harris has worked with Action Schools to train student leaders to facilitate games for the younger children and provide classroom equipment for outdoor play.  Teachers have participated in professional development and arranged for special outdoor events such as The Terry Fox Run, Sports Day, Jones Park play, Grade 6 Camp, kayaking in Deep Cove, Beach Day, and Queens Park day,  .  Parents actively fundraised for four years and worked with volunteers from the Knight and King Edward PriceSmart Foods to ensure out students had a playground for free play.

Ms. Collins, PAC and our ever supportive husbands worked with us to secure the Small neighbourhood grant and build four garden beds on the school grounds.  Several of our teachers have worked with their classes in the garden and been involved in programs such as Growing Chefs to teach students about science and food sources.  For many years Ms. Evans has worked with student leaders to facilitate participation in the Fruit and Veggie Program and the Dairy Foundation Program for early primary.  And yes, she even arranged for the cows to come to Tecumseh!  A sight to behold, kids sitting down on the cement fully engaged in just watching the cows.  School wide sorting of waste into composting, recycling and landfill garbage has also helped to extend learning about our environment and ecosystems.

Integrating outdoor learning beyond physical education and science is the next challenge.  Ms. Collins and Mr. Larson are actively involved in teaching students about human rights.  Their annual participation in Walk For Water is a great example of how the outdoor experience is integral to the learning.  Our playground includes picnic tables down by the swings.  This lends itself to allowing students to working outdoors.  One year my Grade 4 students looked up in the sky to see eagles attacking a crow.  It made for some great poetry!  The accessibility of iPads has allowed students to easily take their own photos to inspire or support their written work on Apps such as BookCreator or ExplainEverything.

Vancouver Schools are fortunate to have a well developed Community School Teams.  The secondary school and the elementary schools that feed into them form a hub.  Administrators meet regularly as a group and with the CST staff to provide opportunities and after school programs facilitated by student leaders from the secondary school and paid programmers.  In our school, the variety or field options and the garden allows for varied outdoor experiences.image

It is exciting for the discussion of outdoor learning opportunities in schools to be happening at the university and in schools with a mind to share ideas.   Hart Banack has assigned his students to form working groups to investigate the possibilities for outdoor learning in the school grounds and in the communities of several school sites in Vancouver.  The bank of ideas with details such as related costs and curriculum connections will be invaluable as the new year begins and yearly planning unfolds.  I can’t wait to hear their findings and ideas for sharing information with teachers.  Special thanks to Hart Banack, UBC and EDCP323 students for welcoming me into your class and supporting our work in schools.