Friday, October 12, 2012

"This is Our Whispering Tree"

Connecting Our Children With Their Natural World 

The moon landing changed the way we think about our planet. Watching our amazing blue ball from the point of view of space, powerfully showed mankind, for the first time, just how connected we all are and how small and beautiful is the “third rock from the sun”. 
The current generation of schoolchildren are going have to solve some very confronting problems if mankind is to continue to live here.  Our Australian society lives as though we have 4.5 planets worth of resources, not just one. That this is unsustainable is patently obvious. However, how can we ask today’s youngsters to save something they don’t understand and with which they have no connection?  Before you can save it, you need to love, cherish and identify with it.
David Sobel(1) recognised this and wrote passionately and powerfully about the need to connect children with nature. There was even a term coined that described the disconnect – biophobia.  Cohen (2) defined biophobia as ranging “from discomfort in natural places to active scorn for whatever is not man made, managed or air-conditioned”. Dutcher, Findlay, et al (3) went one further and said that biophobia “manifested in the tendency to regard nature as nothing more than a disposable resource”.
So, where to start? Inspired by Clare Warden and her Nature Kindergartens in Scotland, and by the Forest Kindergartens in the Scandinavian countries,  we have experimented with giving our youngest students – those in Kindergarten, Transition and ELC – blocks of uninterrupted time down in the Blue Gum area of the ACEE.  This area has been left as natural as possible. A very large sandpit, several large logs, assorted stones, a fire circle and a dirt mound have been included in the area.
Any equipment provided is deliberately simple – bamboo poles, lengths of rope, pieces of wood, stones, lengths of hessian. Simon Nicholson (4) was convinced that it is the “loose parts” of our environment that empower our creativity, so these objects can be used in any way the children choose. The bamboo poles, for example, have been the skeleton of tepees, fishing poles for catching “log” fish, horses to ride and the framework for a jumping game.  The children understand that they will pack away all equipment in the appropriate box at the end of the day, all constructions have to be dismantled and they will leave the space as they found it.
As a place where children can work in “nature time”, (5) it has been fascinating to watch a fishing game develop over two and a half hours. Tying the rope onto the bamboo, then “catching” the fish by tying the other end onto a log, pulling it in, exclaiming over the catch (“Miss Helen, what fish is blue?”) carrying it carefully to the “boat” - a large old cardboard box, - stacking it so it doesn’t all roll back down the hill, then repeating the process. What was achieved? Knots were learnt, as was cooperation with one and other - “quick help me, mine’s real big!” - and the physics of slopes because fish logs, not stacked carefully roll back down the hill.  Imagination worked overtime categorising the “fish” and naming them. They were intensely, joyously, fully in the moment for longer than most adults can concentrate whilst developing the confidence to think, enquire, make connections and question.  With these skills they have the foundations for real learning for life. 
Each visit is different and surprisingly the same games are not repeated, although cubbies have developed interesting additions each time. Making face paint by grinding sandstone, digging up clay and making small creatures from it, weaving Lomandra leaves into jewellery, creating games involving jumping from logs, experimenting with sand and water, drawing on bark with charcoal from the fire pit, roasting potatoes, have all been highlights. It is also fascinating to observe that once the children settle into their chosen activities there are rarely disagreements or problems that they don’t deal with by themselves and very quickly because the outdoor space does not contain levels of expectation or set ways of working that get in the way of group dynamics. There appears to be an innate respect for others’ activities. Often a child will make something using grass, stones or pieces of wood and you will told “this is for Anna’s house” or “I’m making this for Peter’s game”.
Small creatures – spiders, insects, bugs – are all respected in this area. It is emphasised that this is their home, as much as it is the children’s play area. Once the creature has passed teacher inspection and been given a name – Charles, William, George or other serious regal names work really well – the fear or disgust turns to one of wonderment and concern. Interestingly, they are often searched for at the next visit to see if they are still alright. Small things are treasured and revisited each time. One group is especially fond of a log that is heart shaped. Another Kindergarten girl always searches for her favourite bright orange fungi whilst another always goes to a tree that has very smooth bark to give it a stroke.
But sometimes the magical moments have nothing to do with objects. My favourite occurred with two small girls who were sitting quietly, whispering occasionally, right at the bottom of the area under a large old gum. “This is our whispering tree”, one confided. The other explained. “This morning there was an invisible rainbow and it touched this tree, so that’s why it’s a whispering tree”.  That is the sort of magic that happens when children are free to engage fully, deeply and uninterrupted in their thinking.
The imagination, the connectedness, the intense concentration, and the sheer pleasure that these youngsters get from their time in this area has given us great pause for thought. It has made us question the way we structure a day and the need for more time connecting with simple, natural things. It has showed us how wonderfully intense the imaginative life of young children can be and how important their world is to them. It has powerfully demonstrated the need to sometimes NOT interfere or push adult agendas and how even young children, given trust and freedom will self-regulate, cooperate, and engage positively with one another.   And it has proved conclusively how simple, natural materials (those “loose things”)  in an outdoor setting can stimulate young imaginations in a way all our modern, high tech toys fail to. As Richard Louv (6) so elegantly expressed it: “Passion does not arrive on a CD or video; passion is personal. Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass stained sleeves to the heart”. 
1.       Sobel, D. (2008). Childhood and Nature – Design Principles for Educators. Maine: Stenhouse Publishers
2.       Cohen, S (1992) Promoting Ecological Awareness in Children. Childhood Education 87, p. 258
3.       Dutcher, Lindlay et al (2007) connectivity with Nature as a measurement of Environmental Values. Pg 474 Environmental Behaviour 39, p. 474
4.       Nicholson, S. (1971) How Not To Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts, Landscape Architecture 62, p30-35
5.       “Nature time” is Clare Warden’s expression for extended, uninterrupted, unstructured time spent in the natural landscape.
6.  Louv, R. (2010) Last Child in the Woods.  London: Atlantic Books p. 159

Helen Watkins
Head of Environmental Education
Abbotsleigh (Anglican Pre K-12 School for Girls) 
This article first appeared in Clippings (Edition 1, 2012) ... the professional development journal published by Abbotsleigh


No comments:

Post a Comment