One of the central features of our approach to early learning at the Hummingbird Children’s Centre is using nature as a central learning resource. In general if you ask someone to picture a place where they feel really happy or at peace it is connecting with other people and/or in a natural setting. Through urbanisation we are losing this connection with nature and the effects on our emotional and physical health are worrying. What I find most concerning is the growing perception of the outdoors as an unsafe place to play and a growing isolation and fear of nature as we become more preoccupied with electronic media and live overscheduled lives. There is however a huge movement globally to reconnect children (and adults) with nature and to provide opportunities for healthy risk-taking that climbing trees, playing in mud, swimming in natural water etc provide. We need to find our place in this movement and explore our unique history with nature in this country. Forced removals and the way people became divorced from their ancestral lands has impacted on their relationship with nature. We need to talk seriously about how we can re-instil in children a proud heritage of environmental custodianship and an awareness of our interconnection and dependence on nature that was so strong and central to the way of life in pre-colonial times.
When I was working in Cape Town last year I met with teachers who were planning an ‘outdoor classroom’ for a group of local schools. The plans consisted of building concrete pathways through a little area of marshland, building a log circle and putting up various information boards on local wildlife and flora and fauna. And that was it. Where I thought is the fun in that? Granted I work with a younger age group where play is paramount but I found it hard to see how that would get tech-obsessed school kids turned onto nature. I remember those kind of field trips well, 1 or 2 hours walking around with a clipboard, checklist… can you identify this plant, how many legs does a pond-skater have etc. I also vividly remember a school camp where we had the whole day on our own to build a bridge across a stream with the materials available in the surrounding woods. Now that was fun – trial and error, team work, lots of mud, someone fell into the stream testing the bridges strength. Good times! Memorable. Character building. Experiential.
The first kind of approach which I find most common now in mainstream environmental education comes from the idea that nature is something outside of us, over there, that must be tamed, categorised and monitored. I am more inclined to see that we are nature and that learning from nature means spending time in it, getting down and dirty, mucking about or just ‘being’ and observing natures ways. Both approaches have their place, yes we do need clipboards and checklists in life but the latter kind of experience, for me, formed a lasting positive connection with nature and the lessons stayed with me for life. I don’t remember how many legs a pond-skater has but I learnt the importance of learning from mistakes, of collaboration and that nature always provides and we must do all we can to protect it. And I know how to build a bridge should the need ever arise. For me an outdoor classroom is a place to explore and experiment with natural open-ended materials and should foster sensory, experiential and inquiry-based learning. So it is about how as practitioners we engage with that space and the boundaries and opportunities we create for children in a natural setting. We can choose to view nature as a zoo – look, but don’t touch or feed the animals, or, we can choose to loosen the reigns a little and literally let nature take its course – which is to feel, experiment and most probably get burnt. That is the way I believe we truly learn.
Soon after the Cape Town excursion I read ‘Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louv (activist, author and the most prominent voice in the ‘back to nature’ movement who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’) which validated some of my assumptions about current practice in environmental education.
“Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child. As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”
His book is a meticulously researched analysis of how we came to ‘nature deficit disorder’ but is also filled with solutions to support why nature is so important in our children’s lives. He says:
“At the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies. As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature. Reducing that deficit—healing the broken bond between our young and nature—is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it. The health of the earth is at stake as well.
My first formal teaching job in 2008 was as an assistant at a school in Poplar, east London. We were very fortunate to have a small wild garden with a pond, a rarity in inner city London, and in most schools globally actually. It was fenced off from the rest of the playground, wild and overgrown and very out of place in contrast to the asphalt playground, the towering grey council housing blocks and Canary Wharf in the background. For the first 2 months of working there no-one ever set foot in that garden. My job was to assist a four year boy (who I will call Leo), who had been through some trauma in an abusive domestic environment. He had become disruptive in class –more withdrawn, daily temper tantrums and was becoming more and more violent towards staff and the other children. This is one of the quirks of the British educational system – placing the most vulnerable children with the least trained, experienced (and lowest paid) members of staff. I worked on instinct which is all I had at the time.
The garden became a very important tool for me during that year. After one of Leo’s rages which at the beginning of my placement happened a few times a day, I felt like we needed to breathe, let off steam and get out of the classroom so I asked if I could take him to the garden. “Yes fine, but be careful” said one of the teachers. So we went and walked around, letting off the steam and then Leo came to the pond which was semi-frozen. There he found a fish encased in the top layer of ice. I was quickly instructed to find a stick so we could rescue the fish. He hacked away at the ice feverishly and then scooped the fish up, and there it lay in his hands – “Miss, it’s dead!” – beyond salvation. We gave the fish a proper burial, Leo said a prayer. We talked about death and life and it was a turning point in my all too brief journey with Leo. After that it was a challenge to keep him in the classroom, all he wanted was to be in the garden and to find more dead fish. So the garden became a reward and a sanctuary all at once and we started to see a huge shift in his behavior, concentration and participation levels. Soon he began recounting the garden adventures to his classmates, they would peer over the fence while we had our garden time and they also wanted garden time. I started feeling the resentment of the teachers. Garden time meant being out in the cold and possibly getting dirty and it didn’t fit in with the Early Years Foundation Stage lesson plans. But in our time there we covered all if not more of the EYFS requirements – we learnt about colours, numbers, shapes, patterns, seasons, time, animals, plants, we told stories….and we talked about life and death. How lucky they were for an inner city school to have this space, it was depressing to see it so underutilised.
That job (which I fell into by ‘accident’) and that garden set me on a wildly different career path than I had imagined for myself. Come to think of it my first voluntary job (of choice) aged 16 was in a nursery in west London and I loved it, but I knew then, as I know now, that there is absolutely no money or prestige in early childhood education. Around the time I started working in Poplar the influential voices around me were veering me in the direction of higher education (only slightly more money and prestige) but there is nothing that brings more joy or meaning to my life than being in a garden and watching children learn. It was through my own experiential learning that I came to the conclusion that we need to put nature at the heart of our early learning approaches. Returning to South Africa and furthering my work in ECD I am always shocked at how little time children spend outdoors during the school day and how sparse some of the outdoor environments are. Given the favorable climate we have and that people flock to this country to marvel at our beautiful landscapes and wildlife, I wonder why we overlook this in our day to day lives.
Every school should have a wild garden, or outdoor classroom, that is the very least we can do to bridge this nature disconnect we are facing. I witnessed in a short pace of time how effective a tool the outdoors was, therapeutically and educationally. My wish when I retire in 30 years’ time is that every family/child from age 3 has access to an affordable, quality preschool education and that we root that education in a nature-based approach. High hopes. So idealism aside, here’s maybe a few ways how:
- Rethinking nature in the curriculum – being in nature not just learning through books, internet or audio-visual resources
- Promoting nature playgrounds in schools and local parks – see in particular Learning through Landscapes study of natural playgrounds in schools in Berlin.
- Creating ‘adventure playgrounds’/‘wild zones’ in local parks – these are places where children and adults can co-create a new form of public space that is dedicated to creativity and play in nature. They differ from parks and play areas because they offer opportunities to interact with the environment rather than leaving it untouched. They are outdoor laboratories of creativity with open-ended possibilities for self-designed play, creativity, learning, and socializing.
- More funding for term-time and holiday nature camps for children in urban settings that do not get to spend holidays outside of the city.
As Richard Louv rightly suggests, “how the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes—our daily lives”. If we are to create a sustainable world, cities, livelihoods and so on we need to start with our young and that means allowing them to develop an intimate contact with nature.
If your vision is for a year plant wheat, if you vision is for a decade plant trees, and if your vision is for a lifetime plant people
– African Proverb