Intro: Often, teachers are led to believe that if they are not on a field trip at an environmental Learning Center (ELC), they cannot give students experience with nature. This is a tempting belief, of course, because it takes everyone off the hook.
Going to an ELC is often wonderful, but it is too infrequent to accomplish much. Such visits, however brief, are wonderful to reinforce what you are already teaching. However, there are ways to create intimate everyday experiences with Nature that can be done in and near the classroom. These processes can help students:
Live in the Moment
Help students live in the now, in the present moment, to pay attention deeply to experience as it is happening. Most mammals dwell in the moment in this way (observe any cat). Being in the moment requires tuning the senses, warming them up as it were, just as you tune a violin before playing or stretch your muscles before running.
In modern society it is often difficult to be fully present. Our attention is so fragmented, our urge toward distraction so strong. Many of us tend to want to be swept away by experiences so loud and overwhelming that choice disappears (like sitting in the front rows at a hit movie, or a rock concert).
The strange thing here is that living in the moment and experiencing the “now” truly does sweep us—not away—but more deeply into the world. Perhaps when we wish to be swept away, we are recalling simpler times and ways when survival required us to be so immersed in the moment that we “lose” our selves in it.
Ask kids to think of times, however brief or long, when they were so deeply engaged in something that they "lost" themselves in it. This happens to all of us, especially when we are intently making something--a drawing, a dance, a Leggo tower, reading a book (a creative act), building a sand castle--we lose our conscious egos and become somehow larger. Singing together sometimes "dissolves" us into the choir; playing a sport sometimes gives us moments when everyone on the team coalesces into one entity.
“…the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.”
—Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness
So what has this to do with teaching kids? Living in the moment requires the skill of Paying Attention. Paying Attention is a skill that can be practiced anywhere. The first requirement is to Wake the Senses.
When you are working with kids in natural places, don't tell them to be quiet. Instead, before you go out, ask them to learn a new skill--the skill of inner stillness. Outside, then, ask them to practice their Stillness, which is much more attractive than being told to Be Quiet.
The goal is the skill of Wakeful Attention.
(see Laura Sewell, “The Skill of Ecological Perception”, in Ecopsychology, ed. Theodore Roszak (1995))
Awaken the Senses: Rediscover Childhood
Sensory Awakening experiences teach kids how to focus, how to concentrate. The goal is to give them the ability to fully open to experience when they wish to be.
Our inevitable response to living is to create defenses against sensory input. Our high impact society forces most of us to build up layers of sensory scar tissue. We teach our ears to be deaf to what we don’t want to hear, our eyes to be blind to what we dare not see. The goal of Sensory Awakening is not to make people vulnerable, but rather to give them ways to peel off the scar tissue when they wish. In other words, the goal is to expand people’s choices about how they experience the world.
One general strategy for waking the senses is regression, to try to be sensorially open the way infants are open. Through movement play, dance, creative dramatics, and visualization, lead students back through time to when their senses were more open. Regression may sound more psychological and scary than it is. Any discussion of childhood memories induces a kind of regression which builds community and is useful to learning.
A second general strategy is sensory deprivation, heightening one sense by closing off another. Careful blindfolded experiences can do wonderful things for our senses of touch and sound. (Do not confuse these with “trust” exercises, which may look similar but have entirely different goals.)
Alter the Metabolism
Artist/Naturalist Hannah Hinchman writes about her experience walking alone, the special moment during walks when colors enter her eyes with sudden intensity. She suggests that when the body is in a certain state of exertion, the flow of sensory experience allows an enhanced attentiveness.
(See Hannah Hinchman, A Trail Through Leaves: Journal as a Path to Place (1997))
Simply breathing for a time in an attentive, patterned way can really unclog the senses. Many chanting and mantra exercises are specifically designed to alter the metabolism in ways which allow a heightened sensitivity.
Sensory Awakening is a way of more fully inhabiting your body.
Magnify: Extend Your Eyes
The poet John Keats said two hundred years ago, "The world is filled with wonderful things, waiting for our senses to grow sharper."
A third strategy for sensory awakening is to dramatically alter sensory input. We see little of the world with our normal eyes. Making the invisible visible by magnification can work wonders. Hand-held magnifying glasses do not work so well for most kids. They make it easy to maintain distance from what is being observed. (Remember that the goal is intimate experience.) Five-power jewelers’ loupes held directly to the eye and placed close to the subject can wake the eyes enormously.
(Jewelers’ loupes are available from Acorn Naturalists, 1-800-422-8886)
Distance is safe; but to use a loupe properly you have to “get down.” With them students see the seething richness of life, the rich diversity, what William James called “the blooming, buzzing confusion of life.” With magnification they see pattern and intricacy revealed.
An exciting thing that magnification allows in the classroom is intimate experience with microwildernesses.
These are simply small, relatively self-contained, living communities which can be collected locally and kept for a time in the classroom. You may wish to think of them as microgardens. What may appear to be a single object—an acorn, a leaf, a piece of rotting wood— turns out to be an intricate biological community. In any event, they are alive, should be studied alive, watered or misted, and eventually returned to where they were collected. Easily collected microwildernesses in your area may include:
• fallen acorns that have been opened by something (to collect, scoop it up in situ with some of the leaves around it and a small amount of the soil beneath it.
• A good project for kids is to photograph, or better, draw or ‘map’ in color the microwilderness before it is collected, and use the pictures as guides for its reassembly in a small terrarium.
• twigs, small branches, or pieces of bark with lichens on them.
• small clumps of moss (with soil, etc.),
• pieces of stone on which are growing lichens and/or mosses.
Aquatic microwildernesses are also easily maintained for a time in the classroom. If used with jewelers’ loupes or ten and twenty power magnifiers they can be powerful and intricate places to explore. Again, treating the lives they contain with respect is critical. Caution: Although rivers and streams contain much life, do not collect any of it. Stream organisms are adapted to moving water and will die without it. Wetlands of any size can provide a microwilderness. You may collect:
• a submerged leaf—a section of a living pondweed leaf or a fallen leaf that no longer floats. Both will have many lives upon their surfaces.
• a submerged stone or small piece of wood.
• a scoop of bottom mud.
• a cluster of algae.
In each case you should collect some pond water in which to keep the aquatic microwilderness. Clear containers with flat sides work best. A clear cover will reduce evaporation. Lost water must be regularly replaced either with distilled water at room temperature or by more water collected from the original place.
Observing the microwilderness is enhanced by sometimes keeping it in darkness, then observing. Or keep it in twilight at times; many organisms are most active in low light.
An amazing fact is that most arthropod species (insects, spiders, mites) are microscopic in size. A few spoonfuls of garden soil will contain many hundreds of tiny arthropods, along with thousands of protozoans, thousands of fungi, and of course billions of bacteria.
Familiarity with changing scale, and with communities ‘nesting’ within larger communities (the basic life pattern called interliving)are two of the benefits kids reap from the classroom microwilderness. Realizing the limitations of the human eye helps kids unlearn our species arrogance. Perhaps the primary benefit, however, is that the microwilderness adds depth and variety to the concept of inhabiting your local habitat. It reinforces the principle that Nature is always with us.
A TV is a TV is a TV
Intimacy requires Direct Experience. TV and multimedia, however wonderful they can be, are always secondhand experience. Exoticized Nature on educational television has perhaps created as much biophobia as biophilia. Our kids are saturated enough with TV and video. Although distance learning via the World Wide Web is just beginning, its interactivity makes the experience more direct and less virtual.
Fully Inhabit Your Place
Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.
More fully inhabiting your habitat, your community, your place, is important for kids to connect with the Earth. (In ecology, your local habitat is the place or kind of place where you are likely to be found.)
Too often we urbanized people ignore the natural parts of our habitat which stubbornly persist no matter how much we pave over. The urban environment is lively with life.
To fully inhabit your habitat means to recognize and cherish the natural entities you encounter in your daily life. It means paying wakeful attention to the blade of grass growing in the sidewalk crack, to the sparrows chipping in the bush, to the earthworms on the street after rain, to the raindrop playing rainbow on the twig.
To inhabit your habitat is to try to be fully present in your place. Students will benefit from learning the native plants which persist locally. Which trees and shrubs are native? Which were not here 200 years ago? What “weeds” along roadsides and in vacant lots are natives?
Bioregional Perspective is one goal of inhabiting your place. Know what landforms shape your locale; know where your water comes from and where it goes when you’re done with it; know what foods are grown locally. Know the history of local forest cover and grasslands; what natural communities flourished here 200 years ago? What ‘wild’ foods were harvested here?
Composting in the school provides excellent projects for re-claiming a sense of place. Inventory the neighborhood for little patches of damaged land. As a school or a classroom, adopt one and restore its topsoil with school-made compost. Then Garden! Plant, grow, water, weed and harvest.
Wild Places Do Not Have to be Wilderness
Living organisms are incredibly tough and opportunistic. No matter how much we pave the earth, that crack appears, that seed floats down, that silt blows in and the grass begins again. What children crave is not pristine wilderness, which is a fantasy in any event.
They do crave little patches of nature—a few trees, some soil, a few bushes and weeds—and presto! a place for a fort. They crave natural places to watch, places to sit and look. Children can take care of an amazing amount of their own earth education.
Get out of the building. Students can map schoolyards, map their neighborhoods. Explore gardens & lawns, vacant lots & sidewalk cracks. Remember that living systems exist on many scales; a forest is an ecosystem, as is a tree as is a fallen acorn. It is a matter of scale. Ecosystems nest inside each other at every size-scale, just like the nesting Russian dolls.
Regularly notice the phenology of the very local natural community: what is budding, what is in bloom, what is nesting and hatching, what is dying, what is giving birth? What small members of the local natural community can the classroom respectfully connect with? Pillbugs (wood lice or roly-polys) are endemic to most places.
Richly Texture the Classroom
Too often success in the classroom requires an active, skilled and well-developed imagination already present in each child. We penalize those kids whose imagination has been stunted by lack of stimulation.
Have many touch-and-feel natural materials in the classroom at all times. An ongoing collection of local materials will help students inhabit their habitat.
Caution: Do not become caught up in classification and order and display here; let students’ imaginations work on these materials. A bundle of cattail stems, winter brown; a small box of fallen leaves; samples of twigs fallen from neighborhood trees; etc.
Caution: Do not focus on materials from exotic places as you texture the classroom. Do not focus on spectacular things. Focus instead on materials which speak to the sense of touch as well as to the eye, which can be explored close-up, with the skin. Do focus on richly textured, fairly common materials such as tree barks.
Seek materials that help students discover patterns. Have them observe the way a spruce tree’s branches spiral up the trunk. Point out the spiral of needles on the twig. Place spruce cones in the classroom. Someone will discover the spiral repeated in the scales of the cone.
Venation patterns in leaves are rich. Compare to butterfly wings, alluvial plains, tree-branching.
Texture the classroom with sound as well. Again, use CDs and tapes which are connected to local habitat where you can; have the class make tapes. Use frogsong, wind in branches, bird songs.
Revere Lives of All Sizes and Forms
Don’t revere an abstraction called “life.” Revere real lives. Help students connect emotionally to other living things. Approach animals and plants in the classroom with respect and help students imagine how the other life forms are feeling, what their quality of life is in your classroom. Have students help create the creatures' homes. Always, always return collected living things to their communities ASAP, with respect. Consistency here is all-important. If, for example, you are looking at pond or lakeshore life, treat even the smallest visible creatures with respect. Don’t ever “flush them.”
Never make something die so you can teach about life.
Include the Human in Nature
The human/nature divide we have built into our culture is a huge problem. We can help solve that problem by including humanity on any of these paths toward intimacy with the natural world. Never automatically exclude the human from any of these paths toward intimacy, never exclude us from Nature. We are part of it.
Students’ understanding that we are part of nature and belong to the Earth is central to any solutions to our ecological crises.
Avoid being over-pure. Remember that we too are made of earth, that we too are natural, and that we too are among nature’s glories. With our incredible and dangerous power, we have done some incredibly stupid things. We have committed great beauty as well.
Caution: Never, never, never encourage kids to dislike humanity. You cannot dislike your species without disliking yourself. That is a terrible thing to do to a child. It’s also tempting at times, when you are personally outraged at some excessive human act.
As a teacher, you must remind yourself that beneath your outrage is love. Your fundamental caring is where you must go to find out what you can usefully teach.
We must find ways of helping kids see the results of human impact on earth without robbing them of their hope, and without stealing their intuitive love for humanity.
Some Sources for Intimate Nature
Hinchman, Hannah, A Trail Through Leaves: Journal As a Path to Place
Morgan, Ann Haven, A Field Book of Ponds and Streams
Nabham, GP and Stephen Trimble. The Geography of Childhood
Ruef, Kerry, The Private Eye: Looking and Thinking by Analogy
Sewell, Laura , “The Skill of Ecological Perception”, in Ecopsychology, ed. Theodore Roszak
Sobel, David, Children’s Special Places
Van Matre, Steve, Earth Education, A New Beginning
Van Matre, Steve, Acclimatization