Saturday, April 7, 2012

Developing young children's relationship to nature.

*(Note: the cushion star was safely returned to the sea bottom away from harms way after the children got to meet it)

Hearing about the Global Summit for Climate Change, and the amount (and at the same time lack) of attention given to environmental awareness made me ask myself if we are doing enough at our school to cultivate environmental mindfulness in the children. Lots of research (Richard Luov's book "Last Child in the Woods" among them) points to the conclusion that it is in the early years that the foundation for environmental consciousness arises. Logically so, it is only by connecting to the natural world do children develop a relationship to it. He also states that if they have adults around them that can facilitate that interaction, the impact is more likely to stick.

I read this (click here) great article about the importance of outdoor environments in the development of environmental consciousness. It mentions designs for play spaces that help foster the relationship between children and nature and got me thinking about our own outdoor environment. The recommended elements for an outdoor play space in the article included:

*Water: this is a tricky one for us living in desesrt landscapes. Any ideas anyone perhaps from Arizona out there?

* Plentiful indigenous vegetation, including trees, bushes, flowers and long grasses that children can explore and interact with: we do this already and I'm inspired to plant more indigenous vegetation, including succulents and cacti with the children

*Animals, creatures in ponds, butterflies, bugs: We have bird feeders and a bird bath, and a butterfly plants garden, but I have strong feelings about keeping animals "in captivity". Luckily we have enough iguanas and lizards roaming our playground to satisfy this element.

*Sand, and best if it can be mixed with water: we have two sandboxes and every year have a sand party when the dump truck brings in more sand. However, I haven't had the experience of mixing it with water. Any ideas out there?

*Diversity of color, textures and materials: This one is a bit vague... but I think possible to satisfy with perhaps wooden structures, rocks, flower beds, perhaps some small structures like a teepee (I really want to build one with the children)

*Ways to experience the changing seasons, wind, light, sounds and weather: We don't have changing seasons, but I guess this could include raking leaves of deciduous trees, shady spaces and open spaces

*Natural places to sit in, on, under, lean against, climb and provide shelter and shade: We have a tree for climbing (with a sandbox underneath in case of accidents) park benches under some of the other trees, but I think it would be fun to build a few more low tree structures for one or two people to sit in, and the teepee (did I mention the teepee?)

*Different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer socialization, privacy and views: see above

*Structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually, or in their imaginations, including plentiful loose parts: In Sweden I saw a playground full of logs and boards, and children built bridges and small huts and carried the logs and boards around and stacked them and it was pretty amazing. We have large driftwood blocks that the children use for props for play outdoors, but I think we could definitely have more loose materials for work/play outside.

I've also been thinking about a comment that Annicles left recently on the post about Flow:
"In the UK all children under the age of 5 must be allowed access to the outside environment all the time. It is called free-flow. We would be severely reprimanded if we kept under fives in the classroom for three hours without the possibility of going out. The work that happens outside is often quite amazing."

I love the idea of free flow, and I know that many Montessori schools with outdoor environments have this type of arrangement. We have something like it, but for a limited amount of children at a time. I am thinking about incorporating complete free flow in our school as well. It seems to be the best arrangement for an organic flow of the day and for fostering connection with nature. I am excited to try it out.

Aside from what we can do inside of the school, we take the children on field trips (mainly to outdoor locations) once a month (whether it's to the beach, the National Park, or for a nature walk somewhere). In preparation for our outings we make vocabulary card sets about what we will encounter there, tell true stories about the creatures/plants/structures that we will see, and generally enthuse the children in the environment before we go out to spend the day exploring what we have been studying.

The aspect of conscientious environmental practices seems to me to work with 3-6 year olds best if it can be a part of their day to day life at school. Composting, recycling, plant and animal care, reduction of wastes, reusing of materials are some of the ways we try to inculcate these practices in the school. Does anyone have any ideas or great resources to share about other ways we can help foster this important connection? Comments please!


Angie said...

Hi! What great ideas you have! I have been considering my outdoor space for my children (ages 4, 2, and 3 mo) and your post had a great list of things to consider. I, too, live in the desert in New Mexico. My girls have a sand and water table in which they enjoy mixing the two elements. They also like to experiment with just water. Because we live in the desert, I have a set amount of water they are allowed to play with each day. Though I would prefer for them to have unlimited access to this resource, I believe it is best to teach them to conserve a resource that is not readily available in our climate. I don't know how Montessori this is and would love to hear how others handle this dilemma.

melissa said...

The list of ideas you have is wonderful already - I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for sharing this! Outdoor environments have been on my mind and you really have my wheels turning now.

I look forward to hearing how things work out as you move toward complete free flow. That's something I always longed to provide as a teacher, but without an administration dedicated to making it happen, licensing rules have always managed to stand in my way. I think it's a shame that Montessori schools look at it as a bonus rather than an essential part of all environments that must be planned for.

Anonymous said...

Very nice thoughts. Thanks for explaining the outdoor needs so eloquently.