Perspectives on Nature

By Grace Kenney, Assistant Teacher, Slate School

The children often seemed surprised to be given permission to pick up the crabs and periwinkles they found under rocks and in the tidepools. When they asked to use driftwood branches to poke around the shallows of the salt marsh, I similarly said yes. Their shrieks and gasps at the scrabbling crustacean limbs and the muddy thwack of wood was a reminder of how grateful I am to facilitate children’s self-directed investigation of the natural world. The children encouraged each other to be gentle with the living creatures, and those simple moments of play connected them to the elements of their outdoor surroundings.

Those fieldtrips that I led as an on-site environmental educator always left me feeling like there were thousands of things left unsaid, or that there could have been one magic sentence to make them understand our relationship to the natural world. However, the children’s hands-on experiences spoke louder than rootless seeds of information given to them in a day-long environmental program. At the end of the day they would get on a school bus, go back to their school, and perhaps not have another opportunity to engage with their own local outdoor environments again in the same capacity. I longed for a tomorrow with those same children to extend their experiences.

Children need time and support to be outdoors, to have the chance to fall in love with the natural world before they can be asked to understand it or save it, and to ask their own questions. Children ask questions about what fascinates them, such as “Why don’t oceans fall off the face of the Earth?”, or “Where did that bird get its name?” Their discovery of knowledge, from bird adaptations to planetary physics, stems from curiosity. Wonder is the link to understanding how the world works, and it creates a personal connection to why things like birds and oceans are worth considering in larger contexts.

Transitioning to the world of Slate School, where nature is an everyday and inherent part of the curriculum, has given me the opportunity to reflect on all the ways to expand on the wonderful and magical moments of children’s outdoor experiences. Opening the doors of the classroom and connecting students with their environment, day after day, grounds their learning in the places they inhabit. By observing well-loved trees and familiar habitats over time, they are encouraged to notice aspects of seasonal change, and the relationship to weather patterns, climate, and our position in the solar system. They come to appreciate food by growing their own vegetables in gardens they help tend, and write stories and poems about what they notice. Learning is relevant and exciting. Within the expanse of a whole school year, or an entire elementary education, there is time to nourish the moments of discovery, and time to layer meaning on top of that foundation of excitement. Those seeds of information now have roots with which to grow.

As children explore, delight emanates from their moments of discovery. It is like a memory brought to life for any adult that ever felt that way themselves. I recently came to realize how fortunate I was as a child to have adults in my life who not only fostered an interest in the natural world by supporting my pursuit of environmental studies and natural history, but also shared the same sense of wonder. It is infectious. It involves providing children space to do the wandering, foraging, and fairy-house making which defines the origins of a land ethic and an understanding of the interconnectedness, beauty, and importance of the natural world. This type of nature-based education inspires genuine learning, intimate understandings of place, and compassion for all living things that persists throughout the rest of children’s lives.