Springtime is the season when my job gets easy. Really easy. Just outside my door unscripted lesson plans are springing up all over and the biggest challenge is just where to begin! The kids wake in the morning and while still in their pajamas ask me, “Is it time to go outside yet?” I urge them to first consider breakfast and brushing their teeth. Reluctantly the boys acquiesce, but before the breakfast dishes can be washed, they are in the hallway putting on crocs and sunhats and we are off!
As an educator, I am often gauging my sons’ level of engagement with the information they are absorbing. It is not always evident beforehand what will ignite their interest. Creative well-planned unit studies have been known to flop and the occasional dry worksheet is sometimes just what they are in the mood for. I’m unlikely to ever understand fully unanticipated responses such as these.
However, time outdoors spent exploring, researching, hypothesizing, experimenting and collecting data (which looks an awful lot like splashing in mud puddles, digging for worms, collecting fireflies and running down hills) is a guaranteed home run every time. The sounds of my sons’ laughter as they make themselves dizzy spinning in circles and the furrowed brow on my oldest child’s face as he tries to identify birdsongs both reveal meaningful engagement with deep learning.
The winters here in Northern NY are long and cold. The first few weeks after the thaw is glorious fun on the farm. The kids reconnect with their animals; they find new spots for adventures inside the old barn and revisit special haunts from the springtime before. My kids and I play the role of field scientists asking copious questions as we play outdoors. “Why,” wonders Walden “do my dandelions curl up on overcast days?” “How can the goats and chickens eat the stinging nettle without getting stung?” someone else asks. “Think there are any diamonds or dinosaur fossils on our land?” The last question gets everyone chattering excitedly.
For a time we are content to lie on our backs in the grass and wait for the answers. We watch the clouds overhead and then roll onto our bellies to survey rich life happening in the soil. We wait and we listen. Sometimes we stand up and run for no reason. All if it feels so good. Answers to questions from adults or book are neither required nor appropriate at this stage of inquiry. Opportunity for unfettered observation and contemplation casts a magical spell over each of us.
Among the gems gleaned from times like these is the chance to listen to the ramblings of my three-year-old naturalist, Walden John. It brings him great delight to imagine the life teeming in the mud puddles around him. He speaks excitedly about all sorts of fantastic creatures that might possibly inhabit each small pool of water. His brothers giggle when Walden describes seeing an octopus or giant squid in a puddle, but I remind them of the great thinkers that they admire most. “Imagine if we laughed at Anton van Leeuwenhoek.” (Dutch naturalist van Leeuwenhoek, Elias once explained discovered, among other things, bacteria, protozoa, rotifers, Hydra and Volvox.) “I bet a lot of his hypotheses were pretty far out,” I continue “but what if we were dismissive of them all?”
“That’s true,” Elias concedes. “Look at Copernicus. Everyone thought he was crazy and we know how all that turned out.” Feeling vindicated, Walden stomps one muddy rain boot into the puddle.
Freedom to walk barefoot in nature unleashes in many intense creativity, curiosity, intellectual competence and eventual clarity. Freedom to walk barefoot makes better scientists.
As the season wears on, we inevitably find ourselves eager for the details that will shed light on the green mysteries surrounding us. Mid-June, Elias starts removing volumes of his beloved Audubon Society Field Guides from his bookshelf. We bring them with us on romps through our pastures. His back pack is also often stuffed full with a magnifying glass, binoculars, sketch pads, pens and far too many small specimen jars. The rest of us walk unencumbered by stuff, but are often grateful for his preparedness!
This time of the year I, too, revel in the opportunity to pour over my favorite nature guides and activity books. I love this ritual and look forward to it all winter long. Next week I am looking forward to sharing some of my favorite resources and project ideas for outdoor learning with children.
In the meantime, how do your kids connect with nature? How do you see such activities impact their learning?
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