4 Steps to Create a Learning Environment that Cultivates Nature Guardians
I have worked in several schools where a main goal is to build a sustainability mindset within the students. It is a complicated concept, sustainability, but so critical for understanding and engaging in society in the 21st Century. Despite being quite complicated, educating for sustainability in my opinion can be distilled down to one fundamental pedagogy: Nature-Based Learning.
While Nature-Based Learning (NBL) may not cover all concepts connected to a sustainability curriculum, it does provide a foundation for that knowledge to be contextualized. It is for that reason that I factored in an entire day dedicated to nature in my vision for Real School, our excursion day.
Before going further, I feel it important to describe what I think of as nature here. Nature can be wilderness, but is not limited to that. It is invariably outdoors, in the presence of other living beings. Trees, bugs, mosses, and animals are all part of this. It always involves complex relationships, such as the conditions under which a plant grows or a food web. Humans are part of nature, sometimes actively trying to control it, but mostly just subject to it. Nature can be a city park, a farm, or a patch of old growth forest. The quality of nature as a space for learning inherently improves with less human impact, as the systems we are immersed in are more balanced, more authentic examples of what sustainability looks like.
Nature also does something amazing in that it transcends culture and politics in a way that few other things do. I have friends across the political spectrum and from around the world who strive to live off-grid and more sustainably, and for most nature had a significant role in their upbringing. The duck hunter and the bird watcher may have more in common than they think (aside from liking birds, that is).
When it comes to the role of nature in school, I can not overstate how important it is. Nature provides a space for learners to exercise a holistic sense of self, be it through physical exercise, curiosity, mindfulness, or socializing with others, to name but a few qualities.
So how do we go about this process of building a deeper understanding of nature? Well, read on and I will share my 4 steps to becoming a lifelong advocate for a sustainable planet:
Step 1: Be IN Nature
Nature is not like a movie or a book; there is no plot arc to bringing kids out into nature. There is no way to design the beautiful and authentic moments that make people connect to the natural world. They will happen, of that I am sure. However, what sparks somebody’s interest is an entirely different story.
On a warm sunny day in November (yes, they really do exist) we were walking through the park as a school. We were looking for trees to perch in, part of our Wonder Trail experience. Something caught my eyes from afar, a red smattering on the trunks of trees. As we approached we realized these trees were covered in red beetles, who had gathered together in massive amounts. The reactions were mixed: some kids looked at the crawling scene warily, while others stuck their nose right into the midst of the bugs to get a better look. One learner decided to start to coat himself with these bugs. Another student looked on with fascination. After a minute of watching, she too started to cover herself in the seemingly harmless bugs. The scene drew questions and curiosity. Why were so many bugs in one place? What were they doing? Where do they go after this?
Opportunities like this happen on every trip, and every student at one point has posed meaningful questions that demonstrate a desire to understand the radically complex world they are immersed in. Finding the answers is not nearly as important that moment as the questions being asked.
Step 2: Be with Role Models who love and know Nature
Nature is super complex, and so much can go unnoticed if you have limited experience. In today’s world, most of us do have limited experience, and so the role of a guide helps to accelerate and amplify the meaning we can glean from our nature-based learning experiences. There is no specific area that lends better than others, but ensuring that the knowledge is relatable and not abstract is critical.
I happen to be one of those people. I have spent a lot of time in nature, and have tuned my nature eyes so that I can point the learners in interesting directions, and create prompts that make the whole learning experience that much more impactful.
One of our early walks around Óbudai Sziget involved chatting about types of trees. There are a number that are easy enough to spot, the oak in particular with its nearly unmistakable leaves. Passing under and oak I shared the name of the tree, and how to identify it, but also stopped to pick up some acorns. Most of the kids knew what acorns were, but were stumped when I asked whether we could eat them or not.
My interest in the matter led to a search, and sure enough… you can eat acorns that are processed correctly. They can be made into flour, and are a good source of protein. Europeans have even depended on acorns at times as a staple. The next time we were in the field, I shared my findings and opened the acorns to expose the flesh. Surprisingly, most of the acorns had larva inside. What was going on? Another small research project, and I learned that this was the larva of the acorn weevil, and most of the nuts that drop early likely have been infested. Again, I shared my knowledge with the students. This time, their interest was piqued. Suddenly the entire class was busy opening acorns to find these pests. One learner, decided to call them ‘bobs’, and that caught on. From there, questions started to flow; “Why are some trees more affected than others?”, “Does anything eat them”, and a brave soul questioned “Can we eat them?”(the answer is yes).
Repeated experiences like this build an authentic system of relationships of the organisms that inhabit this space. If our learners are able to see the big picture in the natural world, applying the same systems thinking skills to human problems is much easier.
Step 3: Fall Hopelessly in Love with the Natural World
I can feel right away those learners who spend a lot of time in nature. They already have the bug. They are already comfortable waltzing through a park in the cold and rarely complain about being outside. That is not something they will give up easily in their lives. Other learners are developing their relationship to nature class by class. I am confident that given time and exposure, no person can resist the pleasure it brings. It is genetic.
There are moments when I can see that energy and excitement growing, when the learner’s nature eyes are tuning into the world around them. One example I have seen repeatedly is with mushrooms. They are mysterious and a bit strange, and for those reasons they can captivate kids. It occurs frequently that as we are out in the park, a group of children will come running over, excited to direct me to a ‘new’ mushroom that has been found. These moments lead to conversations about nutrient cycling, about communication between plants, and why certain organisms have developed toxins.
Another great example came when we were discussing moments that had a big impact on us. The context was around media, and so many students followed this example and were sharing the impact books and movies have had on them. When one of the students shared, she said that the most impactful moment for her was finding a dead Pine Marten. This had happened on one of our excursions, so many of the students had shared in that experience. The energy of the room changed in a second… she had named a moment that collectively changed how we saw the world.
Step 4: Advocate for Nature
The activism and actions that are part of this step happen, well, naturally. The curriculum does not need to provide the context, nor can any passionate person create the same level of motivation as that which we experience through building a deep connection to the natural world.
When I think back to the students I have had who are moving and shaking our world today, all have developed a connection to the natural world. They are children who were willing to get their clothes dirty to get a better peek at a bird’s nest, who didn’t mind the slobber or smell of a dog if it meant getting a chance to pet them, and always know where their food comes from.
There is little wonder in me why one of my students should feel passionate about ocean plastic after hearing her tell stories of how she felt when snorkeling on a reef, or that another learner cares for animal well-being in light of her regular connection to horses. Now that these young people have a context and a connection, they have a voice that is authentic and full of passion. When a third student shares his presentations on palm oil, I can see in his eyes that he is connecting it to his own experiences in the jungle, having a real connection to something he cares about.
By advocating for nature, the learner is exercising part of a sustainable mindset. The learner has turned their experience into action, and will have a better idea of the complex and interlinking picture that stands as the backdrop of any issue around sustainability.
Learning in Nature has a few challenges with respect to a traditional school. For one, you are often playing the long game. In my opinion, the results of nature exposure are not uniformly immediate. For some children results will show right away, while others may never show a strong connection throughout their whole adolescence, and only in adulthood reflect and return back to the walks and routines they had grown used to in school.
Due to its immeasurable value and the fact that it causes immeasurable growth, we should always make space for nature in our school, our curriculum, and our lives. The cost of not doing so may be very high indeed; a disconnect that allows us to ignore the signs and signals our planet provides all of us on a regular basis on her health and well-being.