When starting out as a teacher, I heard Joseph Cornell say that keeping children inside one room five days a week is akin to breaking a horse. I’m haunted by that analogy. Our tendency is to keep children in, especially as academic demands only increase. And for discipline or missed work what do we do? Keep them in at recess. Breaking horses.
What would happen if we gave students opportunities to go outside and interact with the natural world as part of the school day? Does a natural classroom give us a way to maintain our students’ inner wildness, as Mercogliano calls it?*
We know that nature is critical in children’s development. We know that children are losing access to independent explorations in nature. Schools can provide children with experiences in nature, and typically, nature contact is not part of our national public schooling agenda. Yet. As teachers, we need to give children opportunities to be more than academics.
Audrey was a sixth grade girl in a school with a schoolyard habitat that was used as an outdoor classroom. During science class in fourth grade, her attention was turned to a small, hard, dark woody case surrounding the stem of an oak shrub. It was the size of a marble and was in a cluster of five other small round cases. As she looked to other branches, she noticed that the clusters of balls were quite common all the way through the tangled scrub oak.
Intellectually, her curiosity was sparked. Physically, she moved in long graceful strokes along the woods, her breath increasing and diminishing as she found other clusters, feeling the texture of them with her fingers, her notebook tucked under her arm. Emotionally, she felt a sense of excitement build as she realized she had no idea what she was looking at, then wonder as she discovered that the balls were actually wasp galls – hard cases to protect the egg, then larva of the insect. For three years, Audrey visited the exact branch that first caught her attention and taught her classmates about the galls.
Jimmy was a sixth grade boy in the same school. He was not interested in the woody galls. One morning in class, Jimmy and his classmates discovered a social trail through the scrub oak woods. The three boys crept carefully into the woods following the barely noticeable trail created by local coyotes or maybe deer. The boys found that the trails wound through the very small patch of woods and that if they entered by the picnic table, they could emerge by the library. Jimmy’s attention was fixed.
He went inside at the end of class that day, promptly opened his notebook, drew a map of the trails, and wrote a paragraph about the experience. That afternoon, we went back outside and he explored the woods on his own with a video camera.
The footage recorded his decision-making as he whispered to himself when he came to a fork in the trial, his breathing slowing and quickening in tune with the pace of his footsteps in the crunchy snow, and his exclamations when he found something unexpected.
Using these two stories out of hundreds collected during an eight-month study of this public, traditional school’s natural classroom habitat, there is evidence that supports children’s embodiment of so much more than intellect! And yet, intellect and critical thinking was still very present in their experiences. Through contact with a natural setting during the school day, the children in 4th-6th grade found imagination and adventure, critical thinking and curiosity, respite and relaxation, peace and calm, and ownership and identity.
The outdoor classroom developed the students’ sense of belonging to the school and to the natural world. The contact these children had with nature was also in a place where the children felt safe to explore at a distance from the teachers that felt safe. In some cases, it was the children’s the first contact with nature in a exploratory way.
If the question is about providing children with access nature, schools have an answer. Even short, unstructured time in the schoolyard habitat with the sounds, textures, smells, space, and sensations showed value. The children were awake to the world, expanded to their own possibilities of their sensory channels, alive with curiosity and calm. What a gift that schools can provide for an area of childhood that is vanishing at an alarming rate and at the same time, allow for children to feel the sense of wonder and joy in becoming familiar with the natural world.
*Mercogliano, C. (2007). In defense of childhood: Protecting kids’ inner wildness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Photos by Kelly Keena
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