"Let nature be your teacher." ~William Wordsworth
I asked the Youngest One (age 5) how he would like to learn when discussing homeschooling last week. "Through nature," he exclaimed without hesitation. "What would that look like?" I inquired. "You know...we can go in nature and count the trees and add them together. Or identify them." As his eyes sparkled, I knew he was speaking from my own heart. Nature teaches, nature heals.
|"A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he." ~Walt Whitman|
Yesterday found us packed up with art supplies, some books on trees and poetry, a picnic lunch, and an extra change of clothes headed towards our nearby state park. We had invited a few other families to join us for an unstructured time in nature for the majority of the day. No planned activities, but ample materials to take the interests of the children in the direction they wanted to go.
We arrived about 10am and set up camp on top of an old rock foundation of a house from long ago. It's nestled up in the hill overlooking the trail and a pavilion, so it's a perfect place for a hide out. The boys have often pretended it is their castle and that morning was no exception. They designated their boundaries and drew a map, asking me to help record who their enemies, allies, and neighboring kingdoms would be.
Once that was sorted out, the other families arrived and we began to feel hungry. We meandered back to the open field next to the parking lot to get out our food and the children played tag, climbed trees, swung from vines hanging over a log suspended across the creek and stopped to have a few bites of food when they were hungry. Our gang consisted of three mamas, a couple of daddies, and a total of seven children ranging from 13 months to 8 years old.
|"It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world." ~Rachel Carson|
Exploration then took us to the bridge crossing the creek. There the children waded in the water, hauled big logs up and out of the creek bed, climbed tree roots and jumped off into the water, pretended they were fairies, and reenacted "Billy Goats Gruff" with all seven children acting as billy goats and the mothers taking turns being the trolls. Imagination, team work, physical and spacial negotiation, courage and discernment, and literacy knowledge all came into play during their time in the creek. All were included and everyone played a part at the level they were comfortable with...not too easy, not too hard of a challenge as it was self-directed by the children.
|"From wonder into wonder existence opens." ~Lao-Tzu|
By this time, it was nearing 2pm and we made our way back to the picnic table. The five "bigger" children wanted to go explore the castle more, so the band of 4-8 year olds made their way up the short trail to their "kingdom". It felt good to give them the freedom to be just out of sight, trusting that together they could conquer whatever challenges that would come their way...or they would send a representative back to get us. Within about five minutes they did. They had come across a garter snake who had caught a leopard frog by the leg and it was putting up a good fight. The mamas made their way to the scene and we all circled round nature's drama and watched as the snake strategically ended the frog's life and ensured his meal. We discussed predator/prey, the food chain, and the perspective of the frog and the snake. A moment that any show on Animal Planet could not beat. We experienced it with our own senses.
|"It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to... The feeling for things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures." ~Vincent Van Gogh|
As we made our way back to our cars and back into the realm of the "civilized world", I reflected on how much they had learned in nature that day. We didn't count trees, but we did experience so much of what really counts. Each time we make time to go into the wild, we have the opportunity to experience the natural world and feel it's healing powers, learning the lessons it's offering to teach us that day. You can find stories of creeks, castles, bridges, and fields in books...but experience is what memories are made of. And that is a curriculum I can invest in.
For more information on the importance of unstructured time in nature (for children and adults), check out Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.