As I wander through the Red Cedars, Douglas Firs, Big Leaf Maples and Hemlocks of the NW region with my designated group of 5th graders, I consistently hear the same questions, “what is that?”, “why doesn’t that tree lose it’s leaves?”, and “EWWWW, what is it doing?” The majority of these 5th graders have hidden their vulnerability and childlike curiosity and at Islandwood it is stirred up in them in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time. Children want to know and understand the natural world around them. They especially want to know the names of species and how they work with each other. Introducing nature to children is not only teaching them about their natural surroundings but it is also teaching them how to live well and work well with others through concepts of biodiversity and ecosystems. It is the perfect introduction into lessons about tolerance and even better… acceptance and understanding. This introduction can be made early and that is what authors like Richard Louv and David Sobel are encouraging.
As I wander, I become curious as to why we don’t begin making this introduction sooner. Why does reading, social studies, and mathematics have to be taught solely in the classroom? Why do we separate nature and education? I am beginning to think that it is out of convenience and laziness rather than the belief that we are making a difference. We talk about interdisciplinary learning but can you imagine a classroom of students learning about measurements, addition and subtraction and multiplication while working in a garden? Imagine a group of kindergartners who, while simply planting tomatoes, green beans and garlic, are learning their letters through the “edible alphabet”, a term that I have coined that I believe would be the best way to introduce phonetics as well as counting. In addition to those curriculum driven concepts they would very directly begin to understand that their food comes from the ground rather than a shelf at the supermarket and that with their hands, they are capable of caring for themselves in a way that they may have never dreamed possible.
I suggest that teachers, day care providers, parents and grandparents purchase every species book that you can get your hands on that addresses your specific region. Pick up books on plants, trees, birds, mammals, fish and moss and go for a walk with your toddlers, 5 year olds and 8 year olds and discover the magic that is all around you. Have them feel the amazing soft texture of the Red Cedars and play with the moss that attaches itself to branches and rocks. I love it when they begin to understand that while they can’t see any houses… there are homes all around them. They will fall in love with the simplicity of the inhabitants of their local parks, playgrounds and trails in a new and different way. I encourage you to teach them the names of the different species so that they can feel attached to all of the living things around them. As they develop a love for their direct surroundings it will foster a love for all living things so that when they are called to protect the forests that are not in their direct region, they will understand the need for urgency rather than feeling overwhelmed at the task.