Connecting Tribal Children with Nature’s Heart and Soul

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

IMG_4422 copy=KThe St. Augustine Mission School in Winnebago, Nebraska serves children from the Omaha (pronounced o-MAH-ha) and Winnebago Native American tribes. Through many different ways of using the school’s Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, teachers Amber Gamble and Brenda Murphy accomplish varied learning goals, and see many transformations in their students.

Much of the time spent in the outdoor classroom involves the same teaching and lessons that would otherwise take place indoors. The space is also used for free play, and as a brief respite area when students from indoor classrooms need calming. And in keeping with Native American culture, this outdoor classroom has its own Medicine Garden.

Traditional culture is now largely the province of the schoolchildren’s grandparents. Strong ties with nature are not nearly as common in the tribes’ younger generations, and children who now learn and play in the outdoor classroom were not always comfortable with the natural world.

Just a few years ago, during a field trip to a wildlife refuge, Principal Don Blackbird observed children who were “grossed-out” by nature. Until the advent of their outdoor classroom, these children had few connections with nature. Thankfully, close relationships with nature that were foundational to their ancestors’ way of life now echo within St. Augustine’s outdoor classroom, especially in the Medicine Garden.

Brenda Murphy, a science teacher coming from Native American ancestry, started the Medicine Garden along with the assistance of Michelle LaMere, a Winnebago tribal member and mother of a tribal student. Brenda has used herbal medicines for years, due to her allergic reactions to industrially manufactured medications. As a result, both her knowledge of the plants and her deep respect for them provide unique resources for the children.

Many concepts from botany and other sciences are learned in this garden. Yet more importantly, Brenda shares her spiritual connections with the plants. For example, whenever part of a plant is removed for study, an offering of water is made, conveying gratitude for its medicinal and/or educational benefits. No more is removed from a plant than is necessary for study, and children understand this orientation towards the natural world. One child exclaimed to Brenda, “Teacher, teacher, there’s medicine everywhere!”

While the Medicine Garden is a core of this outdoor classroom for transmitting a love of nature, the entire area facilitates an excitement about learning. A staple of the younger children’s school day is the “Daily 5.” These are reading and writing exercises, conducted in segments, in which children switch to a new space in the outdoor classroom every 20 minutes. If the Daily 5 exercise can’t be done outdoors, they’re done indoors—and yet, both Brenda and Amber see differences in the children and their learning between the two environments. In regards to the children working outdoors, Amber says, “I’ve never seen them work so well. They work a lot better outside than they do in the room.”

Indoors, children may be distracted by noises coming from within and outside of the classroom. The calming effect of the outdoor classroom is so strong that brief outdoor breaks are often taken when the going gets tough indoors. Amber will ask the children to grab a book and chose a reading spot outside. “We come back in five minutes and get things done,” she says.

And the effects of nature are even more pronounced with children who have challenges. One boy, on being brought outside for the first time, thanked Amber. “No problem,” she replied. “No—thank you for taking me outside,” he repeated. “When I go home I can’t go outside, it’s not safe.” This brief interaction awakened Amber to the importance that children place on being in a safe outdoor space.

This particular child also has behavioral problems inside the classroom; behaviors that disappear when he goes outside. Inside, he may have difficulty sitting still, and can throw himself on the floor when upset. Until Amber saw his transformation outside, she thought this boy’s behaviors were his way of drawing attention. She now sees that his indoor behaviors are associated with the indoor environment.

Other children with different challenges show similar transformations outdoors. Children who react to the stagnant nature of the classroom—to fluorescent lighting, noise, hot and cold—become calmer outdoors. These children transform from helplessly reactive to actively engaged when in the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

In June of 2013, Brenda, Don Blackbird, and Dwight Howe had an extraordinary experience with their sixth-through-eighth graders during a field trip. This three-day experience in the Nature Conservancy’s huge Niobrara Valley Preserve didn’t go quite as one might expect; but better. These children are of the “device-dependent” generation, and couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to access their smartphones several times a day. But their phones didn’t work at Niobrara, so they were relegated to swimming in the Niobrara River, exploring the terrain, observing buffalo—all without recourse to their electronics. On the morning of day three, Brenda observed aloud to them: “Do you realize you haven’t been on your devices for three days?” No one cared. They were having too much fun. What an amazing experience for the children and teachers to remember warmly and ponder!

Amber, Brenda, and other teachers at St. Augustine’s are unlocking many of nature’s benefits for their children. While studying academic subjects outdoors, the children are more calm and focused. Hands-on study of animals and materials adds excitement to learning.  Amber says, “I’m finding with my third-graders that they learn so much more and remember so much more when it’s hands-on.” The space itself is used to calm entire classes for brief periods when the need arises. The outdoor classroom is a rare haven for children who are spending much of their time either indoors or with electronics. Most lastingly, holistic and personal connections with nature are inspired by study in the Medicine Garden.

Nature has much to teach us when we slow down to listen. Children and teachers at St. Augustine’s are listening, and learning.