This is the sixth in a series of blog posts by Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director of Nature Explore. These posts are a distillation of key ideas from her book, “Heart-Centered Teaching Inspired by Nature.”
When children are involved in the care and maintenance of trees, flowers and vegetable gardens in natural outdoor classrooms, there is no end to the powerful lessons they’ll learn. The value of sustained effort. The importance of doing what is needed. The significance of being someone who can be counted on. If your job is to water and you do not do it, plants will die. Nature beautifully illustrates this direct cause-and-effect lesson.
Beyond the concepts of cycles and science and accountability, time in outdoor classrooms provide ample opportunities for children to develop emotional intelligence, heal from trauma, and discover a sense of their place in the world. Children who spend intentional time caring for living things also strengthen their nurturing abilities and become more adept at using these skills with others—and with themselves.
Children who learn to successfully care for plants or animals also develop trust in themselves. Over time, they come to define themselves as nurturing people. What a gift to give a child—the sense that they can nurture and coax new life. This feeling of self-trust will, in turn, become a foundation for other positive self-understandings. A feeling of responsibility and importance can guide children toward appropriate risk taking and foster their creativity.
Finally—and I say that only for the sake of brevity in this blog; I could crash our computer server with a lengthy list of the benefits of nature-based classrooms!—as we educators encourage children to enjoy caretaking in nature, we help them learn to become caregivers for themselves. Imagine if every adult in the world today had been encouraged as children to develop healthy attitudes about self care. What if we routinely enjoyed exercise, healthy eating, rest, relaxation and positive self talk? What if we had also been encouraged to cultivate attitudes of respect and gentleness toward other human beings? I believe we would see a significant change in statistics on obesity, depression, anxiety, chronic illness, and violent crimes.
Perhaps this expanded view of our role as educators feels daunting. Fear not… here are some small beginnings designed to be accessible to anyone, anywhere.
- Plan for ways to support children, or the adults in your organization who work with children. What can you do to make it possible for children—or staff who work with them—to more fully encourage children’s nurturing work? Make a commitment to take one step toward this goal every week.
- Plan for ways to support yourself. How will you personally engage in caretaking activities this week? Will you have a chance to work alongside children in an outdoor environment? Will you have an opportunity to care for living things in your home? If you answer ‘no’ to both of these questions, what is one small step you might add to your life to make space for this type of nurturing?
- Even if your organization does not provide full-fledged gardening opportunities for children, there are small ways you can support caretaking behaviors:
―Add a raised planter box to your outdoor space. Fill it with potting soil and a few herbs or flowering plants. Help children take turns serving as caretaker for the plants.
―Create a worm bin and invite children to care for the worms. This kind of experience can also help children form new opinions about a part of the natural world they might have found frightening.
―Add individual flowerpots to your classroom or outdoor space. Involve children in the decisions about what to plant. If possible, select plants they can taste or smell. Again, assign caretaking duties to individuals or teams of children.