You’re the Teacher
by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant
Let’s say you’re an elementary school teacher on playground duty today. Boys and girls are racing around, mostly having fun. One shy boy awaits a turn at the jungle gym. Other boys are racing to the top. You watch, ensuring that no one gets pushed in the competition. You go over to the boy awaiting his turn, reassuring him that he’ll get it. A girl’s laughing shriek and “too high!” turns your head to the swings, and you go over to slow the swinging of a girl pushed too hard by her friend.
You are on full alert- scanning for signs of conflict or danger, and for opportunities to assist. The jungle gym and swing set, along with a merry-go-round, and other climbing structures, are at one end of a large open space where groups of children are playing games and interacting with others individually and in small groups. Everything needs to be watched. Every day here is a variation of today.
Now let’s say you are in a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom with children of the same age. A few children are in the open area kicking a ball. Most are engaged in activities in various areas of the classroom. A younger group of children is gathering branches to build a structure in the messy materials area.
A girl in the nature art area, upset that all the tables are taken by others, stands forlornly at the edge of the space. Noticing her, you gently approach and ask her what she wants. “There’s no room for me,” she says, near tears. “Where else could you make your artwork?” you ask. The girl sees a child sitting on a log, tracing leaves. She gets crayons and paper, and sits near the other child. You join them for a few minutes, asking them about their artwork.
You then walk to the messy materials area and sit to observe the building activity. Branches have been collected from the edges of the area, but the children can’t decide what kind of structure to make. You are called in by a few of the children to help. Most want a fire station, but some of the girls want a home. When you ask them to think of solutions one boy says that his dad fights fires in his spare time, and lives at home. You introduce them to the concept of volunteer firemen, and the children agree to build a house where a “fireman family” lives. What the children are actually negotiating is the form of imaginative play that will soon be taking place there.
Then you hear drumbeats from the music and movement area. Looking over you see children dancing to the music, waving colored scarves.
You enjoy watching everything, entering activities when invited, and assisting children just enough to let them solve their own problems. Every day is different. Every day you feel refreshed. Every day you absorb more deeply that children are inherently self-motivated and cooperative discoverers- when they’re in the right environment.
While these scenarios are invented, they aren’t atypical. The uniformity of the unchanging activities available in a conventional playground invites competition and repetitive experiences, with little room for variation. Gross motor skills are developed, but so are the typical playground cliques and rivalries.
The Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, stocked with a variety of natural materials offers an ever-changing environment that draws the children to explore and experiment. Each activity area invites many variations of play and learning. In this environment, cooperative play is the norm. Solutions to the occasional conflicts draw upon the children’s innate social problem solving strategies developed within this background norm. Teachers observe children, sharing in the joys of their discoveries, and facilitating their own working-through of conflicts. When observation, encouragement, reflection and facilitation replace vigilance and correction, teachers can see human nature blooming as it should.
What does the teacher who spends outdoors time patrolling the playground think of children’s basic human nature? How do his/her experiences outdoors color beliefs and expectations brought to the indoor classroom?
Teachers who have switched from playground monitor to Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom participant tell us that children simply behave more cooperatively in the new environment. These teachers also tell us that the cooperative spirit of the children that blooms in the outdoor classroom also effects their indoor time. How does this teacher now see children?
Education professionals tell us that their schools are different after getting an outdoor classroom. Professionals at a nature preserve tell us that formerly nature-avoidant families are newly exploring trails as a result of their children’s experiences in its Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. Parents whose children had a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom in preschool successfully advocated for one at their local elementary school.
Yes, children, schools, teachers and families are transformed when children connect with nature.