On a sunny, spring morning a 6-year-old boy kneels in the P-patch holding a treasure in his closed hand. The surrounding gardens, forest pathways and native trees block out the noise from the nearby urban streets and make this small garden a quiet and sacred space for the birds, insects, mice and children within. With his free hand, he carefully reaches into a kale plant and removes a plump potato bug from its leaves, placing that one next to the other in his enclosed hand. This young Lake and Parker explained to me that while the “roly poly” bugs meant no harm, they weren’t good for the kale plants and had to be moved to the forest for the birds, which would also keep the birds out of our garden beds. He loved kale, so this type of work was important. From his explanation, it was clear that this boy, growing up in an urban area, understood the complex ecological cycles that connect our tasty kale plants to the insects to their predators, from simply being free to play in a natural space.
Earlier this spring, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Richard Louv. Many of you may be familiar with his powerful arguments supporting a movement to connect children, families and their communities to the natural world. During his lecture, he presented a collection of evidence to illustrate the connection between experience in the natural world and children’s ability to learn.
Many of Louv’s words were inspiring, particularly as he spoke of the benefits of free, unstructured play outdoors. As an educator, one benefit of outdoor play that struck me most was how children’s attention span increases substantially after just 20 minutes of time in the natural world. Stress and anxiety levels also drop within minutes of seeing green spaces. I was alarmed by the ever-increasing statistics of screen time in the United States. With some children spending as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day and up to 7 hours a day in front of a screen, I realized that educators have an incredible responsibility to create successful learning environments outdoors. How can we reconnect to rural life, to the source of our food and to natural cycles? How can we facilitate relationships with the wild?
"I believe that growth is inspired by a sense of wonder. One of the first windows to wonder is the natural world." -Rachel Carson
I thought of Lake and Park School frequently as I listened to Louv’s lecture, and felt proud of our program’s keen understanding of the educational value the outdoors has to offer. Our school is one where children work on their lessons in an outdoor classroom, study rainfall patterns as water flows down the Horton Hill steps and discuss the importance of sustainability as we use recycled materials for our art. Our school is unique in its prioritization of integrating the outdoors into our curricular explorations every day, rain or shine. Our families are also unique in their support and enthusiasm as we continue to develop our rich possibilities for outdoor learning.
While we frequently attempt to create stimulating, inviting, freeing and private places for children to play indoors, the varied environments nearby offer refuge, freedom, discovery, challenge, joy and wonder. In those moments when we realize that nature has a life and structure of its own, independent of the human hand, we are struck with a sense of wonder that begs further inquiry and exploration. There is something about our biology that subconsciously seeks immersion in nature.As I observe Lake and Park students immerse themselves into our nearby natural worlds and reach a rich and genuine quality of play, I find myself wondering how, as a school, we can continue to nurture and encourage the relationship between the natural world and ourselves. How can we best use our nearby natural environmental to their fullest potential?
We are so fortunate to have a garden within a short bus ride from our school. As a small part of the greater Coleman Park P-Patch, our experiences at the garden often lead to discussions about the greater community. Last week, the big room students visited the garden and attempted to map the larger P-Patch. Suddenly, the garden as they knew it expanded greatly, as they considered the hundreds of other garden beds, the impressive variety of veggies, herbs and flowers within these plots and the surrounding forest full of native species enclosing us. The development of their sense of place feels invaluable as we continue to interact with our surrounding community.
The garden helps students gain respect for the natural world and one another as they learn how much time and energy it takes each seed to mature and as they learn how different insects, birds and mammals live and interact in our garden and how all are needed to maintain balance. The students are learning a valuable lesson; that it's possible for land and people to coexist harmoniously to provide food and energy in a sustainable way.
Our most frequently visited outdoor spaces, Mt. Baker Park and Triangle Park, give us ample opportunity to freely play and explore. In the fall, I traveled with the Kindergarten class to Mt. Baker Park’s brook after studying the art of Andy Goldsworthy. We were inspired by his place-based natural art and set off to create our own sculptures using treasures from our natural setting. The children’s attention and focus was impressive and inspiration seemed to continually evolve as they found new pieces of nature to integrate. Our understanding of symmetry, balance and color gained an entirely new dimension.
In early winter, we revisited a forested area near the brook to build fox dens after reading The Fantastic Mr. Fox.We remembered our nature art as we worked with our fox families to build shelter from sticks, mud and rocks. This endeavor helped us learn how to communicate, develop decision making and problem solving skills, as well as think creatively as we played “foxes”. These are just a few examples of the endless possibilities for art, literature, dramatic play, science and exploration that these nearby green spaces offer.
While forests, gardens, dirt and grass are so special to play in, playing in water takes on a different quality. There’s something about its unpredictable yet reliable nature that leaves us perpetually wondering and anxious to get our hands and feet wet.
During our nautical explorations, we constructed numerous boats and rafts and tested their strength in Lake Washington's waves. Using shovels, we carved waterways in the sand and let our boats float underneath stick bridges.
After our study of eagles, we were determined to locate them in our city. Blessed with fish-filled waters nearby, we were thrilled to find a pair of soaring eagles while playing at the beach one afternoon. Not only does the nature of water and sand provide a playful and sometimes therapeutic environment to explore and build, its setting also serves as an excellent place to watch local wildlife.
When I reflect back on my own childhood places, I discover key pieces of my identity that were forged by my experience in those early years: an appetite for adventure, a comfort with the unknown, the creativity to make fun with whatever is at hand. And what was at hand? Nothing "special" for many years: trees, water, sand, leaves, mud pies, a tree house. But by todays standards, what was previously seen as common, has become rare. One lesson that frequently sings out is that modest pockets of nature can offer expansive palettes for play involving the opportunity to manipulate and interact with elements in the natural environment.
As spring approaches and we spend more and more time outdoors with the Lake and Parkers, I leave you with this quote by Luther Burbank:
“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, beeds, butterflies, various animals to pet, hey-fields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.”