The Great Outdoors
By Olynda Smith, AMS Certified Montessori Primary teacher
When we think of Environmental Education, we might think about teaching children the names of trees or the effects of pollution. While these are certainly a part of Environmental Education, there is something more important than any fact-based learning could be. Sarah Haggerty, expert environmental educator, holistic psychotherapist and life coach says “When parents think about outdoor activities with their children, I’d encourage them to move away from fact based learning and toward nurturing a sense of belonging in nature.”
Having a sense of belonging in nature supports our children’s wellbeing as well as fueling their curiosity and ability to learn. Here are a few fun activities and suggestions that can support a young child’s sense of belonging while in the great outdoors.
Learning to Appreciate - Speaking from the Heart
In his classic nature education book, “Sharing Nature with Children” Joseph Cornell’s first suggestion for outdoor education is “Teach less and share more.” He advises us to share our feelings about nature rather than the bare facts. He recounts sharing with children his awe about one particular hemlock tree that had sent its roots twenty feet down between two boulders to find soil. He was amazed that it could survive in the craggy stone and cold conditions. The children spontaneously would care for that tree, bringing it water and sitting by it to marvel along with him. Along with wonder and appreciation, they learned a great deal about hemlocks. Find what moves you, and as you spend time outdoors and share from that place.
Learning to See - Nature Hunts
Whether you are spending time in your backyard or in a beautiful park, your little one will doubtless be attracted to the many things there are to see, touch, feel and explore. You can help hone your child’s perceptive abilities by setting up nature scavenger hunts. Take a piece of paper and color 6 dots of different colors on it. Invite your child to find those shades while they explore outdoors. Have extra old paint color cards? You can repurpose them to be the colors your child must find. You can do the same with shapes and textures. This can help children learn to “see” all the shapes and shades of nature.
Learning to Listen - Counting Bird Calls
Being outside can be boisterous and big fun. It can also be meditative. To support your little one’s exploration of nature in a more receptive way, you can play this “listening game”. It was often, perhaps surprisingly, the favorite of my nature camps. Introduce it with a sense of excitement - what will you hear? What don’t we hear when we are normally talking? For a short time, maybe one minute, sit silently together listening. Have your child hold up a finger every time they hear a bird calling. Do the same yourself. Then discuss what you heard together. If you do this regularly, you may be able to add more and more time.
Learning You are Part of Nature - Bringing it Back Home
Everything in nature forms a web of connection. We are part of that web, and helping children understand that can help them feel their sense of belonging in nature. When you marvel at clouds in the sky or the vast expanse of the ocean, you can express how amazing it is that our bodies are mostly water! When you explore the texture of tree trunks you can say a quick thank you, out loud, to the tree for making air and shade and building materials for us. A wonderful children’s book about these connections is You are Stardust by Elin Kelsey.