Friday, January 29, 2016

why I ditched the classroom for the wild

In a world where pedal desks, blended learning and active learning classrooms are gaining popularity, I would like us to ditch classrooms entirely. And technology too, for the most part.

I would like us all - learners from birth through adulthood to end-of-life - to spend time exploring the world together instead of sitting in schools or staring at screens to educate ourselves. I'd like us all to spend a few more hours outside every single day and call it our education. And lots of people disagree. "That's just great", they say, "but my kids aren't three anymore, and they're no longer into sitting in the dirt making mud pies". Or they tell me that our kids need to learn skills for this century as opposed to an antiquated and quaint appreciation of "nature". This is where I get excited.

Let me show you how teens and adults can learn from a good mud pie, a romp in the rain and a quaint appreciation of nature. Let me show you how in just two and a half hours of self-directed wilderness exploration a group of kids, teens, or adults can learn as much or more than they might have in a classroom, and yet go home glowing and filthy with the effort and joy of it all. And because it's a whole body-and-mind experience, they're likely to retain more of it, too.

This is Wild Art. This is explorative learning in the wilderness. It's the foundation of a healthy development as individuals and society, and I think it should form the bulk of our children's education.

Am I saying we should all be unplugged all the time? No. Here I am using the Internet to convey my thoughts. I and a couple of the kids were taking photos during our last outings, just so we could share this adventure and so I could put this idea out on the web. I began our day yesterday by reading some information I found about pea and fingernail clams online, as well as an email from a local biologist describing the lives of these creatures the kids had discovered in a forest swamp, earlier this month. Clearly, technology and the internet are vital to our learning. But it starts with wading in the swamp and digging through mud and algae just for fun, and saying "hey guys! Look what we found in the algae!" It starts with feeling great about getting out in the wilderness and having no agenda at all - just an open-minded group of people learning to see their world; learning to appreciate nature.

What we learned during two and a half hours of playing in the mud and water:

Ecosystems, observation, measurement, quantification and consequence. The big picture. It's obvious we're looking at ecosystems by going out in them, but it's so much more than that, too. These two photos show the same spot (different angle due to change of accessibility!) one week apart. See that little pond emptying into the creek from about 3 feet above, in the photo on the left? That's the same little pond in the photo on the right, but the creek had swollen so much with the week's rain that there was only about an eight-inch difference in height by the time the second photo was taken. And while I stood ankle-deep on a little gravel bar to take the first photo, the second was taken from the other side of the creek, since I would have been nearly waist-deep had I gone to the gravel bar. This observation, made in many places and to many different degrees, had various consequences. First, there was the experiential lesson of learning to observe. Then there was noticing the consequences of the creek's change to the ecosystem it flows through, and to us, our activities, and our thought-processes. We continuously evaluated how deep the water was and how much it had changed in depth, speed, temperature, erosive power and ecological consequence. To make such observations and hypotheses during an extended exploration of a large area is to truly deepen them, and to apply them to a bigger picture. Learning to see and to always consider the big picture is, in my opinion, one of the most essential lessons. In the wilderness - especially in a social group exploring the wilderness together - we naturally see the big picture.

Measurement, risk-evaluation, and problem-solving - not to mention collaboration. The creek, having breached its banks in many places, flowed out into the cedar forest, and although it was generally too deep to navigate, various roots and clumps of collected twigs made it possible to traverse the flooded forest with caution, and the kids found many ways to test, problem-solve, and group-work their way through it. It was also a great exercise in observation, since keen and cautious observation was essential to staying out of the many chest-deep areas. A couple of kids demonstrated this quite dramatically by falling in.

Just an extension of the above thoughts - this turned out to be the safest way into the flooded forest: a very quickly-moving rapid between two islands (and between two trees!). The water on either side was about four feet deep.
There is always, of course, the option to challenge oneself. This brave young soul challenged herself to cross the creek - about five to six feet deep at this location - on a stable but slightly slippery alder. Observation and imagination collided for me as she paused to look at a great blue heron that was digging through the marsh just fifty feet away, and then some of us noticed this young hippo coming up beside the crossing-log... always good to have a little wooden hippo in the temperate rain forest!! I have often been asked how I mitigate risks like this one. And it was a risk - absolutely. As a mentor, this takes my own evaluation of the situation, as well as an on-the-spot assessment of whether I could solve any problem that might arise. In this particular location, the creek was deep but quiet, as the bulk of the flow was happening beyond some piled logs about eight feet away. So I coached her across the log (mostly encouraging her in her own process), and stood very close, ready to leap in and pull her out, if needed. Thankfully such a rescue wasn't necessary, and this crossing will improve her skills and confidence.

Playing with flow and water depth, but also making constant observations about structure stability, weight and holding capacity of the flooded forest floor, and navigating group dynamics.

We made quite a few questions, observations and extrapolations about beavers as we traversed their habitat and noticed many beaver-chewed trees and sticks. This also led to a couple of discussions about Giardia and other parasites; health-risks of exploring the wilderness, how to mitigate those risks, what the outcome might be, and what potential healthcare is available to help should we contract Giardia (not much). Interestingly, this also led to some brief discussion of local wild foods.

The creek didn't stop after flooding the forest - it also flowed out into the meadow, creating beautiful running streams along the trails. Many observations were made about the springy spongy meadow. We rescued a caterpillar and found a few drowned worms. And mostly the open meadow led to conversations about the weather, and some good opportunities for running.

But why just run? The kids wanted to see themselves slow-motion running along this trail, and thanks to the technology I had with me (an inexpensive little waterproof camera), I was able to accommodate, on the spot. As they watched this video they explored anatomy, physics, and technology. And this spot was also an opportunity to discover how various members of our community react to a change in their routine. One of these groups approached the flooded trail from a spot thigh-deep in the flooded swamp beside the trail, and watched various dog-walkers and joggers either turn around at the sight of the water or walk in a short distance to evaluate depth and then turn around. In one case a jogger took off her socks and shoes and jogged through barefoot!

The flooded meadow seemed to inspire some dramatic play, so we went with it.

Sometimes it's difficult to see any immediate curriculum-related value in these moments. That makes them even more important. See this joy? This is the joy that will mean she remembers this day for a long time, even if she doesn't remember the words "Giardia" or "flood-plain".

This joy is the place where friendships are built and developed; where children, teens and adults learn (often through dramatic play) to navigate our intensely social world. The relationships carried on through these kids' lives will carry some of this day's learning along into later stages of life, as these kids trigger each other's memories of shared experiences.

This is the place where the brain is excited into building connections between the many experiences we've given it during this adventure, the many experiences we brought with us, and the many that are still to come.   (This and the following photo generously contributed by one of the students.)

And this is also the place where we learn to know and accept ourselves as part of the world; to let sink in the great learning we're doing, to appreciate where we find ourselves and where we are going, to make great leaps forward and to sit calmly in the current moment - and to appreciate the nature of everything.


  1. you are a an inspired natural educator. Trusting in your belief that joy is a harbinger of healthy growth and learning is difficult in our competitive educational community. Bravo... and Thank You!

  2. Thank you for sharing this journey and the Joy of It. Ths article is beautifully written and the message and reality of it precious. May you continue to be inspired and inspiring to generations young and older...learning and sharing as you go.


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