Thursday, July 08, 2010

Learning from oudoor play

It is holiday time in New Zealand and I hope time for young people to take time away from their computers ( the 'virtual' world)to get outside and explore the real world of their immediate environment.

Early this week I had the opportunity to listen to early childhood educator and creative playground designer Robin Christie at the Napier Kindergarten Teachers Conference.

It was an inspiring presentation. Robin is a live wire presenter and he illustrated his talk with a wide range of slides of creative playground environments he has helped develop or he has seen in his travels in Europe or the United States. Particularly impressive was the playground environment he has recently helped complete on Matakana Island.

Possibly the most important reason to involve students in outside the classroom experiences is to contribute to their development of a healthy sense of place and identity as young New Zealanders. The late historian Michael King wrote, ‘If we wish to present ourselves to the wider world as New Zealanders then we must be able to listen to our own voices, and trace our own footsteps; we must have our own heroes and heroines: we must persist with building our own culture with the ingredients close to hand and not import these ingredients ready made from abroad.’ The same plea can also be heard from artists and all those who love nature. This spiritual connection, the essence of Maori tikanga, is the basis of developing a proper sensitivity towards protecting and sustaining the natural world.

Creative teachers who value listening to the voice and interests of their students have long appreciated the power of making use of the immediate environment to involve their students in learning across the curriculum.

Young children are programmed by evolution to learn from their experiences. By the time they arrive at school they have already developed the ability to walk, talk, draw, ask questions and develop theories about everything.

Teachers need to build on such achievements and do nothing to blunt the amazing curiosity young children bring with them. Classroom environments, at all levels, should celebrate students’ interests, questions, and their theories. All too often this is not the case. Our teaching can diminish the minds of our students as well as expand them. It is a sad comment that too many students leave our school system disengaged from learning because of the stance of teachers towards them. Teachers are often too busy delivering ‘their’ curriculums to value the thoughts and concerns of their students.

Seasonal changes provide ongoing inspiration to wonder about, ask questions, draw, capture with digital cameras, measure, read about, and compose descriptive and poetic responses. Thunder, lightening, heavy rain, vicious winds, autumn leaves, clouds, wildflowers, frosts, flooding gutters, all are there to taken advantage of. Language development depends on such awareness – ‘before the word comes the experience’. Many such experiences might only last a few moments while others might lead to extensive studies. In such classrooms the curriculum emerges organically.

Environmental education is a way to recover children’s sense of wonder, their curiosity about their world, and their intrinsic need to find out as much as they can. Many teachers complain of the language deficits that their children bring with them to their classes. One way to compensate for this is to provide rich experiences for children to develop their language around. A child’s first visit to a rock pool is a vivid, sensuous one and once this has been satisfied scientific questions come to mind. All too often teachers ignore this sensory and emotional learning and in the process miss out on the ‘voices’ of their students.

There are other reasons why teachers should make greater use of the natural world. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods writes that children know more about the Amazon rain forest than their immediate environment. He believes we need to strengthen the bond between young and nature to counter just being plugged into virtual worlds. He writes that, when he was young, exploring nature was his Ritalin. Today, he says, young people suffer from ‘nature deficit disorder’, an alienation from nature, a diminished use of the senses leading to attention difficulties. Unlike television and computers, he goes on, nature does not steal time it amplifies it and is linked positively to mental, physical and spiritual health. Today many parents are frightened of letting their children explore their local environment. In the UK research shows that the freedom of a ten year old to explore today is equivalent to the freedom given a seven year old in the 1960s!

Louv believes there is a great need to reawaken children’s’ awareness of their natural world. He observes that a back to nature movement is growing worldwide and innovative schools should tap into the trend. This might mean a return to earlier environmental and language experience learning that was once a strong feature of our schools. It is also a positive move that many schools are becoming ‘eco schools’, growing natives, developing native gardens and encouraging vegetable plots.

Re awaking a sense of wonder needs to be taken as seriously as the current focus on literacy because to be able to read one must be able to see. To be able to write one must be able to access content, one must be able to see the world and experience ones encounter with it. To see the world one must learn how to attend to it, how to penetrate it’s deep structure, how to capture what is significant. It is through the literacy of sight, smell, and touch that literature and poetry, drama, science and dance are given the stuff with which to work.’

The late Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring and A Sense of Wonder wrote that exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of being reflective to what lies around you. It is learning to see with your eyes, ears, nostrils, and finger tips, opening up the disused channels and sensory impressions. She believed that every child needs at least one adult to share experiences with young learners so as to keep the sense of wonder alive. In The Silent Spring she wrote, ‘those who contemplate the beauty of the earth will find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.’ She believed we should connect our young with the natural world to develop what she called their learning spirit.

Echoing Carson’s thoughts David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, writes, ‘over the years I have made a practice to take a little time each day to enjoy a sunset, watch a sparrow, admire a snowflake. Such moments should be shared with children.’

Teachers must view their students as embryo scientists, artists, explorers, and investigators with a great desire to see, experience and understand. Learners with naturally inquiring minds backed by vast quantities of energy, a love of words, both spoken and written, and a vivid imagination that for all forms of expression form a natural outlet.

Back to Robin Christie.

Robin's two main themes were to develop outdoor learning environments that help children reconnect with nature and in the process empower children. All too often young children are divorced from nature and, if anything, are a little scared of things they encounter outdoors ( 'biophobia'). Developing a love of nature in small children is vital. Robin he believes children will only protect what they know and experience. This means we need,at all ages, to keep children's sense of curiosity alive and help them feel confidant explorers of the natural world.

Through his slides he shared a number of 'cheap as chips' ideas to enliven any early education centre or primary schools. Many, he feels, are, due to obsessive safety regulation, too boring and pre-planned restricting the use of the child's imagination.

A few ideas I noted were:

Get the caretaker to leave the grass unmown and then to cut trails through the grass -perhaps some 'crop circles'. Later the grass can be mown but, until them, children will love exporing the sensuous nature of playing in long grass.

At one centre road painters were painting in lines for car parking.Robin took advantage of this situation to get them to paint in stars down the path to the entrance of the centre. This made a change for the painter from straight lines!

Lots of centres/schools have bare concrete walls and these Robin transform into 'living walls' by attaching manuka or pungas and then pushing into the gaps bromliads or other suitable plants. Pongas bring their own native living plants.

Children, Robin observed, love corners to meet and talk with friends and such places ought to built into playgrounds. One idea that impressed me ws planting two lines of willow branches ( not the weeping kind) and then , when grown, bent over and woven together making a 'living hut' to sit in or crawl through. Native diveracating plants could be established and, when mature tunnels, could be cut through them. I like the idea of establishing 'magic' circles' of lance woods to gather under.

Water is all too often missing in playgrounds. Robin illustrated ways in which small concrete streams could be developed ( water supplied by hand worked bilge pumps) where children an make dams, have boat races, block up, and generally mess about in. See the illustration above,a major stream construction from Europe. Some streams could be temporary projects - perhaps on hot days.

The use of driftwood , for schools handy to the coast or rivers, provides lots of weird shapes for children to exercise their imaginations.

Play huts were illustrated with coloured perspex windows ( Robin can supply such things) and roofs can have brush wired down and covered with potting mix and planted with barley to make 'living roofs'.

Entrances ways can be transformed into sharks mouths by painting or adding such thing As giraffes. Great playgrounds evolve as required.

Simple styles can be built to climb over. Large bamboo is invaluable. It can be placed in pre-cut holes in barriers for children to be used any way they wish.

I did like the idea of having fireplaces disguised as kilns to be used for lighting fires. A permit could be gained from the Fire Brigade for the afternoon to experiment with lighting and cooking.

Another great idea was to bring along tents for the day to make temporary tent learning centres. Another 'cheap as chips' idea.

And there are all sorts of things to grow. Robin suggested buying a simple carport , roofing and walling it with see through roofing to make a greenhouse or a place to play in.

Robin's ideas were endless and the ideas he planted in members heads are sure to make a real difference.

Throughout his presentation he emphasised that teachers need to involve their students and their communities in the design and construction of playgrounds to develop ownership and empowerment. His work on Matakana Island was an excellent example of his philosophy.

All in all great fun - and he also works with teachers playing the ukulele! See the website he shares with his wife Toni for all sorts of ideas that they can help you with.

And they produce a very worthwhile magazine to subscribe to as well.

It seems they have energy and enthusiasm to burn!

Play grounds do not have to be as sterile as they all too often are. Not if Robin has his way.


Allanah King said...

Great ideas shared here. We are very proud of our playground here at Appleby School. It was designed by one of the parents and has many of the features you were discussing.

WE made a podcast a while back showing what it looks like.

Appleby Playground

While we're on the topic I am sure you would like this video showing what we get up to when the leaves fall from the trees.


Bruce Hammonds said...

Loved your 'playscape' - it is much like the ones Robin desribed when he was in Europe. We need more such 'playscapes' in New Zealand schools. Other schools ought to view the podcast to get inspiration.

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Anything to make playgrounds more interesting and natural would be great. And anything that helps children relate to their natural environment equally.

Teaching Serendipity said...

I love the idea of trees and water woven into the flow of a playground! I'm a kindergarten teacher in the US, and although our school is lucky to have a big, exciting playground with space for man physical activities, it is almost totally devoid of nature.

You mentioned the idea of a simple garden. This is an idea catching on in many schools (maybe a little easier to start with than some of the larger-scale wilderness ideas,) with great results for children. Michelle Obama is particularly supportive of such work because of her concern with childhood obesity.

Thanks for sharing the great blog! I will be back.

-- Teaching Serendipity

Teaching Serendipity said...

I love the idea of trees and water woven into the flow of a playground! I'm a kindergarten teacher in the US, and although our school is lucky to have a big, exciting playground with space for man physical activities, it is almost totally devoid of nature.

You mentioned the idea of a simple garden. This is an idea catching on in many schools (maybe a little easier to start with than some of the larger-scale wilderness ideas,) with great results for children. Michelle Obama is particularly supportive of such work because of her concern with childhood obesity.

Thanks for sharing the great blog! I will be back.

-- Teaching Serendipity