The Importance of Engaging Children with Nature – A few observations from experiential learning

By Teresa Brown

Children are wonderful teachers.  With the experiences they have in nature, they are able to help understand the world around them, how they fit into this world, and the complexity and evolving connectivity of Earth and all living and non-living things.  The understanding they have of the world around them, translates to often-immediate observations, behavior, and teachings to whoever is closest to them.

Children love to share what they learn about nature.  Teaching an adult how seeds grow into plants and food, or why one turtle has webbed feet but another has flippers, not only develops communication skills, but can also increase the likelihood that this child will use their voice and actions to protect the world in which she lives in.

Many people learn best through teaching others.  Time and time again, I’ve witnessed kids grow taller in teaching other children or adults about nature.  Watching a child’s face light up and posture stand a little taller—these effects are visible.

Giving children the stage to teach others is very rewarding—you also may be surprised of what kind of information they find on their own or know before you even discuss a topic.  If we’ve discussed or explored a topic (or even if we haven’t), giving a child the opportunity to develop their sense of inquiry, exploration, and expertise, translates to confidence in a subject, the ability to speak up without fear, and the ability to connect in community.  In a time when research regarding screen time and mobile devices is showing negative health effects and disconnection to society, studies involving children in nature show a lot of promise (and an obvious solution to nature-deprived children.)

Children in the garden

The garden is a wonderful teacher of life lessons.  Maybe your garden grows out of sheer luck, but usually you plan, prepare, gather supplies, build your garden, and nurture it to success.  This is not a slow process.  When kids learn on their own, through their own hard work in the garden, that beautiful fruits of their labor will come with hard work and dedication, you are setting children up with a self-discovered blue print for the future (they learn this through their own experience.)  Planting a seed in spring just to harvest the vegetables in summer or even later, teaches them patience and perseverance.  Some plants even take 2 years or more to come to maturity—fruit bearing trees, much longer—what a great lesson for them, to nurture a life.

The garden is a perfect place for children to discover failure.  This year, numerous gardening projects of mine totally failed.  In each situation, the reason for failure was different.  One location was ravaged by geese, another by deer, and I’m still not exactly sure why one garden wasn’t as successful as expected or why my garlic did awesome at first and then failed miserably and suddenly.  Back to the drawing board!  Coming up with solutions to these problems is like solving a puzzle, rather than feeling like the end of the world.  Due to the nature of seasons, sometimes a solution has to wait until spring (no instant gratification here!)

When plants or seeds fail, children can be disappointed, but they learn to build resiliency.  “Wow, our garlic died” or “our milkweed seeds didn’t germinate” can lead to great opportunities for inquiry and problem solving—this is essential in life!  What went wrong?  What worked well?  What can we try next time?  Let’s work from the ground up—Is this the right soil for this plant? Or the right location for sun exposure?  Were the seeds just bad seeds? Are other people having success with this plant right now?  It is ok to fail.  Failure gives us an opportunity to try something different, sometimes with more desirable results than the original plan.  Allowing children to not be afraid to fail is an easy concept to foster in the garden.

Bringing nature to children

Last year my daughter, son, and I tagged monarch butterflies for the first time.  We found monarch eggs and caterpillars in our neighborhood, and reared them.  Fortunately, 3 of the caterpillars went into chrysalis in time to visit my son’s school.  Because he had helped me through the process at home, my son was so proud and protective of these monarchs.  He helped me teach his class about monarchs, habitat, migration, and why scientists tag and track their movements.

These curious children were so engaged that most had great questions and all sat attentive and patiently.  After we tagged the monarchs and the children helped me record the tag numbers, we went outside to release them.  Their teacher took a video and photos and the kids remembered the event all year, bringing it up any time I saw them.

That experience grew into a garden building project for the class and resulted in a spring planted garden for the entire school to enjoy.  During the winter, I found milkweed seed donations, which I brought into school.  These 3rd graders researched milkweed and were so excited to build their garden.  The children used patience to pot soil, spread seeds, and use a spray bottle to wet the seeds and prevent them from being pushed too far into the soil.  Everyone did such a great job!

A few children that would normally have trouble sitting still were engaged the most while we got up and took turns and changed stations.  All hands are on deck in gardening, which is a great change of pace for kids that have to sit still during school.  We accomplished this project by creating stations and putting all 22 kids to work.  If they weren’t working, they were journaling about the project.

The continuity of the monarch tagging to milkweed sowing helped concrete the understanding of life and the life cycle of monarchs.  This type of scaffolding, when used in related topics in science lessons (life lessons!), can have a profound effect on understanding.  You learn by doing and you protect and have empathy and compassion for what you understand and love.

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