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The root of learning

Do you ever reflect on the experience of nature you had as a child? I often do. Fortunately for me, my experience of outdoors as a child involved camping, walking for miles along beaches, fishing, many idyllic sunsets, growing vegetables, looking after pets and being in my father’s little boat on the lagoons and rivers of the South West that were hopping with life.

When at home, like many of my age peers, I was often directed to “go outside and play”. So I recognised the migratory birds and their habitats and understood the seasons and much more. Importantly, I grew to know my bioregion very well. Is an experience of nature – wherever it was – part of your childhood too?

Unfortunately, going outside to play, or growing up feeling part of a geographic place, is no longer an experience set that teachers can assume in their students.

The children in our classrooms today are more likely to grow up with the directive at home to “go to the play room and watch the television” or “play on the computer”. Many children tend towards ‘nature deficit disorder’, a phrase coined by Richard Louv, meaning they simply have become disconnected from their geographical place in nature.

Their experience of nature is often mediated by screens of one kind or another, so they are more likely to tell you about the rare creatures of Africa than the ones threatened by feral cats in the bushland at the end of their streets. I wonder how much of their place they actually perceive.

Therefore, these days, we need to plan our teaching activities taking a year of seasons into account, to enable children to develop their sense of place and a basic ecological literacy while at school. As context for history, geography, civics, maths, science, physical education, the arts, and, of course, English, children need to consciously experience all seasons outdoors. They need to observe the diurnal features of the equinoxes and solstices, watch approaching storms and smell the impact on the soil, feel strong winds, run out of the rain, wear coats or wrap in blankets when the weather is cold; and look for shade and drink lots of water when the weather is hot. The idea is for children to experience their place physically and sensually and to artistically reflect on it, then talk and write about it in depth through a variety of activities and genres. In this way, children will come to know their place deeply and practically, rather than only in an abstract way.

For example, we can plan maths with several year-round data collection charts to record the statistics of: birds and fauna who visit the school trees at different times of the year; the time of year that the various plants on the school grounds go to bud, then flower, and lose their leaves; alongside the daily time of sunrise, sunset, phase of the moon and monthly measurements of children’s heights. Regular conversations should be conducted around the data collected and in this way children notice and understand their own change in relation to the changes in their place.

We can use the local Indigenous calendar of the seasons to watch for particular events, and notice the coincidences. For example, in the South West the salmon run when the marri tree flowers. Then as we record data into our charts we can draw and paint the flowers and plants we watch and we can sketch ourselves watching. We can photograph everything as well, and write up our observations weekly, monthly and seasonally in summary.

We can ensure children write to the nurseries early in the year to request punnets of local native seedlings to plant in the school in the rainy season and we can plan visits to the harbour and beach in winter. Similarly, in the last week of school they can plant native seeds in trays to be given to their new teacher in January for the children to care for, and plant in the rainy season. We can plan to measure shadow sticks at various times of the day occasionally over the course of the year, and in the equinoxes we can take these readings at solar noon to calculate our latitude. If possible we can install a rain gauge, a maximum and minimum thermometer, and perhaps we could obtain a barometer. After filming or photographing our data, and ourselves and our stories around it, at the end of the year we can prepare an annual calendar for fund-raising that celebrates the local seasons.

I suggest that the most important consideration in planning for learning in the outside classroom is to design the integrated themes and activities for the whole of the year at the beginning of the year. This only needs to take the form of a basic calendar, upon which multi-cultural events could be entered as well, to ensure celebrations are also planned around any local festivities. Importantly, make sure you enjoy these activities yourself, and partake in similar experiences yourself in your place, because children will respond to a happy, passionate teacher who also finds this new local knowledge an exciting and engaging way to learn.

Sandra Wooltorton is from the Centre for Sustainable Regional Futures at Edith Cowan University and member of the Australian Association for Environmental Education.

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