Outdoor Learning and Permaculture Principles

I have been on tour in Denmark with Kwoorabup Nature School, on the south west coast of Western Australia. One of Kwoorabup’s Walkabout educators, Olly Watkins, is also a drummer with Formidable Vegetable Sound System. After facilitating a Professional Learning Workshop, I was delighted to be invited to join the Denmark community to dance to some crazy, fun music full of permaculture values.

While dancing to the song “Patterns”, which sings to the permaculture principle of work from the patterns to the details, it struck me that this is exactly what I was facilitating with the educators during my workshop. In becoming reacquainted with the other permaculture principles, I came to the realisation that so many connections exist between outdoor learning, especially the way we facilitate at Educated by Nature, and the Principles of Permaculture. Here are some of the connections that I see.

Observe and Interact (Stop, Look and Listen)

Before doing anything, it is important to observe what is happening in nature and what interests the students. How do children interact with nature? What do they notice? What sparks their curiosity? Ask questions. What do their actions communicate to you? What would they like to do in the space and what they would like to learn? How do they play in nature given that play is the work of children?

If you launch straight into ‘planting’ a pre-planned lesson, you may miss the mark and not connect with students. By observing first and building relationships with students in an outdoor space, this connection will create an environment to better facilitate strong growth in learning.

Many of our engagements with nature in the modern world are recreation and exercise based. We often race through nature and do not make time to stop, look and listen. Games that encourage stillness, like Sit Spots and nature journaling, are all wonderful core nature connection routines that encourage observation and interaction.

Design from Patterns to Details (Be a Designer)

Seasonal patterns abound in nature. When students visit a place regularly, they are able to observe these changes and then see them cycle around again. There are also many useful patterns in childhood and developmental stages. We find over and over again that specific ages of children are interested in bugs, or games, or building cubbies, or regulating conflict.

Observing, retaining information about these patterns, and planning for this cycle allows for the creation of programs that can be returned to with children in following years.

Mysteries in nature provide an opportunity for many big questions. Explore these big questions by delving into concepts with smaller questions. These smaller questions get us to look closer. They direct and allow us to adventure to find smaller pieces of information to help solve a puzzle.

Integrate rather than Segregate (Work Together)

Just as plants work together, curriculum areas can also work together and feed information to each other. It is important to identify a main intention or curriculum outcome that connects with content the students are exploring. Then consider the ‘companion’ areas that work alongside this main area for growth.

Use and Value Diversity (Mix it Up)

Nature brings diversity, beyond the monoculture of a classroom with walls, chairs, desks, paper and pens. Nature has trees, leaves, fruit, birds, insects, movement, light contrast, wind and a vast array of inspirational elements that provoke questions and ways of connection.

Students also bring diversity in their ages, interests, gifts and skills, culture and personalities. Mixing the diversity of nature and children and planning space for that diversity to interact and respond provides exciting opportunities for learning and growth.

Use Small and Slow Solutions (Keep it Simple)

Small and slow solutions are more able to be flexible. They allow us to move and change with the growth and needs of the students. It is about matching the speed of learning to the speed of the children. Often, indoor lessons go too fast for some students or too much information is packed into a day. In the outdoor classroom, there is more space for the speed of learning to meet the needs and energy of the students.

Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback (Check Yourself)

Self-regulation for educators in outdoor learning involves stepping back and not jumping in with programs, answers or problem solving. This is often hard to do, especially in school cultures where control of a classroom is seen as important or when whole term plans need to be submitted before the term starts. When you step back, you leave some space and freedom for students to direct their own learning and see an increase in engagement and motivation.

It is also important to be humble as a teacher and accept feedback from students through either asking them directly or through reading their level of engagement in a session outdoors. Then it is important to respond to that feedback and be flexible to change.

Catch and Store Energy (Save some for Later)

We use the Natural Cycle from the Art of Mentoring in our planning which helps work with the natural energy needs of people to foster engagement rather than exhaustion. When is stillness required? When is physical activity required? When is the best time for inquisitive focus? When are people ready for listening to stories? When energy needs are respected, we can capture the right type of energy and use it for learning without depleting the energy to exhaustion.

We also see energy as the fire inside, the spark for motivation for learning. It may start as a small spark but when caught in sneaky and clever ways, this can grow into a huge fire. This is where a question burns so deeply, that an answer just needs to be discovered!

Use Edges and Value the Marginal (Think Outside the Box)

Vygotsky talks about targeting learning on the edge of knowledge in the Zone of Proximal Development, not too far that it is too hard to grasp and not within current knowledge so that it is boring, just challenging enough to push learning that little bit further.

Piaget, calls it Disequilibrium. When something occurs that messes up existing theories or schemas of a child which encourages them to assimilate or accommodate new information to reach a new equilibrium. This disequilibrium is being on the edge in marginal space.

In the Art of Mentoring, Edge Questions are encouraged. Questions which lead children to the edge of their knowledge and inspire them to discover more. Sometimes you need to think outside the box to be a ‘sneaky teacher’ to lead children to this edge. A place where students are learning without realising they are learning.

Outdoor learning spaces are often in the marginal spaces of the school grounds, like around the edge of the oval. These spaces are also sometimes ‘out of bounds.’ An outdoor learning space can activate disused and unloved places.

Educators who work in embedding regular outdoor classroom sessions or nature connection into their week can sometimes feel lonely and marginalised. Being an edge dweller is not easy as you are doing something against the norm. Keep the confidence that your impact will have a positive impact.

Creatively Use and Respond to Change (Get Creative)

When things aren’t working in outdoor learning, creativity is needed to respond and try something new. Don’t give up because it seems too hard or keep on going the way you have always been going when it is not working. Instead, creatively respond to change by looking at the situation from a different perspective to find a new solution. Change often leads to new and greater things!

Some Principles I am still pondering:

Grow a Yield – In this context is that the growth of the mind where the fruit is learning? What does a yield look like for learning?

Produce No Waste – What is waste in a learning environment? Can this waste be transformed into something useful?

Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services – What are renewable resources and services in outdoor learning and school environments? What can be used and restored to grow again?

We would love to know your thoughts!

With thanks to Charlee MgGee and Olly Watkins for inspiration. Formidable Vegetable Sound System also have an education collective, Grow Do It, check them out!

We extend gratitude to teacher, Jessie Barber, who shared her thoughts in response to Trudi’s ‘ponderings’:

Love this! I’ve got a few ideas on the 3 you listed down the bottom too. I found those 3 to be particularly interrelated in some ways. 
These are my thoughts anyway…

Obtain a yield: involving students in practical and authentic projects where the journey or product is something useful in some way beyond the learning experience. I.e. citizen science projects, planning/building project on the school grounds.

Produce no waste: I think there are a few forms of waste in education. One I think of is student energy. So often in traditional classrooms, student energy becomes a ‘problem’ to be solved. I think outdoor and nature education provides more opportunities for student energy to be harnessed. The same goes for curiosity! When the system is too rigid to allow for student curiosity to be followed, I think it is such a waste of the wonderful energy and motivation that comes with curiosity! This type of learning allows for that flexibility and for that curiosity to be harnessed instead of wasted. 

Use and value renewable resources: Similar to waste, I think children’s energy and curiosity ARE key renewable resources, especially when they can engage deeply with nature (another renewable resource as long as we are careful). We don’t need to dream up new, fancy ways to engage the children in nature all the time… nature and children’s curiosity have that covered! There will ALWAYS be questions and ideas to explore when we give children access to nature and especially when we give them opportunities to connect deeply. ”

Discover more about Educated by Nature’s Consultancy Service and Nature Connection Series on our website.