The three-way relationship between self, environment and community is recognised and celebrated here at Educated by Nature. The combination of these three forces is essential in the development of resilient, healthy and happy community members.
The books, Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators (David Sobel), Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature (Jon Young), and Free to Learn (Peter Gray) all recognise the value of play these relationships. It is through play that children are given opportunities to explore the reactions and interactions between themselves, their environment and their community; developing skills in being productive, engaged community members.
We provide children opportunities, encouragement and resources to play and to break out of their comfort zones. While program focuses change, there are constant aspects which enhance play opportunities and encourage community, self, and nature connection.
At our after school clubs (Bush Inventors’ Clubs) and school holiday program (KIN Village) many children spend time making carpentry creations. This kind of constructive play is an important way for children to learn to experiment, to build, and observe how their actions interact with and impact the world.
“We are the animal that survives by building things – including shelters, tools, devices to help us communicate, and devices to help us move from place to place – and so we have constructive play, which teaches us to build… through such play [we] become good at building and by adulthood [we] are making well-crafted, useful versions of the real thing.”
Peter Gray, Free to Learn (pp 123-124)
Constructive play allows for self-development and an understanding of one’s place in the world. Children make shared creations, share ideas with each other and communicate stories about what they are building as a way of making connections with others and their communities.
The carpentry and carving area often becomes the centre of the community at Bush Inventors’ Club. The use of tools fosters the sharing of skills and stories. The children work together to build and mentor each other by sharing skills and techniques or helping each other with ideas.
The simple act of being in nature is one of the best ways foster nature connection. Children are given opportunities to build cubbies, hang hammocks and climb in trees at our programs. Natural materials like fallen branches, sticks and leaves are used for building. These resources can be drilled, sawed, carved and whittled into creations. All the while, children are engaging with nature and making meaningful connections with their environment.
The act of transformation which occurs when we build is a powerful way to help us understand the world; when we drill into wood we can feel how hard or soft it is; when we whittle sticks we investigate the layers of bark. We can learn about the natural environment through the process of transforming it.
Wilderness Awareness Games
Wilderness Awareness Games, like Thunderclap and Eagle Eye, which connect with children’s passions in a playful way also encourage connections with nature, self and community. These games involve being present and still in nature, hiding among leaves and behind trees, waiting for the perfect moment to run or pounce.
“As they lie hiding in the stillness of that musty leaf pile, they begin to forge a good habit of awareness. Enveloped in sensory input, focused on staying absolutely still, and pumped with adrenaline as their hearts beat in hopes of not being found, they learn a new level of comfort in the messy natural world. Their brain patterns for comfort and stillness in nature grow stronger. And in moments as they wait, they may completely forget the game as they become rapt in the beautiful designs of an ant that crawls right in front of their nose.”
Jon Young, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature (p84)
These games also involve a sense of community and an understanding of self. By sharing in communal goals and enacting a role within the game, each member knows how they ‘fit’ within the community. Some games, like Ant Hospital encourage teamwork to ‘rescue’ each other, giving everyone a role in helping throughout the game beyond being chaser and chasee (or predator or prey).
Quiet Spaces / Hammock Communities
When the hammocks come out at our programs, the energy almost instantly shifts into a place of calm. Sometimes children separate their hammocks from each other and spend time relaxing and reflecting by themselves. Other times hammock communities are created by hanging three or four hammocks together from just a few trees. Children move into a place of ‘hanging out,’ chatting and sharing stories.
The process of hanging hammocks and finding the perfect, ‘just right,’ place to hang them is a great way to build nature connection and learn to respect the trees and share space with each other and with their environment. Hammocks also become a place of stillness which allows children to find sit spots underneath and among trees, allowing the opportunity to observe and be a part of nature.
The power of community we have observed in ‘Hammock communities’ is amazing. We’ve seen intricate cubbies, double-decker hammocks, hide-outs and even a cubby hotel! The hotel cubby was a favourite where children created a cubby system with multiple rooms for ‘guests’ and arranged a payment system using money they crafted themselves. When children have the time to explore and build these types of communities, complex rules, values, currency, rituals and rites of passages emerge organically.
These miniature worlds seem to work as ‘practice’ and as modelling of real world experiences. As Sobel discusses, it seems to be universal for children to, “create or find their own private places … it provides a bridge between the safe, protected world of the family and the independent self in the wider world.” These special places, like a hammock, can be in-between places for finding our place in the world and our community.
River Play and Fishing
Many of our programs are held near the river and we are grateful for the variety of experiences it offers. Children spend time swimming, digging in the sand, building castles and fishing rods and attempting to fish with them, or more successfully, with fishing nets. On occasion fish, crabs and worms have actually been caught! While the fish can be tricky to catch, they were quite easy to keep (and of course release at the end of the day) and often become animal friends. Children take great care in building habitats for the fish in buckets and attempting to feed them, care for them and study them watching how they move, and how they interact with their environment.
As David Sobel describes, children forming animal allies, “makes animals and people part of one larger family, with kinship relationships.” Forming these kinds of relationships with animals and nature means that when it comes time to care for animals and the environment, children will have the necessary skills and respect for the environment to do so.
Forming New Friendships
Friendships and individual connection are crucial aspects of well-being and community. While the children often come to programs with friends they already know, they usually leave having made many more!
There is a diverse age range at our after school clubs and school holiday program (6-12 years). The experiences of the children mean opportunities for play and for making connections are extended. Over the course of a term at Bush Inventors’ Club this opportunity to forge relationships is extended; a tight-knit community is formed we get to know each other through both incidental and purposeful learning experiences.
The interactions between self, environment and community are core to Educated by Nature. Developing each of these areas is beneficial, even necessary, for creating resilient and engaged citizens. What better way to encourage this development in children (and adults) than through play?
Play happens in many different forms and in different circumstances and it continues to be the best way that children have to make sense of the world and their place in it.