Last week, I joined the third graders on a hike into Hoyt Arboretum. They had been asking to go to "Fishy Pond" - a name I didn't know, but which I had a strong hunch belonged to a place I had traveled to with fourth and fifth graders last year. Before heading out, I had second thoughts - a weather advisory warned of high winds. Informed in a small way by my memory of the same day thirteen years earlier, when human atrocities led me to cancel a trip to the woods in a decision that I later regretted, my colleagues and I decided that conditions were safe to walk the trails. I asked the class how their exploration might be tempered by the winds: they responded by making sure that we had supplies to build kites if the conditions were right. The spirit with which we traveled emerged even before we left the room.
When we got to Fishy Pond, the kids immediately jumped into play. N began digging about, freeing up the waterway, turning what looked like a dry creek bed into a free-flowing stream. M, B and A went bushwhacking, taking on daring deeds to earn imaginary badges. In no time, almost everyone was covered in muck. L took off his shoes and filled them with leaves and branches, thinking that might make them less slippery. When it was time to leave, T yelled, "Hurray for Opal 3! We are heroes!"
Reflecting afterward, Kathryn was overwhelmed with emotion. New to Opal School, her previous teaching experiences had left her thinking that her role in such a setting principally demanded that she tightly supervise, set limits, and restrict movement. Because she was there with another teacher, she allowed herself instead to observe the children, to play and create with them. She was reminded of her own childhood. She wrote, "the experience and freedom to discover who we are and explore on our hike today was such a beautiful experience. It felt like family, because we behaved like family."
I was reminded of last week's adventure at Metro's Regional Nature Play and Education Symposium. Speakers advocated for the rights and essential need of all young people to experience the connectedness, collaboration, adventure, and imagination that come with Nature Play. Project Wild Thing's David Bond provided startling statistics regarding the negative impact of far fewer young people having those wilderness engagements than their parents due to barriers of fear, technology, and consumerism. Peter Mortola talked about what play is and why it's important. He started with David Hockney's admonition that "people tend to forget that play is serious" - and suggested that the value of play is dismissed is because it is associated with children. He reminded the group that while we may get scared of play because it gets messy and risky - because it's so real - that's where its power lies: Vygotsky wrote, "A child's greatest self-control occurs in play." Yong Zhao portrayed recent trends in American education as suicidal, saying that designing schools to homogenize people and stifle creativity is self-destructive. Play is an antidote to this - and fosters the entrepeneurial creativity that he thinks distinguishes America from China.
Maybe it means like other people might see something like this and the save the world part means not having a lot of wilderness taken down and building giant buildings and stuff- what it looks like to take away animal’s habitat. If people experience that they won’t take it away.
Landscape architects (including Michelle Mathis, a leader in the field who worked closely with Opal School to designour new playground) described a continuum of nature play spaces, discussing models from around the greater Portland area. One they referred to repeatedly was Oneonta Gorge - a place I visited with my fourteen year old son a day earlier. As we climbed over its giant log jam on our way to the waterfall, I kept thinking about times we had gone there with him and friends in younger years, struggling over the towering logs, trying to keep balance, hoping that we wouldn't fall, thankful to be in a beautiful place, behaving like family.
The following was written by Marcy Berkowitz and Nicole Simpson, Early Kindergarten teachers:
Being housed in the Portland Children's Museum has many more benefits and opportunities than playing in the great exhibits and studios after school. One such opportunity came our way already this year with the opening of the Chagall for Children exhibit. We were invited by the museum to play with the ideas Chagall exhibits in his work; to be playful, as he was, with lines and colors inspired by nature.
After taking a hike to one of our favorite places,the running space, in the Arboretum, we offered children the experience of using India ink to make the lines of the running space. They made footprints lines and hill lines, tree lines and lines that showed how they moved when they ran down the hill.
O: I'm making a footprint.
K: Look how long this line is.
O: It looks like this when I go down the hill.
E: I'm making footprints
O: If I turn it around it's like a street sweeper.
L: Its a fairy. She is confused because she doesn't know where to fly. She lives in the trees...
E: I made the dirt pile with the tree coming out of it, mole holes and some people running down the hill and ME running down the hill.
K: This is a ladder to get acorns down from the trees.
E: Look how thin the lines are with the little brush. In this one I'm running down bumpy.
K: This one is straight up like the trees. This is a circle surrounding a bunch of acorns.
O: That's what its like when I'm running down the hill.
E: This is all of the running space and are you ready to see me running? I have to connect the running space to me.
We then offered the children liquid water colors with colors that Chagall used often in his paintings. We looked together at some works of Chagall and shared about the playful way that he used color in his paintings. The students laughed and exclaimed over the green faces and the yellow and orange violin.
Their final paintings are finished, and they are full of color, story and life. They are hanging in the gallery right at the beginning of the exhibit. We hope you come and take a look!
In the Fall 2011 issue of The American Journal of Play, there is an interview with Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods) and Cheryl Charles (Louv's partner in launching the No Child Left Inside initiative in 2006). From Charles: "There is ample evidence that when children experience structured and unstructured learning within a school's curriculum, and beyond that, unstructured play in nature-based settings, a host of benefits results -- increased achievement on standardized measures, less bullying, more positive teacher attitudes, and more cooperation and creativity among students, to name a few."
Developing a relationship with the natural world through ample time to play in nature is one of the most important values of Opal School. This time for play and exploration support two more of our goals for students:
Develop an understanding of our interdependent relationship with the natural world.
Take action as mindful citizens who care about making contributions to a future that acknowledges living systems as an integrated whole.
Here is further support for this emphasis -- I'll continue to borrow from the article:
"Nature-deficit disorder is a disorder of society, because it shapes adults, families, whole communities, and the future of our stewardship of nature. If nature experiences continue to fade from the current generation of young people, and the next, and the ones to follow, where will future stewards of the earth come from?" (Louv)
"Human beings exist in nature anywhere they experience meaningful kinship with other species. By this description, a natural environment may be found in a wilderness or in a city. We know this nature when we see it." (Louv) "Realizing that one can find nature nearby is a wonderful, inspirational, and often life-changing concept." (Charles)
"The decline in children' independent playtime - as childhood has become increasingly regulated by adults - parallels the human disconnection with nature. Nature experiences - particularly when they're part of independent play - contribute to a sense of wonder and awe. That's the greatest gift we can give our children." (Louv)
"Nature play is critical through all of the phases of childhood. For the youngest children, beginning with infants, nature stimulates the imagination and provides a basis for recognizing patterns. Toddlers and young children learn empathy and bonding with other life-forms through nature play. The middle years provide opportunities to take appropriate risks, expand the play territory, and learn critical skills." (Charles)
"Studies of creativity show that kids who play in natural or naturalized play areas are far more likely to invent their own games and far more likely to play cooperatively. Children who have nature-play experiences also test much higher in science.* We have learned that children who evolve as leaders in flat, hard surfaced play areas tend to the strongest, while the leaders who evolve from play in natural areas tend to be the smartest. It just doesn't make sense to suppress a child's inborn urge to play. It is better to use play to develop diverse mental and physical skills." (Louv)
"Contact with nature allows children to see they are part of a larger world that includes them." (Louv)
"Every day, our relationship with nature, or the lack of it, influences our lives. This has always been true, but in the 21st centuty, our survival - or thrival - will require a transformative framework for this relationship, a reunion of humans with the rest of nature, and a new nature movement that includes but goes beyond traditional environmentalism." (Louv)
"We hope that nature play becomes a way of life again, a right and rite of childhood. People of all ages will realize the benefits for everyone's health and well-being, including a sense of peace, prosperity, beauty, and happiness." (Charles)
* Opal School's 5th graders consistently score well above the state average on Oregon's statewide standardized tests in science. Most years, 100% of the students meet and exceed benchmarks.
"So despite everything, it is permissible to think that creativity or rather learning and the wonder of learning... can serve as the strong point of our work. It is thus our continuing hope that creativity will become a normal traveling companion in our children's growth and development."
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