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An Experiment in Outdoor Education

Author: Tajia Hammack

The  best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky.                    

-Margaret McMillian (c.1925)

The days were spent nestled in the forest with the trees as our endless classroom and the rosehips we had picked made into tea. Crossing the rivers with cautious, tiny steps bravely extending the boundaries of comfort, and before my eyes I watch growth. With each step another synapse is created. Each breath brought more curiosity to these little ones, that I was so fortunate to learn beside, in the nature pre-school where our home base was out in the wild no matter the weather.

Watching seasons change, we learn of life and death and renewal. We watched as the tallest wildflower grew from bud to blossom and finally to seed to return to the Earth beneath our feet with a promise for a visit when the next Spring comes. Near the end of Summer and into the Fall, trips into the Aspen groves left a magical imprint on my mind. Five little ladies, running, chasing, laughing, learning while the golden leaves finally let go from their branch. Yellow leaves drift down the creeks decorated with the finest masts and sails in hopes of reaching new uncharted lands.

In Fall we learned to reflect. Reading stories and sharing memories of an adventurous Summer past. The crisp air had begun to spark excitement in the little ones. Winter began to peak around the corner, their sweaters turned to snow suits and the days became shorter. Branch forts had given way to winds, and the snowflakes replaced golden leaves. Tiny button noses and rosy cheeks acted as the barometer for tea time in our snow cave. More than numbers and tracing and coloring in the lines, the children learned how to find their wings and let them stretch to soar. They learned about their world, from the tiniest growth to the vast universe that we are a part of. They learned together through exploration.

“Slowly as the trees grow rings, the little ones grow roots”

When getting rid of the idea of a standard way to be educated, we were able to learn without limits. Everyday brought about new curiosity, new problems and ideas and solutions. Summer days were spent finding treasures on the lake shores. The children covered in mud and ending the days with sun kissed skin. Upon pick up time they would be overheard teaching their parents that in order to make a fire there needs to be ventilation for the air to pass through. While being little, we practiced with real tools not plastics toys. When the time became appropriate, we were able to utilize Swiss Army knives and magnifying glasses. Eventually our world grew in the form of viewing through a microscope. Every mossy glen held an entire world to investigate.

“Learning about the little things gives a child an opportunity to protect the world around them”

Watching their exploration taught me more about the importance of being a steward of the Earth then I can thank them for. Compassion grew with the awareness of every living thing and the rhythm of how even the tiniest life is a part of the big picture. The Jack Laws Field Guide became a reference that each little one would become familiar with as well as Aesop’s Fables. Many stories and songs of their own would echo through the canyons. They would sing songs of the flowers and storms, stories of creatures living in the wild together, taking care of each other in the same way the tribe learned to take care of one another. In every way, nature based education has become perhaps the biggest home based, child led, education exploration experience I have had the opportunity to engage in.

At the start I wasn’t confident. I had not done child led learning before. “What if’s” wreaked havoc on my stuck-in-the-standard-curriculum based past. What about learning ABC’s and 123’s? What if it weren’t enough just to explore the world around us? Confirmation came in the words during a picnic in the center of a Rhyolitic Volcano.

“These are the best days of my life. I hope it doesn’t end. Maybe tomorrow we can go to Africa.” (Maya, age 5) “Sweet one, the world truly is yours to discover”

If ever the thought has crossed your mind to educate outside in nature, slowly as the trees grow rings, the little ones grow roots. Give yourself the opportunity to watch the children grow and cast boundary of conventional learning aside. Guide the children to find themselves and watch them blossom. What a gift to know that the world is theirs, great and small.

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