Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Rhythm of Learning in Nature

This past week I had the privilege of being part of The Rhythm of Learning in Nature, a Reggio-Inspired, Forest School-Influenced Professional Inquiry hosted by the York Region Nature Collaborative. Educators from across Canada, and a few from Michigan, came together to experience, interact, and embrace nature as the canvas for learning following an emergent curriculum framework. Our learning was very self directed, we had lots of choice, which enabled individuals to feel safe and comfortable to explore and investigate concepts at their own pace and of their interest. On the first day, like many of the days that followed, we set off to explore the Swan Lake Forest. Initially we were a large group travelling down the path, but quickly individuals broke off into pairs, small groups, and some preferred to explore independently. That particular morning, I had one of many a ha moments. It dawned on me how many different entry points there were in the way everyone chose to explore and interact with the forest. Much like our students, we were very diverse in our interests and learning styles. Some individuals were drawn by the materials that the forest offered and chose to create with these materials on different surfaces. Others enjoyed collecting things that they found to be fascinating, bringing them back to research and show the group. I found myself to be an explorer. Though I spent 2 hours observing bugs, leaves, bark, frogs, etc., I was only 100 meters away from the conference building! Another a ha moment! There was so much to look at in such a small space! You don't necessarily need a forest to have an outdoor learning program! I also noticed that the more time I spent in nature, the better I became at seeing and hearing things. I had a deeper appreciation for colours, textures, and shapes of flowers, trees, bark, and little creatures! I constantly had wonder questions and was very excited to figure out these puzzling questions. There are so many learning extensions (dramatic stories, painting, sculpting, writing, researching, etc.), that nature can foster. According to Condie Ward, "To observe nature requires patience and quiet watchfulness. Imagination comes into play as children create special places and use natural items to create stories and play." (Teaching Young Children). 

Video courtesy of Laurel Fynes

The professional learning experience was combined with a Forest School (camp) for children that was taking place simultaneously. It was wonderful to be able to observe the children's behaviours and interactions with nature, while being in the forest. Many of them did not know each other, but in just a short time, relationships and learning were starting to develop. Observing, building, orienteering, climbing, and dramatizing all fostered these relationships. According to Carlina Rinaldi (1994), "The construction of knowledge is a group process. Each individual is nourished by the hypothesis and theories of others, and by conflicts with others and advances by co-constructing pieces of knowledge and the identities of those who are part of the process. (Julianne Wurm, Working in the Reggio Way).   

Courtesy of Diane Kashin

After exploring the forest, we gathered together for group discussions. Many times, we reflected on things seen, and the sharing of new knowledge or materials. I was very inspired during these gatherings as they always sparked new interests. New things were learned, and relationships were fostered through the sharing of certain skills that others possessed. I found this to be similar to the Knowledge Building Circles practiced with children. The sharing of knowledge and experiences creates connections that further motivates and sparks learning. According to George Forman and Brenda Fyfe (1998, 239), the theory of Negotiated Curriculum "holds that knowledge is gradually constructed by people becoming each other's constructs, and by honouring the power of each other's initial perspective for negotiating a better understanding of the subject matter" (Susan Fraser, Authentic Childhood: Experiencing Reggio Emilia in the Classroom, 184). 

Providing a variety of art materials further supported creativity and fostered another type of interaction and connection with nature. Paints, clay, yarn, wool felts, markers, feathers, and leaf presses, allowed participants to design and build using the natural materials found in the forest. 

Flower presses

Pressed flowers and leaves on the light table

Wool felt

Sample work from Acorn School

My first attempt at wet felting! 

Small world creation on a log

Small world creation 

 Sticks ready to be painted for using as math sticks

Math sticks (great for sorting, patterning, shapes, counting, etc.) 

Loom made of sticks and yarn

Xylophone made of sticks and yarn

Painting feathers and rocks 

Painted feathers

Journey sticks

We became a community, participants started to bring in resources (books, leaf presses, and art materials) to share and teach those who expressed an interest. These are things we as educators strive to create in our own classrooms. The building of a community of learners, all diverse, but supporting each other, bonded through relationships. Another a ha moment, what is the best way for children to form relationships? How do children form relationships? For myself, having participated in this professional learning opportunity, the importance of giving choice, letting the children take initiative of their learning, allowing them to explore what interests them, then coming together, sharing experiences, involving others, and teaching peers creates a learning environment that fosters relationships! According to Susan Fraser, "The fundamental principal of relationship ensures that all participants in the program have to collaborate to make the program function successfully. This collaboration, in turn, increases each member's commitment to work toward strengthening the group as a whole. Decisions are no longer made by one person, but in collaboration with others. Team members share their observations, and reflections and plan the program as a team." (Authentic Childhood: Experiencing Reggio Emilia in the Classroom, 106). 

Why learning in nature?

According to Condie Ward, "Recent studies document the importance of introducing children to the natural world, beginning in the early years. Their social, emotional, and physical health depends on this exposure to develop. Nature instills in everyone a sense of beauty and calmness. It exposes us to things that are alive and growing and promotes curiosity and exploration. With an adult as a guide, children can learn about being gentle and respecting living things. Self-esteem can thrive outdoors because nature doesn't judge people (Teaching Young Children).

Forming relationships not only with each other, but also with the natural world fosters a long lasting respect and sensitivity for nature that cannot be taught until one is immersed in its beauty. "As teachers, we have a responsibility to help create a future generation who will care enough about the natural world to become it's guardian. How fortunate are children who have a teacher who loves to grow plants, care for animals, or loves to stop and examine little things like a buttercup or dandelion. Teachers who share an attitude of caring and enthusiasm for the natural world are giving children a gift that will last a lifetime." (Authentic Childhood: Experiencing Reggio Emilia in the Classroom, 104).

The importance of providing a sense of place...

According to Epstein (2009), A developing sense of place is linked to a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging contributes to children's overall social and emotional development and is an essential aspect of school readiness (Pamela Brillante and Sue Mankiw, Young Children, July 2015). I highly recommend reading the full article: A Sense of Place: Human Geography in the Early Childhood ClassroomRichard Louv points out how important it is to give children a sense of place, a grounding in where they live, because this gives them a secure footing to enter the larger world. Teachers can achieve this by connecting children to the natural world around them through the materials, activities, and environment they prepare for them. (Authentic Childhood: Experiencing Reggio Emilia in the Classroom, 105).

I feel so fortunate to have been a part of the learning journey of The Rhythm of Learning in Nature. I am so inspired and cannot wait to share this experience with my students!

"When a curious child 
and a knowledgeable teacher
explore the phenomena
of the world,
genius science begins." 

-Frances Hawkins (The Pond Study)


  1. Anamaria! I couldn't be happier that you found this course. Sounds like you were made for each other! Our children arre so fortunate to have you to encourage them to stop and appreciate all that is around us. And to remind us parents, about the importance of pausing and appreciating nature and all its beauty. Thank you!! Sarah

  2. Anamaria you captured so many highlights from the week, thanks for sharing your thoughts and reflections.

  3. Thanks so much for this post! I am a kindergarten teacher in the U.S. and find your blog so inspiring! Now I've gone to the library and checked out a whole bunch of Reggio Emilia books. :)

    1. That is wonderful Courtney! You will be inspired and will change your entire view on learning and life! Thank you for the kind words and thanks for taking the time to visit my blog!