Reimagining Nature Education
I remember the importance of going to Sunday school as I grew up. Then, I was learning Christian history, rituals, and myths. All in a little classroom next door to the church my family was part of.
But imagine if instead I grew up going to a “Sunday Forest School,” developing a relationship with the Earth, an understanding that I depended on a thriving planetary system and that how I live matters. And I was learning to identify and use edible plants and trees. Learning safely how to make fire and cook. To carve.
I bet I wouldn’t have cut myself with a jackknife as a 6-year old if I had gone to Sunday Forest School.* Or stood idly by as a 12-year old as my friend lit some leaves on fire in his backyard and burned down an acre of woodlands.
Forest schools are really powerful. Just ask my son, who has attended one since he was five. Or ask professor David Sobel, an educator and leading expert of outdoor education.
A few years ago, after he had written on the subject for EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet (a book I directed), I interviewed Professor Sobel to ask how forest school opportunities could be mainstreamed.
Much of the focus of our chat was on integrating outdoor education opportunities into existing schools — such as with a “Forest Friday,” where kids spend one day outside each week — an idea set up by one public school in New Hampshire, and which has now spread to many others.
And now, outdoor education is more essential than ever. Not just because we’re increasingly disconnected from nature even as we undermine the Earth’s ability to sustain us and all life. But in the COVID era, no place is safer than outside. And as my son’s time in his forest school reveals, kids are incredibly resilient and can easily spend six hours outdoors, even in the dead of a New England winter.
COVID has led some schools to create outdoor spaces, as this New York Times article chronicles. But the vast majority have instead put up plexiglass partitions, or found ways to teach some students virtually, which can’t be working very well. Really, how can little kids be expected to sit in front of a computer all day — it’s inhuman (and by that I especially mean counter to how humans exist as a species; they’re meant to move — especially children!)?
Why more schools haven’t “built” outdoor classrooms (i.e. putting 10 tree stumps and a blackboard in a field outside the school) is beyond me. Other than the fact that generations spent living inside has made us forget how natural it is to spend much of our days outside.
Migrating school days outside should be a priority. Another priority should be finding more opportunities for forest schools, even for those not privileged to take their children to a formal forest school or be in a school that at least has a Forest Friday.
As a Gaian — one who feels deeply connected to the living Earth and recognizes his complete and utter dependence on Gaia for his continuing existence — I have started a weekly forest meditation open to anyone in my part of Connecticut.** The hope, as it grows, is that more children will come with their parents, and the kids can go off and spend an hour in forest play — directed play, with an educator, that subtly and proactively teaches nature connection, comfort (as opposed to ecophobia), awe, and respect, as well as skills, all while the kids have fun.
While the forest meditation is taking root, the Forest Sunday School is still just a dream right now. And my son is eagerly awaiting the time kids show up so he can play instead of meditating with the rest of us! Hopefully the time is near.
“To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” — Leonardo da Vinci
*I live in the Eastern Woodlands of North America, so forests are my bias, but any ecosystem would do for a Nature Sunday School!
*Connecticut, or Quinnetukut, was named after the Algonquin word for “Long Tidal River,” but few people know that (including me) as we’re so disconnected from nature, the land, and its’ long history, including the first peoples who cared for this continent for thousands of years.
Lead Author: Erik Assadourian
Erik Assadourian is a sustainability researcher and writer. He co-authored more than a dozen books and directed or co-directed 7 book projects over his 16 years with the Worldwatch Institute, including EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet. Erik designed one eco-educational board game, Catan: Oil Springs, and one attempted reality TV show, Yardfarmers. He is an adjunct Professor at Goucher College. He is a homeschooling father who is trying to prepare his son for the difficult future he is inheriting. And Erik is a Gaian, writing a weekly Gaian Reflection and organizing monthly conversations and other ways to participate online and locally in the Gaian community.
Anchor Author: (in this case just editing and the final quote at the end) Daniel Rudolph
Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about forming community, and building public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. Currently he is spending a lot of his time learning juggling and facilitating gatherings. He also enjoys writing and sharing poetry. Daniel is a very curious and playful person and is always open for creative collaborations.