The schools I went to as a kid were cement and steel structures – built on top of nature and, almost as an afterthought, connecting to the natural environment was something that came later. I was lucky to be raised on a farm, so I had that connection. My formal education taught me about the natural world in an intellectual way but I had to make my own personal connections with the information I was taught and assessed on. My education helped me acquire information and some life-skills, but it was ‘learning for later’ so that one day I might use it. Sadly, my education did everything possible to reinforce the illusion that I was different from nature.
Not good enough.
Let’s be really (REALLY) clear about something: we are just a tiny part of a beautiful, complex, now threatened natural world. We are just one small cog in the natural machine of the universe. We aren’t separate in any way – we may have built walls around us, cemented over the environment, and unjustifiably thought we were ‘better’ (or at least different) from nature. But we are not. You, me, trees, water, air, fish (etc, etc) – we are nature. We are a species of animals. Learning about nature is learning about life. Nature-based learning is pure student-centred learning because it is learning about us, as individuals, as communities, and as a species.
I see it often with visitors to our Green School jungle-campus – it’s like some families are experiencing the natural environment for the first time. If you were born and raised in a city, went to school and worked in urban environments (where even the parks and playgrounds are manufactured with concrete paths and steps and fences), then a walk around the rugged Green School is going to feel like a Tough Mudder event. We need to redirect focus from ‘experiencing nature’ – although, that’s a good place to start – to ‘experiencing being a part of nature.’
We are talking about extreme separation of our natural bodies from the natural environment – are we more connected to our phones and laptops, are we more comfortable on synthetically coated non-slip surfaces, are we only at ease in the AC?
But we aren’t ‘just another animal’. We are a species with huge potential to think creatively, collaborate, communicate, to be compassionate and to love, to adapt and thrive. Note: these are not human-skills, as we see them all through the natural world; however, we are a jackpot species in terms of the genetic skills-mix we’ve been given. You might even say our species has had the advantage – unfortunately, we haven’t used that advantage to benefit our connection to the natural world (queue: species extinction, deforestation, habitat loss, pollution, climate change, etc etc). It’s not surprising.
Nature-based learning can’t be a tokenistic addition of sustainability lessons, it can’t be the one-week school-camp, or a World Earth Day event, or the annual cross-country competition, it can’t be an hour or two students spend creating a school garden – it needs to be all of these and so much more. We need to integrate the learning experiences across our schools so as to reflect our foundational connection to the natural world – not reinforce society’s detachment from it. Put a systems-thinking lens to the existing structure and outcomes of what is taught at schools and reimagine a lesson or a unit (or a school itself … YES PLEASE!) with a focus on nature.
For too long, schools haven’t focused on the most important part of being human – our connection to nature. There are innovations to learning programs that include nature-based learning, but these initiatives can’t simply focus on learning ‘about nature’. We need to provide our students with opportunities to experience their own personal life AS part of nature (not something separate), WITH and IN the flora and fauna (not in videos and from sporadic outdoor activities), ABOUT the natural world (and the impact we have within it), and FOR the natural world, to allow us to make a positive impact now (not as some superficial concept in the possible future).
For educators to start teaching ‘as, with, in, about and for’ nature, we need a mindset shift. We need to re-establish the innate connection between our human existence with the natural world to the point that it’s more than a connection – we are Nature. We need a mindset shift of our educators (and the administrative bodies that govern curriculum and pedagogy) – or do we wait until our access to the beautiful, clean, diverse natural world is limited to YouTube videos and memories of what used to be?