environmental justice, nature play

Moving the Starting Line

I suppose I got into outdoor education (a.k.a .forest schooing, nature play, etc.) in a completely backwards way. Rather than be in a place in nature and decide to share that particular space, I identified a group of children who were underexposed to nature that came alive given the opportunity for nature play. That particular “group of children” is urban and inner city youth and you can watch me tell that story on our YouTube Channel in our Origins Story video linked here and also seen below.

I didn’t have my own farm or piece of land to share with people and invite them to experience, all I had was the idea of the opportunity to come to nature itself – but the desire to do that was VERY strong. Since that time, I’ve been educating myself about the gentle art of enticing children into natural spaces and conversations about nature through what we call “provocations.”

A provocation, in forest school practice, is a point of interest laid out to specifically spark the interest of a learner. If learning about seeds, it could be a variety of seed pods or packets. If conducting a tree study, one might set aside a variety of leaves, bark or needles from nearby trees for identification and conversation. All in all, it is a gentle introduction through natural curiosity and wonder. I have found it a refreshing way to teach and learn.

Most of the time…

I add this because I must honestly mention that in some of my more urban settings if a learner is not in the least familiar with noticing the natural world, their eyes run right over a provacation without the slightest bit of notice – even if it is laid out as a “Discovery Center” on a mat. This is not because of a lack of curisoity or a handicap in wonder. Likewise, these urban children and youth have all the same capacity to be captivated by the samples from nature that a veteran forest school attendee would have. So what is missing?

Exposure. We sometimes call this the “Starting Line.” The idea of a Starting Line refers to where we begin in a nature education program with a set of learners. It involves finding out their previous levels of exposure to the natural world so that you can spark curiosity at a level that will actually catch fire in their imagination.

This means that there are times that before a provocation, nature toy, loose part, or discovery center can be offered a simple introduction must be made. I recently began a lengthy instruction for a game where we would pretend to be squirrels hiding acorns only to find that most of the children (and a few adults present) could not identify the difference between an acorn and a pinecone. Both were frequently seen in the parking lots and driveways where they live. Learners reported that they both crunch when they are run over by a car. But other than that, they were the same thing, or even interchangeable. I quickly realized that I was in error and needed to move my Starting Line.

Tips for Moving the Starting Line:

  • Do it respectfully. There is a good chance this is a case of under-exposure and NOT ignorance. When remediating instruction, avoid demeaning your learner with materials designed for very young children.
  • Use relationship. In the acorn versus pinecone lesson, I just started talking about the yard I played in where I grew up. I told them that in the front yard we had lots of acorns because oak trees grew there. I explained how we played with them and how it was always full of squirrels. But our backyard was full of pine trees and a great place for pine cone battles. I even mentioned getting in trouble for nailing people in the face with them. Was it technical – no! But it introduced the difference through a story about myself.
  • Be available. These introductions might not stick with all of your learners. So when you have to make a correction for the twentieth time don’t sigh, roll your eyes, or put your hand on your temples. Remind yourself to intentionally smile and retell how it comes from an oak like the one that grew in your front yard. Leave out the comparison for now it that is confusing your learner. Just be present for them in a moment of discovery.

All of this being said, though it may change your plans and wound your pride, I highly encourage you to move this line when you sense it needs adjustment. While it may seem like an initial “hassle,” the rewards are just too great not to do it. I’m never sorry that I took the extra time or delayed my plans to be the person who introduced a wonder of nature. Never.

And, after all, it’s not about us – it’s about the kids. Every time.

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