nature play

“Don’t touch the nature!”

During my last week as a “mainstream preschool educator” I had an experience that solidified my decision that now is the time to start living and teaching the values I hold dear.

Let me begin by saying I truly esteem the ideology and curriculum of the organization I had been working with for several years. While I won’t mention them by name, many of my close followers will know which institution I mean, which only mirrors the best practices of many early childhood education centers. It is not this particular center that got “under my skin,” but rather the nature (no pun intended) of practical circumstances and concerns that lead them to teach under the restrictions they do.

On the playground with a group of three and four year olds for one of our 45 minute outdoor play sessions for the day, we were encountering nature. It had been a part of the curriculum that month to learn about life cycle of plants, what things are living and non-living, and about the change of seasons. The children were well versed in terms like roots, stem, leaf, and flower. They could tell you that living things need proper habitats. They know that plants needs air, water and light to grow. They had diagrammed and drawn out this process several times and I had even brought in some plants from my garden (non-toxic of course) for them to observe.

picture of honeysuckle in bloom
photo by J. Mitrione, Unsplash 2020

Just the day before, our lesson plan called for us to take them onto the playground to observe a plant up-close. Just the other side of the fence, honey suckle grew in profusion and the children enjoyed touching it as we pulled it through the chain link fence that encloses our play area. Their faces lit up when they realized that it was this small flower that they’d been smelling for a week or more as they played. They could correctly identify all the parts of the plant, pictures were taken to document the activity and send home to mom and dad. Lesson successful. Until the next day….

Upon going out on the playground where did every single child (and I mean all 27 children) gravitate to immediately? Well to the honey suckle of course! Just yesterday it had been the focus of our lesson. We, the teachers, had pulled it through the fence ourselves for observation! But now the children heard from each adult a constant barrage of, “Don’t touch the nature!” Safety guidelines, you see, prohibit us from allowing children to engage with sticks, leaves, vines, wood chips, dirt or other forms of the playscape.

The children were genuinely confused; and as versed as I am in the Safe School Guidelines, I have to say I was instantly irritated. We want them to learn about these things in isolation? What happened to experiential learning? Learning through play? Or even the goals of yesterday’s lesson?

Later that afternoon for the last half of their outdoor play, they knew better than to touch the items on the other side of the fence. I caught two or three of them, instead staring straight up into the boughs of a pine tree. They started to scatter until they saw it was me (they’d already sensed that I could not betray my value system I guess) and then asked, “What is that?”

I was confused. They know what trees are. Pine trees are not exotic or rare in Georgia. I laughed and decided to play along thinking they were teasing me. “Well, I don’t know. What do you think it is?” A few more joined the sky gazing group. One boy said, “It looks like a tree but those aren’t leaves so we think we must be wrong.”

pine tree limb unclose
photo by R. Kraft, Unsplash 2015

It was then that I honestly realized that they were confused because of the pine needles at the end of the branches. Without exerting much effort, I reached up and pulled the branch low enough for them to touch it. Casting wary glances over their shoulders, they approached the branch. One little girl said, “It looks ouchie. Can we touch it? Is it safe?” I pulled a few needles free and began observing them with the children. By now there were fifteen of them all gathered around. The smelled the needles, touched the length and pointed ends, and then smelled them!

In what has become a classic work called Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes, “Within the space of a few decades, the way children experience nature has changed radically….Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.”

Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature is fading.”

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

It wasn’t long before we were found out and the contraband pine needles I had handed them were disposed of by another teacher over the fence for safety’s sake. But for well over ten minutes, we escaped to a place where we could use all of our senses to learn that this was a tree and that there were lots of them just like this all around us. We talked about what it meant to be evergreen and I asked if any of them had Christmas trees in their homes that reminded them of this tree. I think we could have gone on talking for a long time.

As we gathered them in to go back inside, I caught one boy steal a last glance over his shoulder at the pine that had extended it’s graceful limb over our play space. I hope that he spends the next two weeks jumping as high as he can to try and reach that branch. And I pray some kind soul will let him smell the pines once again before he loses interest.