Nature’s Classroom

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Mark Dion, installation view of Neukom Vivarium, 2006. Photo by Vmenkov

Forest schools are a popular pedagogical method and physical educational environment throughout Scandinavian countries, beginning in Sweden and Denmark during the 1950s. Forest Schools provide students and teachers with the means and experiences to develop strong bonds between themselves and nature. The typical forest school curriculum involves a series of outdoor instruction where students learn how to interact with nature and sustainably become independent and holistic providers for themselves and others. They build knowledge around different types of ecosystems, which is simultaneously incorporated into multidisciplinary learning situations (i.e. learning math, science and language arts from natural phenomena). When I was in eight grade, my class took a trip to Nature’s Classroom, a remote outdoor school where we transcended the traditional classroom setting and worked collaboratively as students and teachers to foster a greater awareness for nature and the role we have in sustaining, preserving and improving our unique world. Hands on inquiry-based experiences supporting food sovereignty, communal living and orienteering, have had an enduring impact on my love and devotion for the great outdoors. To this day, I consider myself to be a lifelong learner outside of traditional classroom walls.

While there are ample opportunities to engage all students and communities through outdoor enrichment, inequity is at the crux of the issue. Sadly, the use of public space and natural environments feels like a privileged discussion to have, due to the fact that so many communities are excluded from utilizing safe outdoor spaces. Browsing maps of urban settings reveals the disparity between availability to public space and socioeconomic class systems. Furthermore, simply having access to parks nearby doesn’t address the fact that there’s implicit and explicit bias around the use and understandings of ecosystems. We need to find a way to make this a human right. Incorporating forest schools as a collaboration between public parks (or community nonprofit green spaces) and public schools is a real possibility if education at large would get the funding it deserves.

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Ana Mendieta, Tree of Life, 1974, color photograph. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York and Paris and Alison Jacques Gallery, London.

In regions of the world that face serious consequences with regards to resuming in-person learning, forest schools present one viable option that can uphold physical distancing and promote better health and wellness. Being outdoors has proven to be a more effective and safer environment for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Besides the health benefits, forest schools have enormous impact on scaffolding students’ appreciation for themselves, each other and the natural world at large. Educating present and future generations to respect, love and care for natural resources is vital in the face of accelerated climate change and habitat loss cause by human’s political, economic and social behavior.

Outdoor learning is replete with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) benefits, which are important for preparing students to become innovators and critical thinkers both professionally and personally. STEAM is recognized because these disciplines work well concurrently. In the wilderness, natural objects provide myriad ways to explore, discover and make insights that support STEAM subjects. As this blog has consistently argued (see: previous STEAM themed posts), the ‘A’ in STEAM is the binder that holds the other subjects together. Art is everywhere in a world that rewards sensory qualities and social engagement. Art is at once tangible and conceptual. It encompasses both abstract concepts like formalism (the way art is made in terms that are purely visual and/or material) and social and cultural experiences (the artistic process). Nature is full of aesthetic and contextual properties and occurrences that coincide with theories and methodologies in visual art.  Art allows for personal expression and the envelopment of processes that reveal the humanitarian nature within science, technology, math and engineering.

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Susan Hoenig, Red Oak Leaf Sculpture, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

I have frequently written about artists who make work that coexists with ecology, while also seeking to educate others about the beauty, as well as the social, emotional and cognitive benefits of understanding the natural world. These artists include Susan Hoenig (see: The Artful Environmentalist), Maren Hassinger (see: Tree of Knowledge), Michael Wang, Alan Sonfist (see: Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness), Agnes Denes, Joseph Beuys, Mel Chin (see: Activating Art and Education for Activism), Mark Dion (see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art) and Ana Mendieta (see: Chutes and Scaffolds). Each of the aforementioned artists represent practical and expressive ways of re-imagining and heightening our senses to issues concerning the global environment. Beuys (7000 Oaks), Chin (Revival Field), Denes (The Living Pyramid), Dion (Neukom Vivarium), Sonfist (Time Landscape) and Wang (Extinct in New York) each created works of art that seek to recuperate and re-imagine contemporary (largely urban) landscapes in a manner that reflects thriving wildernesses of the past. Hassinger (Pink Trash), Mendieta (Tree of Life) and Hoenig (Ecological Leaf Sculptures) collaborate with existing natural structures by including their own aesthetic flair. In Mendieta’s case it is her own body and in Hassinger and Hoenig’s practices, it is a light manipulation or transformation of found objects to create site-specific installations that bring awareness to the prowess and complexity of natural forms.

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Mary Mattingly, Core, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Artful explorations towards addressing issues like climate change, deforestation and pollution, result in insights that have ramifications on multidisciplinary learning (the STEM subjects). When Mel Chin collaborated with Dr. Rufus Chaney, USDA’s senior research agronomist, they discovered a breakthrough in the practice of soil remediation. When Mary Mattingly created Swale and Core (see: Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning), she utilized techniques and principles from engineering, mathematics and science to address food sovereignty and soil and water safety. Education via the outdoors is a way for individuals to acquire a multitude of social and professional skills, while partaking in embodied experiences that help shape their perception about themselves, their peers and their environment. We all are subjected to the effects of climate change, which include the rise in pandemics. It would behoove educational policy makers, school boards and administrators to consider safe alternatives to physical school environments, especially by advocating for scenarios that involve collaborative opportunities where students can achieve positive outdoor experiences. The outdoor environment should be seen as a place that encourages, motivates, engages and inspires playful and serious learning, relationships and insights. We should all have opportunities to safely enjoy the fruits of natural knowledge that blossoms in nature’s classroom.

4 Comments

      1. My pleasure, Adam 😊 Our youngest grandson’s elementary has time periods of class outside in good weather, plus a “garden” classroom where they learn to care and about a huge variety of plants, butterflies, etc. What a treat! ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

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