By Laura Farley (I am a curious teacher who enjoys sparking joy and wonder in children and spending my weekends peering into tide pools and bird watching.)
A couple of years ago, when I was teaching Grade 1/2 in Calgary, the first snow of the year fell outside on the playground. The students were excited for the extra slippery slide and the sticky snow to make snowmen. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to introduce them to Wilson Bentley, the first person to successfully photograph snowflakes and prove that each snowflake was unique. The students were impressed by his incredible snowflake photographs from over one hundred years ago. We discussed the tenacity of Wilson Bentley and marveled at his sense of curiosity and wonder in the beauty of snowflakes.
The real magic happened when the students were heading home into the snow. Instead of immediately playing tag or running around, the students were peering intently at each other’s jackets. The students were enamoured with looking at each flake and I remember one little girl telling me that she did not think that those snowflakes we saw inside actually existed in the real world. I came to realise that for most of the students, their experiences witnessing and appreciating the natural world were limited.
Children are spending less and less time engaging with and dwelling in the natural world and instead are occupied with screens and indoor activities. I decided to commence an inquiry project to re-engage students with the natural world incorporating pedagogy from Imaginative Education.
From the beginning of the inquiry project with the students, I shared images of myself as a little girl dwelling in nature and began telling the ‘story’ of how I had come to love the natural world. Egan (1997) writes, “we ‘storify’ events, whether fictional, real, or mixed as daydreams, in order to understand them in a particular way” (p. 64). I found that telling students specific memories I had from my own experiences in nature was helpful in building enthusiasm about venturing outside.
Egan and Judson (2015) write, “…the imagination should be invoked at any time and in all curriculum areas to enrich and make all students’ learning – and all teaching – more effective” (p. 4). It became a goal of mine to guide students in cultivating their imaginations and enriching their understandings of curricula by embedding learning outcomes in outdoor experiences. Egan writes about teachers who employ cognitive tools to intentionally engage students in learning and development of their imaginations, “…they not only consider the curricular content and concepts they are dealing with, but also think about the emotions, images, stories, metaphors, sense of wonder, heroic narratives, and other cognitive tools that can give these concepts and content life and energy” (p. 8).
In this inquiry project, I utilised many cognitive tools (Here is a link to the whole set) to expand the learning of the students, spark curiosity, build empathy, shift perspectives and spark joy in learning outdoors. I employed story, emotions, vivid imagery, perspective taking, and heroic qualities.
The students and I would head to a lovely park behind the school which had towering trees and woodland creatures. Some students acknowledged that they had not been there before or did not remember ever really noticing the park. On the first visit, I encouraged all the students to explore the area, to feel the trees, breathe the air and listen to what creatures might share the space. Judson (2014) writes, “We can afford students opportunities through all grades to somatically experience the natural world around them and, thus, support their development of emotional connections and knowledge of their local natural contexts” (p. 13). Somatic Understandings were being developed on our first exploration of the natural space.
Egan (1997) explains Romantic Understanding as, “lively, energetic, less concerned with systemic structures than with the unexpected connections and the delight they can bring” (p. 102). I found that students overwhelmingly seemed joyful when learning outdoors. They immediately spread out and were fascinated by many of their discoveries. I talked to students about the qualities of a hero. As Egan writes, “the hero lives, like the rest of us, within the constraints of the everyday world but, unlike the rest of us, manages somehow to transcend the constraints that hem us in” (p. 88). Students listed different heroic qualities such as possessing superpowers, helping people, bravery, politeness, generosity, and persistence. I posed the question if they thought the trees in the park could be heroes. This took some pondering and discussion. The conversation became richer, and I was impressed by students extending the qualities of generosity and patience to trees.
I used nature journals with students as a means of providing them with a tangible way to document their thoughts and learning. The journals also were a valuable assessment tool and I was excited to learn more about intentional ways of using journaling outside to document observations and metacognition.
The idea for this project was inspired by the students I worked with in the beginning of my teaching career – the students who regularly visited the food bank, never had new clothes and who rarely had opportunities to explore the natural world with a mediating adult. These students were resilient and positive, and after lots of coaxing and planning, engaged in weekly community walks demonstrating curiosity and extraordinary learning. I was inspired by them to delve deeper into how to re-engage students with the outdoors and how to create meaningful, curriculum-based outdoor opportunities.
As a teacher and a human being who cares for this planet, I need to remain optimistic that children will continue to be in awe of the natural world and eventually care deeply about it. I am excited by the possibilities of learning outdoors with students and seeking opportunities to expand students’ imaginations while illuminating the richness of curriculum.
Read Laura’s Full Action Research Report: Re-engaging With Nature As Evidenced By Nature Journaling.
Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. University of Chicago Press.
Egan, K., & Judson, G. (2015). Imagination and the engaged learner: Cognitive tools for the classroom. Teachers College Press.
Judson, G. (2014). The role of mental imagery in imaginative and ecological teaching. Canadian Journal of Education, 37(4).