In August, I had the privilege of attending the World of Wonder Conference, a gathering of nature-based early childhood educators from around the world. I presented a workshop on sit spots and attended ones on classroom animals, working with toddlers in nature, how nature schools create self-reliance and so much more! In a series of blog posts this fall, I’m excited to share what I learned at the conference with our Oregon early childhood community.
Claire Warden kicked off the conference with the keynote address. After starting her own nature preschool in Scotland, Ms. Warden has become a university lecturer, author of books on nature pedagogy and a consultant to other nature-based programs throughout the world. Her keynote touched on aspects of social constructivism and how they relate to good pedagogy in nature-based programs.
What is Social Constructivism?
Social constructivism is an approach to education which treats the child’s interactions with others (adults and children) and with the world around them as learning opportunities. Constructivists believe that power of learning resides within an individual rather than through outside sources like textbooks or an all-knowing teacher. Therefore, learning involves real life experiences, and constructing meaning around and through those experiences. For young children, the process of learning and thinking trumps memorization of a set of facts. In this model, teachers are also learners alongside children, guiding and offering suggestions rather than portraying absolute expertise.
Forest schools – and activities in more traditional programs where children have hands on Interactions with nature – are naturally suited to this type of experiential learning. When children use their five senses to observe a tree and the life within it or converse with each other about changes they observe as the summer turns to fall turns to winter, they have opportunities to create and test theories about how the world works. From these tests, they solidify their understandings. Children also discover that questions can be the starting point for learning.
Importance of Participatory Planning
Ms. Warden referred to a difference between “curriculum planning” and “participatory planning.” Traditionally, curricular outcomes are the starting point for teacher planning. The teacher (or a state curriculum board) determines the desired outcomes, and then the teacher designs activities for the children in order to reach the pre-determined outcomes. After the children do the activities, the teacher assesses their progress and designs activities either to reinforce that same curricular goal or in pursuit of a new goal.
Ms. Warden believes that for true nature-based learning to happen, a pedagogical shift must occur in which children are active participants in planning their own learning. In participatory planning, the children engage with the environment first. The children’s observations and own learning goals become the starting point for a collaborative planning process.
Planning should also be relevant to each particular natural environment, what Ms. Warden refers to as “place.” The learning that occurs can and should be about the beach, farm, forest or backyard that children are exploring. “Place” also includes an area’s history, with thoughtful considerations of native populations, conservation, and respect for local traditions.
At Wildwood Nature School, our “curriculum” is different each year and changes with each group of children. One example of participatory planning occurred a few years ago as the days were growing colder. The children had a lot of questions about how the animals would stay warm during the winter. They noticed flocks of geese flying overhead, but wondered where other animals might go during the rainy season. These questions naturally led to more questions about why some animals can live in oceans, or deserts, or forests and others are never found in those environments. We began a several months long investigation into habitats and adaptations, starting with the very real plants and animals in our Forest Park setting. While I never lose sight of kindergarten expectations, our goals and curricular planning are always an interplay among the children, the teachers and the natural environment.
Because our “place” at Wildwood Nature School is different from those of other schools (in climate and natural surroundings), the connections the children make and the topics they pursue will necessarily be different and unique to each school. Nature can be anywhere, and unique daily interactions with the environment enhance and shape children’s learning. Warden reminds teachers that “children’s education should not be about the mastery of nature, the conquest of the mountain or the domination of nature, but about our connection to it.”