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Connecting Young Gifted Learners to Nature

While I believe nature school experiences are important for all children, they are especially beneficial for children who fall outside the mainstream in terms of behavior, temperament or intellect. Dr. Leigh Ann Fish and Dr. Patti Ensel Bailie, from the University of Maine in Farmington, presented at the World of Wonder conference in August 2018 on engaging Gifted Learners in outdoor play. They highlighted the ways that time in nature provides for gifted learners both essential challenges and time out from sensory overload.

Because of their creativity, avid interest in new topics and ability to quickly grasp new information, gifted learners can be a joy to teacher. However, they do sometimes present challenges for educators, both socially and academically. In their presentation, Fish and Basile pointed out that an estimated 20% - 40% of high school drop outs are actually gifted learners.

Challenges to Teaching Gifted Learners

There are two reasons gifted learners may drop out of school. First, they may be reluctant to take risks. Everyone around them treats them as smart, and adults have placed clear value on their intellect. In their minds, if they fail, they will be exposed as frauds who maybe aren’t that smart. It is safer, then, not to take risks and to stick only to tasks at which they know they can be successful. Second, they may have gone through much of their early years without facing any really challenges. When that challenge finally presents itself in the form of honors/AP classes in high school, the children have not built enough resiliency to deal effectively with the challenges. They hit a wall and give up.

Gifted learners can also sometimes be socially awkward or have difficulty relating to their same age peers. Their confidence in their intellectual abilities and ideas can often come across to other children as bossiness or selfishness. And because gifted learners are perceptive to the world around them at an early age -- when they may not be mature enough to handle the information, they can be more anxious and sensitive to adverse situations. They also have a heightened sense of injustice, which in preschool means that when other children or situations are not exactly as they wish them to be, they perceive them as “unfair!”

Natural Experiences Provide Natural Challenges

An outdoor, natural (and therefore uncontrolled) environment presents many opportunities for gifted children to problem solve and build resiliency. Last week, I watched a girl, who a year ago had been reluctant to run downhill, play a game in which she and her peers challenged each other to place and retrieve a piece of foam higher and still higher in the branches of a climbing tree. The lessons learned through overcoming physical challenges can be transferred to social and academic situations later in life.

Nature also presents many opportunities for divergent thinking. Fairy houses and forts can be built in a myriad of ways. Since there is no “right” way to use pieces of logs, branches, leaves and rocks, these materials present endless opportunities for children to use their imaginations and creativity. At Wildwood Nature School, these natural bits have been turned into chunks of chocolate, treasure maps., magic wands and sticks for roasting marshmallows over pretend fires, among many other possibilities. One of my students’ favorite games each year is to use large maple leaves as “mail” to deliver and “read” party invitations, travel postcards and recipes to the letter recipients.

An open, outdoor space can offer opportunities for social engagement as well as places to be alone. When children work together to create imaginary games outside or build large-scale structures, they practice active listening, sharing resources and working together toward a common goal. For gifted learners it is good to practice integrating ideas – theirs AND those of their peers.

Nature Provides Quiet and Solace

And when that social interaction gets to be just too much or anxiety builds too high, quiet refuges in nature offer respite. We practice reflecting in our sit spots as a group on a regular basis, but many of the children will retreat to their sit spots on their own when they need a bit of quiet time. Writing or drawing in journals or creating land art can be additional ways to find peace in nature and give gifted students an outlet for their heightened emotions.

Bringing Nature to a Traditional School Setting

What if you don’t have a large, open natural space? Fish and Bailie point out that “multisensory encounters with nature don’t have to be wilderness experiences.” Cultivate container gardens in a corner of the playground and encourage children to bring their journals or art materials there or set up an easel right next to the containers. Arbors with vines or a small bench set next to sunflowers can provide private contemplation spots on an otherwise busy playground. In their presentation, they mentioned creating a “stick garden” in the corner of a playground, and at our school one year we created a small “zen rock garden” with a patch of sand in a large, flat tray. Children were encouraged to move the rocks around in whatever designs pleased them.

Another idea when teachers do not have access to open, natural spaces is to bring nature inside. Natural loose parts like, tree cookies, bamboo, pine cones and acorns are inexpensive tools for observation, building and art materials. At the Hamill Family Play Center inside the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, zoo educators have set aside a shelf for children to display natural treasures they bring from home. This idea is easily adapted to classroom use, where children can set rocks, shells or other interesting found objects and incorporate them in their play and learning.

Exposing gifted children to the challenges and benefits of nature can help them develop both socially and academically. The natural experiences can come in the form of hikes in a wide, open forest or container gardens in a backyard playground. The key is to provide experiences that encourage both structured and unstructured play and to connect children’s own interests to nature.

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