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The Nature Camp Solution – Why, How, and WOW!

 

Author: Dr. Mariana Altrichter – Photographer: Peter Sherman

As an environmentalist and conservation biologist, I have been growing aware of the lack of interest among the adult population to make daily choices based on the welfare of environment. People seem to know about our pressing environmental issues, but do not translate this knowledge into behavior change. At the same time, as a mother of two young girls, I became more educated of the pervasive effects of screens and the importance of outdoor play for the overall health of children.

I realized that my girls had few opportunities to play outdoors with other kids. In our daily family excursions outdoors, I was surprised by the absence of young teens walking in the woods, biking on mountain trails, kayaking, or playing in the rocks (things that I definitely did when I was that age!). Where are they? I wondered… 

I decided to start a nature-based environmental education program in Prescott to inspire love for our natural world, love for outdoor adventures, and love for biodiversity. If these kids have fun in the woods now, I thought, in a few years from now they will be the teenagers enjoying the woods that I don’t see now; and my daughters will have a community of nature-loving friends.

Nature Camp: “All Children in the Woods” started in October 2014.  My underlying principles that permeate all activities we do in camp are respect and care for nature and each other, cooperation instead of competition, and nature is amazing. I design daily schedules based on a theme (i.e. “trees” or “monsoons” etc.) and follow a loose routine where I mix play, exploration, art, creativity, group games, songs, building, quiet solo time, journaling, and free time. I often bring a book related to the theme to read during quiet time.

 

 

We start with an opening circle where we greet each other and the woods, sing, and play big group games. Then we separate in two age groups: Bobcats 5-7 yrs old and Cougars 8-10 yrs old (although the 7 and 8 yr old kids can choose what group to join). Each group has one or two instructors, called at our camp, “coyotes”.

Each camper creates a special spot which they can decorate, build, and make personal in any way they want. I reduce the number of unnatural things I bring to camp to a minimum: shovels and buckets, toilet paper, bandannas and sometimes a rope. All other activities use only nature. We sit on the ground, eat our lunch on the ground or up in trees, go potty in the woods, play with dirt, pine needles, rocks. Thus, we spend 7 hours in the forest without hearing or seeing human infrastructure other than what we build ourselves.

The “learning” at camp often occurs organically, rather than directed, embedded in everything else. Although I create a schedule by the minute with detailed activities, I tell my “coyotes” that we have to be open to improvise or completely change course based on the children’s lead.

This is the advantage of not being tied to a curricula, or meeting standards. Just keeping the underlying principles, with basic “no hurting feelings, bodies, or nature” rules, the kids have plenty of space, time, and freedom to be creative, imaginative, and playful.

Indeed, often the most amazing, creative, and fun activities have come up spontaneously from the kids (not my detailed program!).  For example, while I was reading a book about settlers developing a town next to a river and polluting it in the process, one of the kids was fidgeting with the dirt and moving sticks and pebbles around. Although I was a little annoyed that he was “distracting the group away from my reading” I allowed him to continue and by the end of the book he said, “Look, I am building here a settlement where people and nature live together. Do you want to help me?”.

This became the most epic group building cooperative project ever! The whole day they built homes, created miniature forest among the houses, made lakes and rivers, built a “community center,” all while talking, negotiating, deciding as a group, cooperating. I was at the verge of tears the whole time, feeling, “This is it; this is magical!”

Since I started this program, we have had about 190 days in the forest and about 300 children have participated. Several of the older kids who “graduated” from camp have been coming back as helpers. They help the younger group and provide excellent role models as respectful, caring and outdoors-loving preteens.

As a college educator, I also recognize the importance of hands-on experiential education for students. Thus, I opened this camp to Prescott College students who want to participate in any way: as an independent study, for a senior projects, for a course assignments, or just for gaining experience. Many classes have done field trips with their students to visit Nature Camp. All my instructors are or were college students who became interested in working at my camp after being introduced to it in one way or another. Some of them are now elementary or college teachers, bringing to their jobs the conviction of the importance of nature-based environmental education.

To learn more about Nature Camp: All Children in the Woods or to reach Dr. Altrichter, check out Educational Expeditions’ Facebook page — Observation, internship, and volunteer opportunities are always available!

 

 

 

Growing Big Ideas in the Garden

A School Garden Story

By Ashley Fine

 Over the past decade, our staff, students, and families at Skyview School (Prescott, Arizona) have been continually expanding our school’s learning gardens. Currently, Skyview has several edible gardens throughout campus, a large native plant and pollinator garden, and an extensive rainwater harvesting system. The gardens around campus are cared for and enjoyed by students from every grade level and the staff have developed curriculum centered around these outdoor learning spaces.

While there are countless benefits to having gardens at our school, there are five main functions of our garden-centered curriculum: Education, Restoration, Sustainability, Empowerment, and Connection.

As a school, Skyview’s main purpose is clearly to educate. Our habitat garden serves as an outdoor classroom and living laboratory where students can learn about subjects across the curriculum. It is a place where students can explore science concepts such as plant and animal life cycles, weather, ecological relationships, nutrient cycles, geology, and technological innovation. The garden is also an environment in which  students learn about culture, history, native people, social justice, economics and labor. Our garden provides an opportunity for mathematics to be applied in real world scenarios. For example, the students took measurements and calculated the projected annual yield of rainwater that we can capture off our classroom roof. They collect data each school day to learn about daily changes in weather, and larger scale climate patterns. Our farm stand, in the fall, gives students the opportunity to market their goods, exchange money, and calculate the income and expenses related to their student-led business.

In addition to education, another purpose of our gardens is restoration. Just over a year ago, our habitat garden was a vacant lot filled with years of buried trash, debris, and invasive plant species. In the fall of 2017, the students from every grade level planted approximately 200 native plants, creating viable habitat for a variety of pollinator species. We are promoting the growth of wildflowers as an important food source for wildlife, and native grasses which play a critical role in the carbon cycle.

One year after planting, our students have witnessed dozens of species of butterflies, moths, birds, insects and reptiles in our garden. In September, we found loads of monarch caterpillars munching on our milkweed! Our students are getting the opportunity to transform our school neighborhood for good, and to experience, first hand, the positive impacts of ecological restoration.

Similarly, another important goal of our habitat garden is sustainability. Having numerous rain tanks in the children’s learning environment serves as a daily reminder of the importance of conservation. The students are learning about passive and active rain harvesting techniques and how to intentionally design a landscape to slow, spread, and absorb the water from the few precious rain storms we get each year. They are learning about groundwater, surface water, and captured rain, and the relationship between these water sources. Our ultimate goal with all of our rain harvesting infrastructure is to sustain our vegetable garden with captured rainwater year round and completely eliminate the need to use city supplied groundwater.

Likewise, in our edible garden, students  learn the importance of growing local food in order to reduce energy use and transportation costs. Small gardens, such as ours, eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides, all of which pose threats to human health and the environment. With changing conditions and a rapidly growing human population, natural resource literacy, and an understanding of sustainable food production, will be among the most valuable intellectual resources our children will need to carry with them into the future.

And this leads us to the next benefit of school gardens, which is empowerment. Some argue that true participatory democracy begins with participatory food production. Most people are passive consumers who simply go to the store to purchase the food they want- or the food they’ve been persuaded to want- rarely stopping to think about quality, process, impact or cost. Wouldn’t it be empowering, instead, to recognize, as Wendell Berry describes, that “the act of eating begins with planting and birth,” and is sustained by humans having a sensitive, responsive, and reciprocal relationship with plants. People with no knowledge or skills in the act and art of producing food lack the opportunity to experience true self reliance and liberty.

As Ron Finley, the gangster gardener of South Central Los Angeles states, “growing your own food is like printing your own money”. When children participate in the act of growing food and saving seeds, they start to recognize that money really does grow on trees!

And this brings us to the final benefit of our school gardens, which is connection. While this article has suggested a lot of idealistic ways our garden can be used as an educational tool and as a catalyst for change, the reality is, our students are probably not going to remember every point and detail of what is taught or discussed at school. What they will remember, though, is getting their hands muddy; holding a snail or earthworm in their palm; their surprise at pulling a giant, oddly shaped carrot out of the ground; the weight of water as they schlep a heavy watering can to their tiny sprouting seeds; and the feeling of simply being alive in a beautiful place.

In the garden, students get the chance to turn their attention away from phones and computer screens, in order to experience things that are alive and beautiful changing each day. They get to feel and appreciate the effort it takes to dig a hole in the ground, under the hot sun. They start to recognize weather as more than just a report, but rather a matter of life and death for tender living things growing in the garden.

When children get the chance to eat food that they were involved in growing, they are consuming more than just nutrients; They are feeding themselves with a story and a feeling of connection to all the resources and events that brought that fresh food to their young, curious mouths.

I had the great fortune of meeting Alice Watters at a Slow Food conference in Denver, CO in 2017. During one of her talks, she said something that really stuck with me. She explained that when children have beautiful spaces within their learning environment, “they know that they are loved without needing to be told.” They know that people who care about them took time to create a special place for them, where they can feel calm, safe, valued, and inspired.

 A colorful, fragrant garden is a place that excites the senses and the imagination, where learning can be visceral, memorable, and delicious. It is these deep-tissue learning experiences that result, later on, in responsible decision-making and stewardship. It is my hope that our gardens at Skyview School are one example of a small beginning, and that the school garden movement will continue to take hold in schools everywhere, especially in places where children would never, otherwise, get these kinds of learning experiences and opportunities.

Education, Restoration, Sustainability, Empowerment, and Connection are among the most important things we should be growing and cultivating in our schools, and gardens are the best place to dig in!

Ashley presenting on school garden programming during a Prescott College professional development institute

Have a school garden story to share? Comment and let us know!

Also, stay tuned for more on: School Gardening in Arizona (our climate brings unique challenges and opportunities!), The Dirt on Green Schoolyards (a growing national movement & why!), Planting Standards (state standards, NGSS, and the EE Guidelines are easy in the garden!) and more.

Is that even STEM?! Early EE & Nature Play

Before the buckets of sticks, branch cross-cuts, rocks, shells, moss, and more were even unpacked the children tiptoed in. As if drawn by an unseen magnetic force, tiny hands reached for the sticks, “tree cookies”, and shells, and we heard the excited question again and again and again, “Are these real?!

Earlier in the month AAEE teamed up with the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education to host an early childhood environmental education & STEM space at the Children’s Learning & Play Festival in Scottsdale. We shared the space with many great organizations, including the lead organizer, The Museum of Science and Sustainability (MoSS). We loaded up a truck with nature’s loose parts of all kinds, some paints and brushes, and a whole bunch of enthusiasm. 400+ children, 300+ tree cookies, a couple gallons of paint, and 7 hours of laughter later, we realized parents and early childhood educators alike deeply agree: we need more nature play.

 

But why nature play?

Why tree cookies?

Is that even STEM?

Is that even EE?

We’re glad you asked!

 

 

 

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and is a concept stemming (ha!) from a nationwide push to increase proficiency in these subjects through integrative and innovative approaches. Increasingly, environmental education is seen as one of the best approaches to achieving STEM goals in the United States. STEM for older children can be anything from water quality monitoring to building solar panels. However, STEM & EE in the early years look very different.

At AAEE we always promote developmentally appropriate practice, which is educational practice based on research about how young children learn and develop. Developmentally appropriate early EE & STEM may take the shape of open-ended and inquiry-based explorations or simply playing in and with nature. This might be creating towers or fairy worlds with loose parts, building forts, decorating story stones, making mud soup, watching bugs, or caring for a garden. These simple practices give young children the opportunity to ask questions, test hypothesis, discover the fundamentals of disciplines such as physics or ecology, build early literacy and numeracy skills, and so much more.

Early EE and nature-based STEM learning can also combat the growing concerns about Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). NDD is not a medical term, but a useful phrase to describe the effects we experience from our increasing disconnect with the natural world, including decreased use of the senses, attention issues, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, and indifference towards the natural world.

Play in and with nature is an easy remedy and there are many resources to help parents and educators make a real difference in their children’s lives. For starters, check out AAEE’s Early Childhood Environmental Education resource page, download a free copy of the NAAEE Early Childhood EE Guidelines for Excellence, or visit the website our national early EE partner the Natural Start Alliance.

You can also stay tuned to our blog and subscribe to our newsletter! In response to the growing field of early childhood EE, early STEM, nature play, nature-based preschools, forest kindergartens, and more, AAEE will be partnering with the Natural Start Alliance to increase advocacy and resources for the field here in Arizona. Look for upcoming blogs on topics such as What is Early Childhood EE? Nature Play & the latest research on Nature-based Learning, Nature Play in the Indoor Classroom, Nature Play in the Desert, and more!

 

If you want to join the conversation and help us advocate for early EE and nature play in Arizona  comment and let us know or follow us on Facebook; we love hearing from you!