Creating space for learning

A student at Ao Tawhiti digs up grass grubs to feed to the school chickens.

A student at Ao Tawhiti digs up grass grubs to feed to the school chickens.

This past week I was privileged to hear Jane Goodall speak about her life and work and her hope for the future.  Her talk, Hope in Action: How You Can Make an Impact, was incredibly inspiring to listen to.

Jane Goodall speaking at the Chamber of Commerce in Christchurch 

Jane Goodall speaking at the Chamber of Commerce in Christchurch 

One of the messages that stood out for me was when she spoke about being a young child and the curiosity - the scientific curiosity - that led her to question, observe and learn.  The fact that she had this curiosity isn't unusual, all children naturally have it, it was the fact that her mother played such a key role in fostering it.  She spoke about her mother finding her as a 1.5 year old, in bed with a hand-full of earthworms and soil.  Rather than get cross about getting the bed dirty she persuaded Jane to let her take them back outside where the worms could get what they needed to live.  

When she was almost 5 she went to stay on a farm and saw chickens for the first time.  Curious about how the egg got out of a chicken, and unsatisfied with the explanation she got from the adults around her, she went and sat in the hen house to observe for herself.  She was hidden in there so long, her parents rang the police.  

Eventually a hen came into the house, laid an egg and Jane 'discovered' her answer.  She remembers running back to her worried mother and excitedly telling her what she had learned.  Rather than getting cross with her for the worry, her mother listened to her discovery.  

Jane mused about what impact that event would have had on her future life if her mother, rather than listening to Jane's excited discovery, had gotten cross and told her off.  Would that have dampened the enthusiasm for future discoveries?

Her talk reinforced for me the importance of not only providing an environment where children can observe and discover, but also the need to ensure support for learning is there.  I think, as adults, we feel we need to teach our student/children everything.  It's often a lack of confidence from teachers and parents, who feel like they don't 'know' enough about nature, that prevents them from taking their students/children outside.  In reality we don't need to 'teach' them and we don't need to have the answers - in fact, it's usually better we don't.  

If we provide a rich environment for them to learn, allow them to follow their interests, step back a bit and support their learning, then they can do it for themselves.

But we need to have that combination right - a rich environment doesn't mean much if we're constantly telling children, 'be careful', 'don't get dirty', 'don't do that', 'you'll hurt yourself'.  And the right attitude isn't enough if the environment doesn't offer enough variety.

A few years ago I spoke to a woman in Christchurch who ran a programme where she would go into schools and mark out a one square meter section of ground with the students.  They would then record all the organisms they could see living in that area.  She told me she had to stop doing it because, she found that in most school grounds in Christchurch, there was nothing living in the soil.  

Our affinity with carefully mowed and maintained school fields and expanses of asphalt means that, for the most part, the outside space is not able to be used as a learning resource - seems a waste when, compared to classrooms, they are usually large areas.

If your school is starting to think about ways it can improve its outside space, so that it offers more learning opportunities, then I'd recommend watching the short film below for inspiration - I love what the last speaker has to say at the end of the film.  

‘We need to move away from that idea of maintenance.  Everyone says, ‘you can’t green a schoolyard because of the maintenance’ - well, it’s stewardship.  And when you start to get children to understand that notion of stewardship you’re changing the culture of that child, of their families and of the city’.
— Lois Brink