Thursday, May 29, 2014

Building Relationships with Our Local Ecology; Our Early Release Day 2014

Friday was our second Early Release Day of this academic year. These days are precious opportunities for our entire  staff to come together for professional development. We spent our time thinking about how we can ground more of our learning in the natural world that surrounds us. 

“Naturalist Intelligence” is one of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, and it's one that we don't teach to as much as the others. We also know that most adults who are stewards of the planet were children who learned to love a special outdoor place through unstructured play and the mentorship of an adult who loved the land. Here in an urban environment, it can be challenging to think about our local ecosystem, so we spent time considering how we can bring children outdoors more often and more thoughtfully. 

Ann Pelo’s excellent book for teachers and families, The Goodness of Rain, provided structure for our time together. While Pelo cared for a toddler for one year,  she cultivated practices that can help any child develop “ecological literacy”. We spent some time with each of these practices on Friday: “Walk the Land, Practice Silence, Embrace Sensuality, Learn the Names, Explore New Perspectives, Create Stories, Make Rituals.”  Teachers worked together to learn these practices, and planned to make them a regular part of their classroom life.

Starting with Our Senses
In my research for this workshop, I found a list of smells that made people nostalgic. It was divided into people born in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, and people born in the 1960’s and 1970’s. (The book was written in the early 1990’s, so folks born in the 1980’s weren’t old enough to be very nostalgic yet, and we’re not sure why those born in the 1950’s were left out.) 
The two lists were very different in part because the list from an earlier generation included natural smells like “Cinnamon, ocean breeze, rose petals” and the list from younger people included “vinyl, children’s aspirin, gasoline.”  I was curious to see if our intergenerational staff would break down similarly, and wanted to ground our work in our own childhood memories and in our senses.

I asked everyone “What is a smell that makes you feel nostalgic?” 

People born Before 1970:
Lilac, a new Barbie case, opening a Play-doh can, Chanel #5, Garcia Vega cigars, ironed linen, manure, the inside of a barn, cloves, lobster juice, shoe polish, food deep fried in oil.

People born in the 1970’s:
Cedar, new crayons, plastic Halloween mask, gasoline, “vanilla” scented baby doll, horses, cut grass, pine needles, dirt, mulch, orange bubble gum, garlic, basement, chlorine, red dirt, orange slices, McDonalds.

People born in the 1980’s:
Dirt, pine cones, a cat who’s been outside, warm pine needles, old cars, chewing tobacco, bazooka gum, MFA (feed) store, city grates, garbage, human filth, “chocolate”-scented dolls, White Shoulders, Play-doh, mom’s chocolate cookies, clean sheets, cigars, mechanic shop, lasagna cooking, Drakkar Noir, cucumber melon perfume, watermelon or strawberry airheads, campfires, puppy ears, bonfire smell in my hair the next morning, old cans, peanuts roasting, mulch, newborn babies’ heads, sidewalk chalk, coffee beans, tobacoo, pigs in mud, fabric softener, orange and bananas together, a certain perfume all teenagers wore, ocean.

People born in the 1990’s : 
cherry blow pops, thunder storms, dead leaves, rotted apples, grapes and blueberries; bubbly tar, big trees in the playground sun, bird seed, fruit by the foot.
All of the groups had manufactured and natural smells in our repertoire. Given the urban environment we inhabit, the children in our care likely will have a similar breakdown. It’s helpful for us to remember that we are participating in precious years of children’s life, and we have some input on which smells (and tastes, and sunsets, and sounds) they associate with growing up.

Next we started on the practices described in Ann’s book.

Walk the Land:

When we walk around the community, children have opportunities that they don’t have when we carry them, or put them in a vehicle. When babies are wheeled around our community, they get to know it in more depth than when they are looking through a window. When we visit the same places over time, children develop relationships with their own sorts of landmarks (that huge dandelion, the good puddle, the purple car, the really high curb). They notice growth and decay when they are able to walk by the same places again and again.

I invited our staff to take some time walking around Peabody Terrace, with nowhere to go, paying attention to their surroundings.

Practice Silence:

As a community we are constantly discussing how we know when to “teach” and when to “step back”. Teachers are often extroverts, and we know that it can be helpful for us to narrate to children what we see. 

However, silence makes space for children and teachers to take their time, watching a worm in the garden, or a red-tailed hawk making a circle over our towers. As we walked, I asked folks to stay silent and to stop when they were ready and spend some time silently observing and enjoying their surroundings.

Teachers watched insects in the lawn, sat in the crotch of one of the sweet gum trees, looked out over the Charles river, drew flowers and poked at mushrooms. 

When we all came back together, I asked teachers to reflect on their comfort level with the outdoors, and to figure out a way to push their own boundary, to give children a little more time and space outdoors. 

Teachers shared that they had noticed some new things during our short period of silent exploration:

Brae: Today I learned that doves exist outside of magic shows!

Elayne: Birds hop on the ground instead of using alternating feet like we do.

Irene: I noticed that it smells so sweet here today, and that the constant din of traffic is almost unavoidable here.

Seana: I sat in the seat of one of the trees because I see kids do it all the time. It buffers that sound in a way. It was comforting in the way it sort of squeezed my body. It wasn’t as hard as I thought, had more give than I would have guessed. There’s this super soft moss, and my feet were in the dirt for a whole other sensory experience on top of the seat. It was a nice place to sit and observe you guys.

Embrace Sensuality

Next we had a snack to fuel the rest of our work. Our teachers spend much of our time considering the “sensory diet” of the children in our care, so this practice wasn't as far outside of our experience. 

We had some beautiful, seasonal and rich food; fresh sugar snap peas, strawberries and warm, fresh bread and butter to enjoy. Bringing experiences like this snack to children helps them develop their sense of aesthetics and beauty, and their understanding of the kinds of beauty that we find in the natural world. Taking time to feel the ferns brush our legs as we walk in the garden, eating some of our harvest or appreciating the smell of the wet grass after a rain are ways that we can directly experience the natural world and enjoy it.

Learn the Names

I introduced a variety of field guides as a helpful resource and a great addition to any bookshelf in the center. Field guides give children opportunities to practice literacy, taxonomy, and organization but they also put us on a first-name basis with the organisms that surround us. Pelo writes:

“The Earth is not an anonymous place. We speak of it in generalities, using categorical names to describe what we encounter: ‘a bird,’ ‘a bug,’ ‘a rock.’ In our seeing and our speaking, we are willing to make do with broad, indistinct groupings that contain a wide range of individuals, unacknowledged in their particularities. The absence of names becomes a barrier to intimacy: a bird is a bird is any bird, not this cliff sparrow, not this crag martin. When we don’t know what we see, who we hear, where we walk, we don’t know, really where we are. Names are integral to relationship.” (p 105).
When I arrived at my new classroom many years ago in Seattle, I was stunned that the kids in my urban class could name all the different types of salmon, and would ask me “May I pick those juniper berries for our game?” I’ve seen the kind of intimacy with the land and its inhabitants that Ann describes. So I handed over the field guides and sent the teachers on a scavenger hunt in teams. They ranged all over, from the garden to the river, watching the trees for chickadees and blue jays, and searching the field guides for collected leaves.

Explore New Perspectives

In centers with a Reggio Emilia approach, we often discuss “perspective taking” as a skill necessary for life and for working with, caring for and enjoying other humans. I invited teachers to think about the perspectives of the creatures and even the plants that are in our community. It can be a challenge to do this in a not anthropocentric way, but any attempt to “walk in the shoes” of an ant, or a pigeon, or a seedling, helps us deepen our understanding of that organism, and see ourselves more clearly in comparison. If you haven’t, please check out the work of the children and teachers in Infant and Toddler 1 South. These very young children are thinking about the lives of birds in order to watch them.

As a group, we each sat down and considered the point of view of an organism that might live within five miles of here. We thought about that creature’s sounds and sights, the activities and preferences.

These practices are all intended for children and their care-givers to do together, and when teachers and children imagine the perspectives of the inhabitants of our local ecology, we grow closer to this place. When we remembered the smells of our childhood, we also recognized that we help determine the smells (and sights and sounds and tastes and feelings) that will represent their early childhood. Helping the children to feel grounded here, to really know the squirrels and pigeons (rock doves!) who share our play spaces will help them to feel connected to future ecosystems they encounter in the future.

Create Stories

The stories that engage children are not always the most dramatic, or interesting. Children enjoy hearing the simple story of meeting a moose on a trail in Maine, quietly stepping out of the way, and watching it wander off, chewing on some moss as it walked. Debbie shared that her son tells simple stories that  Sammie has shared about encounters with living things in great detail.  We don’t have to make up complicated tales about princesses or dragons, we can tell about the time that there were hundreds of ladybugs in the field. And then we can tell it again and again and again. Teachers practiced this by telling the story of the creature whose perspective they considered. The room was filled with laughter and warm story-telling.

Make Rituals

Rituals always help children transition from one thought, feeling or activity to another. They help us describe our community to itself. Rituals in a child care center are very simple, and usually brief. Erin mentioned the traditions of hollering into the parking garage to hear echoes on the way to the garden and taking some time examining the map of Peabody Terrace on the way back to the classroom each time. It can be difficult to incorporate new practices into our teaching because our days pass so quickly, and we have much to do. This time was provided for teams to take some time to consider what rituals might support, mark or celebrate their time outdoors together. I especially recommended visiting a place weekly or regularly, whether the garden or a library or a more distant playground so that children had access to the same views, the same plants, sidewalk and sky over time, to develop relationships with one corner of the world.

Here are some of the rituals teachers will bring to their classrooms:

·       Asking guiding questions before outings and revisiting them on the way back
·         Starting a journal in the garden, to facilitate communication about the work we do and the things we see there
·         Eating some more meals outside
·         Visiting the farmer’s market weekly once it opens in June for a yummy, local snack
·         An infant room will make a practice of telling the story of “what happened last time” as they put children into the strollers

We also collaborated on a list of local destinations for walks or bus trips. Katie and I will work to put these places on a map that we can all use to guide our outings. I am excited to see what kind of curriculum emerges from our work and play outside this spring and summer. 

It’s transformative for individuals to commit to knowing more about the living things outside our door, and I wonder what could happen over time in a community of learners who all walk the land, practice silence, embrace sensuality, learn the names, explore new perspectives, create stories and make rituals. 


  1. Wonderful and stimulating post, Kendra. Our children have the incredible gift of spending one entire day per week at our local Audubon Sanctuary, with woods and beaches to explore. This post gives me some ideas about developing their own field guide to build relationships with the particular species we experience each week.
    Thank you!

  2. Pam, that's so great that you can do that!