Why Nature is the Best School

Our quest for the best environment led us to the forests

We set out on our travel schooling experiment in February 2018 with the general intention to allow our children to learn experientially and feel a sense of wonder firsthand. In some ways, we were looking to travel so that we could provide them an environment more real than a classroom. We didn’t care much if they remembered anything, so long as their imagination widened, their minds grew and their sense of discovery built up their creative muscle. We had also assumed that more real equals more stimulating. Not true, it turned out. In fact, real can often be slower, more boring, much more subtle…and sometimes sublime.

Samaa figured out her own independent way of swinging at a local playground in India, instead of waiting around for help

In one of my recent Medium posts, I explored if well meaning parents inadvertently contribute to their children’s addiction-like dependence on constant intellectual stimulation. By filling up their rooms and schedules with stimulating activities, toys and gadgets, we do not allow our kids enough mental space to pursue their curiosity and imagination. Done incessantly, this may hinder creative play and self-directed learning.

You might ask, well then, should parents stop their children from learning too much? Quite the opposite.

In fact, self-directed learning, where the child herself decides to pursue a train of thoughts or questions, is more likely to be permanent because it is not externally imposed. Moreover, creative play has the unique benefit of allowing children to exercise their thinking freely without realising that they are learning. In a way, it’s the most natural form of growing the mind. We must respect our children’s natural aptitude and pace for learning. Yet, when their joy starts to depend on the constant availability of some external source of learning, be it museums, books or peers, they begin to lose their ability to self-regulate. Such a dependence is no less harmful than common addictions, such as refined sugar.

Well, I had these insights from observing my children learn during our year of travel schooling. Yet, I wanted to know — does research or best practice in the fields of neuroscience and education support my insights? So I set about researching various educational styles and pedagogies — Montessori, Finnish education, Canadian curriculum, German waldkindergartens, ancient Indian “Gurukul” system, the Polgar method and so on. The ideas that resonated the most with me came from reading the works of Rudolph Steiner, scientist, mystic and the founder of Anthroposophy and the Waldorf pedagogy. The Waldorf system of education encourages teachers to provide as few finished toys to their students as possible. A kindergarten classroom in a Waldorf school would usually have wooden arches, classic puppets, rag dolls and seasonal nature tables instead of the countless plastic toys, puzzles and now, even gadgets in a conventional school. Such absence of ready made toys is deliberate, designed with the very intention of encouraging children to imagine rather than be given ready, often unnatural images to play with. More recent studies on the effect of technology on the developing brain of a child seem to echo Steiner’s century-old insights. Excessive stimulation from using gadgets and video games has been linked to shortening attention spans and to learning disabilities in growing children.

One of our unexpected discoveries has been that there may be such a thing as too much stimulation for a young mind. This understanding has shaped and reshaped our journey fundamentally. At many a juncture, I found myself asking the question —

What then is a desirable level of mental stimulation and which environment could provide that?

Our girls creating random art with sticks and twigs at a little known beach in India

The answer came resounding through discourses of Steiner, J. Krishnamurti, Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, from historical fables of many cultures, from conversations with like-minded parents (thanks Dee and Keith) and from our own observations — Nature. Nature presents complete order — the perfect blend of chaos, order, challenge and boredom.

In aligning our travels with our children’s curiosities, we had coincidentally curated nature related educational experiences right from the beginning — from swimming with rays and sharks in the Pacific ocean in Tahiti to becoming part of a parade of 35000 penguins on a beach in Australia to spending entire days feeding and bathing with elephants in sanctuaries in northern Thailand. Our first conscious pilot though, was nature schooling our girls last summer in Surrey, British Columbia. Forest schooling or nature schooling is a very old Nordic concept, quite similar to the waldkindergartens in Germany. As part of the weekly nature exploration program at the Surrey Nature Centre and some on our own, we had both of them explore a patch of this forest freely several times a week. It was remarkable to see my little girls climb trees, absorb fun facts about pollinators, animal tracks, salamanders, snails and slugs with ease. When asked many months later, they still remember these things and reminisce their forest schooling days fondly.

Sanaa pretending to be a part of the art created with her teachers at Surrey Nature Centre, B.C.

With this renewed appreciation for less stimulation, we have shifted our focus to deliberately seeking out experiences where children spend unstructured time in a variety of natural settings. And in doing so, instead of looking for an uninterrupted stream of wonder, we now place ourselves in nature as much as possible and then let their minds fly.

Writing about my eclectic life for The Globe and Mail, Tourism Whistler, The Ascent, The Startup and Towards Data Science. Follow me, IG: https://bit.ly/3pLaDYf

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