Rolling Stones & Catching Beetles
Originally appears in the Fall 2016 issue
“COLOR THE WHOLE WORLD BLACK. Color the whole world black. Color everything black!” No, these are not the exact words that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards penned into a famous rock song, nor are the singers referring to the ominous notion of blotting the sun from the sky. In fact, their meaning was quite the opposite when I heard them one afternoon during Forest Aftercare. But, aside from mere content, they do share another strong similarity with The Rolling Stones – singing and dancing. Allow me to elaborate. Out in the forest, after school, those exact words arose, organically, into a unique, child-authored melodic chorus composed by five preschoolers as they explored the bewildering properties of coal. I watched, a bit stunned, as they danced around with little pitch-black hands drawing on every surface they could find; and I listened (with a bit of a smirk on my face) as they joyously sang out this gleeful new twist on a classic, somber (but totally rockin’) tune. I’m sure Mick would have approved.
Watching kids “color the whole world black” is just one awesome moment of many that I get to witness everyday as the founding director of the Forest Aftercare program at the Waldorf School of Baltimore. In this article, I will share some of the joys and challenges of starting this nature-based program in an established school setting. As you read on, bear in mind that by its very essence, a nature-based program is bound to be as unique and innovative as its purported subject: nature. In order for the program to be effective and flourish, it needs to be intimately connected to the land and community on which it centers itself. As such, my program in Baltimore is going to look very different than the one you create in your community. But there will be similarities, and as green teachers we share a mission: to connect ourselves and our students to the wonders of the natural world. Nature-based programs have plenty of common overlapping physical challenges (e.g. wasp stings, the notion of “bad” weather, etc.), but it is often communicating and justifying our noble mission to parents and administrators that is our most daunting task. Consider this article a primer to fuel your imagination and fire you up to advocate for and start your own nature-based program; as you will learn, the opportunities to do so are as bountiful as nature herself.
Waldorf education is based upon a unique philosophy that has been committed to developing the human being’s capacity to stand in right relation to the Earth for almost a century. The Waldorf School of Baltimore is lucky in that it’s an urban school that is embraced by forest on its south side. However, even with those unique facets in place, the forest was hardly used by the community – neither during nor after school. I started the Forest Aftercare program in September 2015, previous to that time the aftercare kids would spend their afternoons in the schoolyard on the playground equipment or inside doing the usual activities: playing, coloring, drawing, and reading. Now bear in mind, this little forest is by no means a pristine oasis brimming with an untouched natural history – in fact, it was once a dumping ground. To this day, it’s not uncommon to find broken glass (DANGER!), ceramic cups with cool patterns (SCORE!), jagged rusty machine parts (DANGER!), and the occasional baby doll head (SCORE!). It is largely for this reason that the school was hesitant to use it on a regular basis. But the trash issue was mostly solved by an afternoon woods cleanup with a few gloves, trash bags, and parents; and the rest continues to be mitigated by exploring how to assess risk with students (more on that later).
On an average day, about seventeen pre-kindergarten through 8th grade students of mixed race participate in the program which operates after school from 3:15pm to 6pm. When our red “Forest Flag” is flapping in the breeze (or frozen still), it indicates to parents that are picking up their children that we won’t be found in the school building or on the playground – we’re out exploring in the wild woods. And in those wild woods – with all its sensorial complexity and natural loose parts such as: sticks, stones, leaves, logs, and mud – students can have way more fun than they would if condemned to the human-tailored world of square rooms and adult-manufactured playthings. In the forest they have vines to swing on, stones to roll, beetles to collect, forts to build, and elaborate make-believe worlds to act out. But don’t get the wrong impression, time outdoors isn’t always easy and comfortable. It sometimes rains and during winter it’s often frigid, but these are mere physical obstacles; easily mitigated by the appropriate clothing. And, in truth, physical limitations often pale in comparison to imaginary ones. In Forest Aftercare, a good rainstorm simply provides a sensational backdrop; it doesn’t stop imaginary play, it only raises the stakes in the zombie apocalypse the students must thwart in order to save humanity.
Amidst all the forest fun, students absorb and reflect upon a bewildering amount of information about our land and our place within it; and if that isn’t one of the primary goals of education, what is? Practically every day, the children, myself, and the two assisting staff members, dig up new questions and small epiphanies. So when you’re establishing similar programming be prepared to have your mind blown by quirky thoughts such as these: “Who are the birds singing to? … The moon isn’t a flat cookie in the sky, it’s like a ball! … Why do beetles look like rhinos? … Raspberries are sweet, but the plant will bite you if you try to take all of them.” By no means will you have answers to all these simple, yet peculiar questions; and some of their observations may crack at your established worldview. But as an educator your role is to model how to observe these events, assist them in digging deeper into their thinking, and demonstrate that learning is a wonderful lifelong ambition and that confusion is part of the fun. It is good for students to see their teachers shamelessly display their own ignorance; the notion that adults have all the answers is one that needs to end. The simple truth is that many of their questions and observations can be quickly answered or confirmed with a few thumb-taps on the screen of your phone. I implore that you resist this urge, however. Instead, together with your students, linger on the questions a bit longer and come up with a few of your own ideas (however outlandish); and then, perhaps a day or two later, thumb through the pages of a field guide. This process is equivalent to enjoying a slow cooked meal versus inhaling one from a drive thru window – it’s healthier, more memorable, and it serves a greater purpose than simply allaying hunger – it enriches life. And when it’s done right, it stimulates our hunger for the food of knowledge.
Students engaged in nature play are also actively learning an important skill that does not get much attention in the typical school and over managed playground – how to assess their own risk. Although it has blurred over the last few decades, there is a distinct line between what is risky and what is hazardous. The adults’ role in monitoring forest play is to eliminate obvious hazards (broken glass, wasp nests, and jagged rusty metal) while simultaneously allowing the children a fair modicum of risk taking. In the woods children learn to deal with objects that haven’t been made for them. They climb trees, upturn rocks, collect specimens, and run around on uneven ground that’s riddled with all kinds of protruding natural (and sometimes unnatural) objects. Sure, they occasionally upturn the wrong log and anger a yellow jacket nest, and that’s a scary experience for a child (who am I kidding, it scares me too!), but children also break their bones playing on monkey bars and falling down indoor staircases. Getting hurt is a part of growing up – dealing with stings, scrapes, and bruises, teaches us about our limits and guides our understanding of the notion of what safety truly is and how it is maintained. Monkey bars are great, kids and monkeys love them; but the risk of upturning a log offers intellectual and environmental affordances that monkey bars simply do not.
Let’s compare those monkey bars and the upturned log in terms of the opportunities they afford to children. Monkey bars offer strength building, confidence, dexterity, and broken bones – I’m sure there’s plenty more examples that primarily address physical issues and development. However, that upturned log affords a whole lot more – a view into a complex micro-kingdom, the splendor of biodiversity, anticipation, excitement and disappointment, wasp stings, and curious questions. Again, there’s plenty more, but the key one that I want to point out is “curious questions.” Sure, monkey bars offer a few: “Can I get to the other side? Can you get to the other side?” But that upturned log affords way more: “How many beetles live under here? What are they doing? How do they know what time it is? Are they having a battle? What do I look like to them?”
The idea of “affordances” was developed by American psychologist J.J. Gibson.1 As an educational term, it refers to the potential effects an object can have on the mind and body of an animal or person. Exposing children to ripe affordances naturally grows their mind and can instigate an immense amount of self-directed learning; and if you were to pit a playground against a forest in an affordance showdown – my money is on the forest, every time. Try slinging that academic term, and some of these ideas, at your school’s administration when you find yourself needing to justify why children need nature time.
Although the Forest Aftercare program is everything I hoped it would be, starting one yourself is going to be riddled with challenges. Making changes to an engrained pattern is always hard, even when you’re making beautiful changes. For example, many urban parents are understandably unfamiliar with the forest. To run a nature-based program effectively you have to commit early on to solid and consistent parent engagement, education, and communication. So at the beginning of the school year I set out on a massive pro-kids-in-nature propaganda campaign; and I inundated them with researched-backed, easily-digestible information about the importance of connecting children to nature (along with a lot of insanely cute kids-in-nature photos). Check out the Waldof School of Baltimore’s green blog for examples; it’s linked to in my bio. As you’ll see, I didn’t sugarcoat the risks, I spoke openly about them and the important role they play in the program. Now it’s not uncommon to hear parents remark about the confidence they see blooming in their children; or how their child used to be “grossed out” by things like slugs, and how now their little (formerly dirt-phobic) princess thinks nothing of attempting to get a couple of them to race across her arm. The sad truth is that, to conventional wisdom, nature-based education is still in its infancy, and it’s easily dismissed as peripheral and novel. It is often up to us green teachers to educate administrators, parents, and other teachers, about the myriad of benefits of nature immersion in childhood.
Let me share a good example of how to handle some of those physical challenges we all share when we take children into the forest; I now call your attention to those angry aforementioned yellow jackets. Within the very first week of starting the Forest Aftercare program, the students (and myself) endured a swath of stings. For some of them this was one of their first experiences being stung. After attending to the wounded, I immediately went in and flagged off the known nests (hazards) and instructed students to stay clear of them. Then I made yellow jackets a topic of inquiry for as long as they needed to be. Together, the students and I spoke openly about our fears, swapped sting stories, learned more about the life cycle of yellow jackets, and through role play acted out the best way to avoid getting stung (slow, fearless movements, held under the mantra, “silly wasp, I am not a flower”). In the end, the children bounced back quickly, to upturn more logs and endure a few more stings.
The simple truth is that no matter where nature-based programs grow, to flourish they require the dedication of gritty, nature-loving, ecoliterate people. I was able to start the Forest Aftercare program at the Waldorf School of Baltimore because it has the benefit of a semi ecoliterate community and a (small, litter-infested) forest at its doorstep. But that forest was not used as a regular part of the cultural life of the school for almost 20 years – it was essentially invisible. The most hidden things in life are often the most ubiquitous. Take a look around the neighborhood school you subsidize, manage, teach at, or send your kids to. What does its location afford? When you do this, remember to look at it through the three-foot-high gaze of a child – from there a sunflower patch is as almost as grand as an old growth forest. Children don’t need much – deep down, we are all biophiliacs – tap the nerve and this love will awaken. So consider what dirt you might be able to kick up to change the way your community relates to its unique place in the world. Like those singing preschoolers with pitch-black hands, coloring upturned rocks, and finding beetles – you just might be able to, take a sad song and make it better.
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Michel Anderson holds a Master’s Degree in Sustainability & Nature-based Education from Antioch University New England. He has worked closely with author David Sobel who advised him on this article. Michel currently works at Blue Water Baltimore (www.BlueWaterBaltimore.org), a watershed stewardship organization, as their Education & Outreach Coordinator. There he develops and delivers educational programs to adults and children throughout Baltimore City. Learn more about the Waldorf School of Baltimore’s green teaching methods at www.SustainableWaldorf.com.
1. Gibson, J. J. (2015). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception: Classic Edition. New York, NY, USA: Psychology Press.