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Nurturing Nature: School-Based Nature Education

Kissed by the Moon, by the beloved Australian children’s author and illustrator, Alison Lester, tugs at the heartstrings of parents, and is a favourite bedtime tale of children, with its gentle wishes for the first weeks, months and years of infancy and childhood. Waking up to a window view of birds singing in the treetops at sunrise; eating straight from a flourishing organic garden; watching insects wiggling about on the earth; walking in the wilds of a forest; falling asleep on mum’s lap by the fireside, a blanket of stars twinkling in the night sky above.

As a mother, I melt with recognition of what Lester describes in her book. It is the introduction to life that any parent might want for their child – a tranquil existence informed and infused by the serenity and seasons of nature, one where time is slow and space is aplenty, one which connects a human being, physically and psychically, to the Earth.

It feels, at least for me, instinctive, to offer this kind of beginning to my son, or at least to wish I could, as a city-dwelling parent. I suspect I am not isolated in my desire to prioritise my son’s being in nature – to give this foundational experience the credence it so requires, and that he so deserves. As I write this, I am joining in a chorus of parents in cities around the world holding this kind of vision – seeking space and nature – for themselves and their kids. It’s now at a measurable peak (if real estate statistics are anything to go by), due to being locked down at home, sheltering from the threat of Covid-19. For many families, lengthy lockdowns and working from home arrangements have been the catalyst to act upon an instinct held for years, a desire to move out of urban centres and into regional and rural spaces that allow their children to easily engage with the natural world. This instinct is not without scientific basis, as Richard Louv outlined in his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods. In it, he coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’, linking an increasingly urban and indoor lifestyle to lowered immunity, depression, obesity and attention disorders.

It is timely, then, to write of the growing offerings of nature programs in city spaces around the globe. These school-based programs are designed with the intention of acquainting city kids and teens with the natural world which exists all around them, but which may require help to see and feel; they operate, in part, to grey the black and white dichotomy between urbanity and nature.

One such program is Moreland Primary School’s Merri Merri Creekulum, a government-funded pilot in 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, which, due to its success, is now a continuing feature of the school’s educational platform.

Envisioned by local parent and academic Sarita Gálvez, Creekulum connected the primary school students with the nearby Merri Creek, a significant waterway which is host to some of Australia’s most threatened ecosystems. Gálvez asked herself the simple question, ‘If the school is walking distance from Merri Merri waterways, why are the kids not learning there?’

Borrowing decolonial scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ conception of bringing together an ‘ecology of knowledges’, Creekulum’s syllabus incorporated hands-on lessons from educators across the local community, aiming to integrate diverse threads of environmental learning, including lessons from Indigenous Wurundjeri elders, conservation and community groups, scientists and artists. Despite the differing focus of lessons from experts from varying cultural and educational backgrounds, the teaching methods blended in a harmonious and complementary way for children. From the local Indigenous mob perspective, as Gálvez explains, children grasped the concept that water is alive through storytelling. This provided a basis for lessons from Melbourne science-art collective, Scale Free Network, who fused microbiology and visual art to make visible what is invisible to the human eye, with children examining a single drop of water teeming with microscopic life and depicting and integrating their findings through creative expression.

Surveys distributed after the program among teachers and parents affirmed Gálvez’s intuition that fostering an education on a site of such local ecological significance would provide children and their families with a rich and relevant platform from which to dive deeper into conversations about the environment, history and ethics. Memorable feedback included parents’ anecdotes of their kids talking openly around dinner tables about topics such as colonisation and Indigenous practices of burning versus the European back burning fire management model. For a school with diverse demographics, this is particularly notable, as migrant families with less knowledge of the darker side of Australian history gained eye-opening context of the Australian landscape from their children.

Gálvez, who holds a PhD which investigated notions of the colonial wound and the education sector, identifies that Creekulum is not a ‘nature-based’ program, a conception which risks, she says, ‘reinforcing colonial privilege and denial’. Instead, Creekulum’s pedagogical approach sought ‘to subvert the colonial logic that is embedded in the education apparatus’. Thus, much of Creekulum’s funding was used to foster a relationship with traditional custodians, marking a primal commitment to understanding nature and place and working to ensure there was no reinforcement of colonial practices which sheltered students from the truth of the past.

Gálvez reflects on the rampant success of the program: ‘When we think of urban spaces, we don’t think that nature is there anyway. But we are nature; our own bodies are nature. Our children are nature. This is especially true in Australia where cities are fairly recent. That land has existed for thousands of years.

Caring for country is not a law only for Aboriginal people; it is a practice that we should all be doing and learning about in our everyday lives, especially in schools.’

Over in New Orleans, Rahn Broady teaches horticulture and micro-enterprise at the alternative Living School (which has the motto ‘Learn by Doing’). He and his students have several projects in the works right now, including building a hydroponics bay, a food forest, sourcing the Indigenous Bidens pilosa growing behind the school (which ‘opens the door to restructuring the conversation about what a weed is’), and making tinctures and salves from foraged and grown plants, such as calendula and rose, in order to cultivate green business skills. Currently in its second year, the Living School teaches years nine and ten, and will open its gates to year eleven in 2021.

Broady began his teaching career at a standard school in 1999 and left after a year, unable to ignore his observations that all elements of the school day felt unnecessarily and unproductively rushed and regimented. He noted that there was an observably dehumanising aspect to the school day for students and observed that ‘… we don’t have to operate at the breakneck speed of technology itself. We can just slow down.’ Plus, as a science teacher, he saw the logic in outdoor education: ‘If you want to teach about the life cycles of a plant, rather than just seeing a diagram in a book, go and see the real thing.’

Lola Tanchitsa, Budgerigar, 2017. Aged 11.

In New Orleans, where access to nature isn’t easy for many families, and poverty rates in some areas are high, Rahn works to ensure that being connected to the earth, to food growing and to the therapeutic benefits of gardening isn’t relegated to a privilege for the lucky and wealthy.

After years teaching in the garden, sharing with his students his genuine passion for plants, Broady concedes that not every student has a desire to get their hands in the soil. He admits that in the past he had expectations that he would be able to entice all his students to share his enthusiasm. Instead, Rahn has found being led by his students’ nature and interests rather than forcing them to get on board with his own ideas, has been the true success of his teaching. The adage by Alexander Den Heijer, ‘When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower’, is symbolic of Rahn’s teaching strategy. He gives the example of Gio, a ‘cerebral kid’ in junior high who didn’t take to tending plants, but, after noticing a pupating hornworm in the garden, dived, fully self-directed, into butterfly and moth larvae studies, creating his own learning experience suitable to his temperament. Years later, Gio is a self-taught wellspring of knowledge on these insects and their crucial and misunderstood place in the life cycle of plants, and is intent on protecting them.

Rahn’s adaptability as a teacher in service to his students’ individualities has served him well during the pandemic, which rendered all his outdoor lessons and projects halted. Instead of giving up on their goals, students were taught, using Zoom, how to build a virtual hydroponics bay using Tinkercad, a 3D modelling program (‘ooft … what a feat,’ Rahn admits). And, perhaps the greatest testament to his teaching, is the fact that all of his students expressed a desire to get back outside when they could, to get off technology. A few even decided to bring home materials from school and start building while they were in isolation.

One suspects one of the reasons Rahn’s students are keen to get back to their outdoor classroom, as well as to tend to their projects and plants, is because of the emotional outlet the space provides, a crucial element of Rahn and the Living School’s philosophy. Students’ needs to self-express emotion are normalised and, much like the gardens, nurtured. Rahn and his fellow staff invite students to ‘come with their stuff … their baggage’. To this end, many students have developed a ritual of visiting their favourite plants or trees to self-regulate and ground themselves, before, during and after class.

Broady reflects on his years teaching in the garden: ‘I think that a relationship with nature is everything. We have a huge disconnect. Nature provides us with a connection to ourselves, and a better connection with other living beings, including other humans.’

Rahn’s sentiment echoes David Attenborough’s well-known quote that, ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.’I think about what it means – truly means – to believe that nature is foreign to us, to remain in the thinking of the industrial age, which celebrated man’s triumph over nature, which saw this triumph as takeover, eradication as sophistication. I think of what modernity – elevated thinking – could mean, today, by stark comparison. It could all begin – this new age – by letting nature provide the basis from which our children, and we all, learn about the human and non-human facts of life, to be the basis from which we seek to understand ourselves. It could begin with acknowledging this sense of tenderness that being in nature seems to cultivate within us, at every age, and honouring this as the deeply humbling and empowering facet of being human that it is, that children innately seem to connect with, and that our bodies and beings seem to crave. And it could begin with the simplest act of all – to prioritise our children being in the natural world, having time and space to observe it, to feel a part of it – wherever they grow up, and in whatever way is intrinsic to them. I wonder what this would mean for the next generation, to have such beginnings.