Living in real time
Volume 3 Number 2 - October 2006
There are many types of learning and not all of them happen in the classroom. Children meet and learn about the natural world through direct engagement with their senses, as the educator Rudolf Steiner and environmentalist Rachel Carson were aware. What you experience feel, and indeed love, in your early years remains as an attitude, a disposition throughout life. Childhood is the time for developing an ecological awareness which extends beyond our own species. Children today are bombarded with 'instant' experiences and expect immediate gratification. The slow rhythms of Nature provide them with a tutorial in patience and tolerance.
Rachel Carson, the legendary environmentalist, whose passion was to introduce young and old to the miracles of nature, wrote about the importance of feelings because she recognised the sensory and emotional impact of nature on the growing child. She knew that the senses educate the inner feeling life and felt that if children were actively engaged with living experiences, they would have little appetite for ‘those activities that threaten the world’. She would, no doubt, have been saddened to see how much time children spend on formal learning, watching television or playing computer games today and how difficult it has become for many of them to make a relationship with the natural world and to freely experience the outdoor environment.
‘ I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.’ (Carson 1998)
Rudolf Steiner held similar views, believing that the education of the senses in the formative early years would shape and form the individual so as to be an education for life. Today, in rural and urban settings, Steiner educators make it a priority to provide time and space for children to play, both inside and outside, and in all weathers. In ‘kindergartens’ or children’s gardens, children meet the elements and experience the changing seasons. They get wet, windblown, and warm, they mess about in sand, mud and water; they make dens; plant, harvest and (eventually!) eat what they have grown. They physically extend themselves, run, jump, climb, discover. They experience wonder. Gradually, they also begin to develop an affinity with the laws of the natural world.
Meeting and learning to love the natural world, even in an urban setting, helps create a sense of responsibility towards it. Children’s outdoor play, their sensory, participatory engagement with the world, can have long-term environmental and ethical consequences as many early years educators are aware. How we understand and relate to the world as adults – whether we care for it or disregard it – our ecological response to it, depends to some extent on our close encounters with it during the formative years of our childhood, as George Eliot, poignantly observed in The Mill on the Floss:
‘Life did change for Tom and Maggie and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it…. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known…. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love.’ ( Eliot:1985)
A catalogue for an exhibition entitled ‘Secret Spaces of Childhood: Go Forth and Play’, featured Roger Hart, Professor of Environmental Psychology at the City University of New York, who asked: “Should we worry that a world where children have minimal engagement with plants and animals might be dangerous to nature itself?” (Hart:1998). There is evidence that children, under the age of nine years old, dream about animals: two thirds of their poems – and many of their drawings – are inspired by the natural world. It must be significant that their first artistic flow is connected to what they have loved in nature.
Despite this evidence, a survey of 2,600 for the Children’s Society conducted with the charity ‘Young Voices’ in 2003 found that 80% of children aged between 7 and 16 have been told off for playing in the streets, on estates and even in parks (Times 6/08/03). There are a growing number of local authority-inspired play bans. These include the erection of 115 ‘No Ball Games’ signs on an estate in Offerton, Stockport. Tim Lineham said that Britain was in serious danger of becoming a childfree zone peopled by adults intent on “…tidying our children away. Playing outdoors is a fundamental part of everyone’s childhood, but that is being threatened by a culture of intolerance towards children’s play in public”.
The Secretary of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Marilyn B. Benoit M.D., highlights a positive outcome in tuning in to the slower pace of life and nature. The outdoor environment, she says, has a great role to play in developing what she calls ‘frustration tolerance’. Benoit meets many children today who are unable to cope with the slightest of frustrations – when they are not satisfied immediately, they can lash out aggressively, they can be impatient, demanding, and – this is telling – at the same time, they are easily wounded. (Benoit: 2000)
Benoit is fascinated by the role that nature can play in developing frustration tolerance. She suggests taking children on excursions into nature where they can spend time observing the plants and animals. In slow-paced activities: gardening, animal/bird watching, pond gazing: the natural world is a great teacher of tolerance. A tadpole will take its own time to become a frog - a tutorial in patience for the watcher. The benefits of a relationship with nature will help a child temper some of the negative technological impacts of today. The instant fix of the remote control can give way to the deep, satisfying rhythms of real time. Information, via the computer screen, cannot ever replace experience. The British educator Margaret McMillan once observed: “The best classroom and richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky.” (Ouvry: 2003). How right she was!
Simon Barnes, the author and naturalist, would agree with her. Writing about the discovery of a couple of newts lying, “like drowned dinosaurs” at the bottom of a pond by his son, who breathed: “Wow!” in delight, Barnes argues:
“It all depends on what you mean by education. Do we want to educate people to become a viable part of the economy? Or should the priority be to make them a viable part of the human race? It’s a question of what we value. Your money or your life, if you like.
And how can anyone value what he has never seen? Getting children’s boots muddy is not about recruiting tomorrow’s conservation workers. Perhaps the test of being human is the extent to which we value things beyond our own immediate circle of concern: to value life beyond family, beyond nation, beyond race, beyond religion, beyond species. But you can’t make the first step to understanding the non-human world if you can’t say wow to a newt. It has become a political issue: every child has a right to say wow to a newt[!].” (Barnes:2005)