Thursday, 7 August 2014

the fourth teacher ... is time

I recently returned from nearly two weeks in spectacularly beautiful BC. It was our first whole family trip out of the province in a few years, and we were able to pack a lot of visiting with family (our generous hosts, my in-laws, and many extended family) and friends. We were last altogether in BC in 2006, when our family had only three (our daughter was born the next year), though my kids and I visited two summers ago on our own. Every time I've been on the west coast, either for business or for a visit, I've found it terribly hard to leave. The beauty of the environment, whether downtown Vancouver, deep in the old-growth forest in Cathedral Grove, on the green trails or sandy beaches in Stanley Park or the rocky shore in Departure Bay, all leave an impact on us. This time, however, I had the added lenses of #lookclosely, #ReggioPLC and #hawkinsinspired learning as a part of my worldview. It was natural, then, that everywhere I looked I saw evidence of the importance of the environment as third teacher.

Many in my twitter PLN take risks both in their own learning (throwing out the tried-and-true, trying new ways of seeing and teaching) and in their teaching (sharing the planning with their students, straying from the widely-used methods to adopting a research-backed inquiry stance). The two early years educators quoted below touch on this idea again and again in their writing about learning and teaching. Meeting both of them last year, although briefly, had a great impact on the way I see myself and my students as learners.

Suzanne Axelsson's post about the environment as integral to the learning asks an important question:
"Are you allowing the children to experience sensory activities - to use all their body - all their senses? Are you including smell, sound, touch, sight and taste into the design of your setting?"

Petra Eperjesi's goodbye post to her lovely K-pals, reflects upon their growth through adventure:
"As the minutes ticked by without incident, as I watched the kids slowly pick their way down the side of the gully like mountain goats, help each other get unstuck from the mud, fall in the creek and get back up again, I started to relax. And then I noticed that, without any input from me, each little group of students had chosen an activity in the gully with a level of risk that was totally appropriate to them. Those who chose to stay at the top and not even venture down the steep hill were those K-pals who I would have wanted to nervously micromanage had they come down, and there are many K-pals who I would not have permitted to rappel down the side of the gully, but those kids were not even interested in that activity. Most interestingly,... risk seemed to be the dominant factor in their choice of activity..."
Louise's tweet today was timely as the article outlined the need for more challenge in play. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of the six categories of "risky play" which are integral to children developing an awareness of their limitations and capabilities.

"When I look out the window, I see little kids swarming the equipment. But the older kids stand in bored-looking groups, huddling against the fence, shuffling with impatience as they wait for the bell to ring. A few kick around a soccer ball, but mostly there’s nothing for them to do.
We have become a society completely paranoid about possible dangers during play. Most kids are not allowed to engage in risky play, which Norwegian early childhood education professor Ellen Sandseter defines as the following: (1) exploring heights; (2) handling dangerous tools; (3) being near dangerous elements, such as fire and water; (4) rough-and-tumble play; (5) experiencing speed; (6) exploring on one’s own. Parents who do allow their children the freedom to play “dangerously” are considered negligent." Katherine Martinko

 I am already consciously making an effort to say "Yes" to students when years ago I would have said "No"; "No" to climbing a fence, building structures above my head, using scissors for materials thicker than cardboard, pouring water away from the safe confines of the water table, using loose parts or play dough away from their original centre. I'm not saying I always say yes, but I use my knowledge of the context (the student, the material, the situation) as my guide, and try to remember that there is always a lesson to be learned from taking a negotiated risk. Sometimes I don't say yes or no, but turn the question back to the students.
Still, this beautiful setting and freedom from our usual schedule offered something more. I kept seeing how being away from home where everything is different and new was like my kindergarten classroom for the new students who join in September. Travel can be overwhelming or delightful or possibly both. Having "fresh eyes" can be exciting or exhausting. So what exactly is it about a vacation that makes it so much more memorable than daily life? In a word: time.

 Over the week, when I had quiet moments on the beach before the family awoke, I began to formulate the idea that would become this post. One afternoon I used the voice memo app to record my thoughts while I walked along the tide pools and rocks, listening to the sounds of children laughing, gulls keeling, and waves lapping the shore. What follows, interspersed with tweets from our time in Yellow Point and on the mainland, is my memo more-or-less verbatim (names removed).

Why is a vacation a time when the most learning happens?
Self-regulation has a chance to develop through self-discovery (your boundaries, comfort, natural consequences).
You can follow your nose spend all day in the pool, walk alone on the beach or spend time with friends.

 No expectations of have to do, when to get up, when to go to bed.
All the usual rules are out the window. You can be some one different from the image you hold in your head day to day, you can be more free.
I learned that I can cross the pool the whole way from one side to another, on one breath. This is something I've never tried before. Generally when in the pool (at home) it's rushed, I'm worried about other things, I'm watching the kids or the clock (because swimming time will run out).
Being on vacation free frees up a lot of time to follow your nose... your interests.
I spend early hours on the beach when everyone else wants to sleep in.

 Again, self-regulation: if your body says sleep, sleep. If you want to get up and explore, that's absolutely fine. There are no rules when you're on vacation (like my kids have at school: recess is short, bathroom breaks, get up early, eat before dark) except have a good time.

 Watching my kids pushing themselves, not because we're telling they have to but because it's fun, because they want a challenge, because they have hours and hours to develop their idea.
Watching my girl jump in the pool and spend hours and progressively push herself further down into the pool, deeper and deeper, testing herself to hold her breath, pushing herself to do new tricks and flips, but also watching her do this with her friends: "Oh yeah, let's see if you can hold your breath for 2 minutes", "Let's see how far we can go down", "Can you touch the bottom?"

And everything becomes a game - it's impossible to get bored when you're in a pool with lots of other kids and lots of tools, because all of those toys become a game: whether it's a ball or a pool noodle, or jumping in or splashing... the rules are made on the fly and the challenges become part of the game (friends made on the fly, too).
Watching how some kids choose to spend time in the pool and others go right to the ocean, stick their hands in, pick up crabs. It's all about your comfort level and your interests. Self-regulation needs time.

 Watching my girl grow, change from very squeamish and nervous to touching a snake, hauling up traps and sticking her hand in a crab trap, watching a fish get killed and filleted in front of her eyes (and later eating both for dinner), I see you learn more on vacation then you ever could in school, when everyone has to do it at the same time, and when everybody's watching to see your reaction, and there's a right way and a wrong way.

My memo ended there, with me answering my kids who had come down to join me on the rocks. My big aha, that environment is key but that time is needed to truly explore the environment and one's self in it... continues to grow.  I see the importance of inquiry, of emergent curriculum: there is something to be said for being on vacation and being able to develop your interests and challenge new skills at your own pace. It's also valuable to share those insights and challenges with others who help you process and reflect on all that you're experiencing. How fortunate that I was able to meet up with twitter friends, both "old" (well, I did manage to meet Heather once before) and new.

 While on the plane heading back home, I opened up my now dog-eared copy of Natural Curiosity, a document that deeply resonates with me and my practice. I had read several chapters on the way west, and now I was further along and finding so much that aligned with my experiences on vacation. I flipped to the back cover to retrieve my bookmark and was happily surprised to recognize the location of the photo (which I had admired before but never could place): it was the lily-covered pond  in Stanley Park where we had just stopped at a few days before to watch a great blue heron stalking frogs. I have no doubt the authors felt a connection to the place, a park so wonderful my daughter had talked about it for two years since our last visit.

Stanley Park remains one of my favourite places in the world, a place so full of wonder: mountains, ocean beaches, deep forest trails, marvelous gardens, streams and lakes, birds and creatures of all sizes. The huge scale of the place invites you to climb, jump, crawl in a hollow tree, splash in a stream. When I picture the elements of an engaging learning environment, the shore on Vancouver Island and all the delightful areas of Stanley Park come to mind.
  One aspect of engaging learners in outdoor exploration is the deeper engagement in caring for the environment, or stewardship:
"In an environmental context, stewardship refers to human actions that contribute to a sustainable future for humans, animals, and plant species alike. 
Acts of stewardship grow from a deep respect for, and desire to protect, the balance of nature within the Earth’s biosphere." page 54, Natural Curiosity

A crow on White Rock beach. Plenty of crows, gulls, and herons, but the plentiful starfish from last trip two years ago were reduced to one seen below the water line. Scientists have reported their disappeance all along the coast.

A place you love is a place you will care about. I fell in love with BC but likewise I fell in love with the flora and fauna at my school when my class spent hours outside to #lookclosely at our natural surroundings. I wonder what stewards my students might become with their deep knowledge of their adopted trees, favourite bug hunting spots, hideaways in the no-mow zone, and more. I think back to that tweet above, about how self-regulation develops through the exploration and testing of one's limits. Over time, too, knowledge and affection develops. 
“The only instruction for how to be in a place with a child, it seems to me, is to be wholeheartedly attentive, genuinely present.  Which means, sometimes, conversation, and sometimes, quiet.  Sometimes, naming, sometimes, marveling.  Being present, together all the time, in generous and interested relationship with each other and with a place.” Ann Pelo
We must discover our place in the natural world. Together. (review of Ann Pelo's "The Goodness of Rain")

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