by Jay Young, Director of Operations, Carp Ridge Forest School

(Ed note: This month we’re posting Part 1 of a talk Jay presented to environmental educators at a recent ‘Congress of the Humanities.’ The event was co-sponsored by Wilfred Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

Part 2 is here. If you’d like a full transcript of the presentation, contact Jay at: jay@carpridgelearningcentre.ca)
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Introduction: A diminishing childhood romance with nature?

The smell after a fresh rain, the sound of boots on snow, the beauty of a sunrise on a serene lake, the call of geese overhead; all these things I love.  I remember my experiences from summer camp, riding my bike through my “backyard” (the trails that are now subdivisions), camping on a lake.

These are individual instances of place attachment that I have stored in my memory and in the living history of my life, which I sometimes recall on command and sometimes they come unbidden, summoned by a similar sense or experience, a rush of nostalgia like adrenaline.

And this is why I care about these places and all natural spaces, because of my natural history.  But what will today’s children remember of their early experiences with nature?  How many will they actually experience?  I realize that this might be romanticizing an idealized natural environment (or all of them) but that is exactly the point.

They need romanticizing, or rather they are romanticized in the memory of a young boy or girl.  That is how we experience them at such a young age, with wonder, with awe, with appreciation and gratitude.  Our imagination kicks in and we are not just playing in the forest, we are on a grand adventure.  And that’s what many of today’s children experience less and less, or at least in a very diminished capacity. . . but not all.

One answer: Start experiential environmental education at the preschool level

Hopefully more and more kids will have opportunities to truly experience nature, in all its plenitude and with all their senses.  This is the purpose of experiential environmental education.  Offering children the chance to experience nature with all of their senses provides a multitude of stimuli, as Richard Louv remarks, “nature is an infinite reservoir”, from which we can all derive experience upon experience.

Through imaginative and free play in nature, children develop lasting relationships with the environment and the entities that inhabit them.  They grow in the capacity to appreciate nature and can experience concern for its continued wellbeing.  And what will they do with this appreciation and concern for the planet?  Well, ideally they will continue to care for it into their adult lives and hopefully have influence over the relationships we cultivate with our home into our collective future.

If they do so, they will become environmental citizens, ecocitizens even.  These citizens will need no boundary to distinguish them from others, even though they will be situated in a particular place, for the whole world is their home.  No nationality or region binds them for they care for it all, in its grand generality and its particular minutiae.  They will care because they grew up caring and they will continue to do so.

Craving a reconnection to the natural

In my role as facilitator and director of the Forest School at Carp Ridge, I’ve come to understand the extent to which people are craving the reconnection to the natural.  From the parents and caregivers who wish that their children might have some natural experiences that they remembered from their own youth, to the educators and administrators who come to see what we do, to those who have heard about the program through the heightened exposure we are currently experiencing, each must bring a certain sense of nostalgia for a seemingly diminished childhood that continues at an alarming rate.

And all would no doubt acknowledge a lack of natural experiences in society and particularly in public education.  And I believe that is why the parents send their children to us, why administrators want to model our programs in their schools and why others were simply intrigued by images they might have seen, children frolicking in the forest in winter of all things.  I’m referring to a CBC documentary on The National that was filmed at the Forest School during my first winter with the organization.

Another endangered species: a childhood immersed in nature

Having just moved from Toronto prior to this documentary, I could understand the reaction of many, including the film crew who had flown into Ottawa from Toronto, and then driven some distance to the rural community of Carp to film the antics of a group of children cavorting about in -10 to -20 degree weather for hours on end.

In urban centres, many children experience winter through subway or car windows, the seasons are understood through walks through the local park on the way somewhere else or a trip to a remote destination usually at least an hour away to experience “nature”.

Please don’t misunderstand me, there are some truly beautiful parks in urban centres and there are those urbanites who actually find the time to experience them, but for the majority, the natural world is a poor substitute for the allure of cultural contrivances that simulate anything that might be enjoyed first hand.

Therefore, I maintain that it is the experience of the natural that is threatened, not only the natural environment itself or the species that live there, although they are inextricably linked.  As Richard Louv states, “the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable”.

So, owing to this sense of loss of natural experiences among many members of our modern society, the images of children playing in sub zero temperatures in a forest were curious.  And to find out that those children were outside most of the day, that they actually led the program and that they were absolutely loving it, must have seemed quite strange.

Experiential environmental education is not for everyone but perhaps it should be. Hopefully the children who have these full-on outdoor experiences will become the leaders who decide how our next generation navigates the perils of our increasingly technological society. They will truly be ‘from-the-ground-up’ environmental citizens who help world culture evolve into a more nature-conscious mid-21st century.

Next month: The theory behind ‘forest schools’