Sunday, May 22, 2011

Land Exploration

by Andy

This year our E1 teachers came to us with an idea.

How about some unstructured time on the land during the Environmental Ed Camp?

We had plenty of free time built into the schedule, but they were asking for something different. Instead of free time at the Athletic Field or free time in the Homestead, this was to be extended free time in nature. This was not something we were used to. At first we assumed that we would divide up and do nature related activities like go on a nature hike or do earth art. But no. The word came back that it was to be entirely unstructured, with adults there to be safety supervisors and little else.

As a paradigm, this was something that we were not used to for designing a camp schedule. It is vaguely distressing to have what amounts to a big blank spot on the schedule. For me personally, as an adult I feel I am responsible for creating an educational experience, and unstructured time could feel to me like I am not doing my job of creating and planning an effective experience, like a cop out. It also looked to me like a recipe for something unexpected to happen. You know what they say about idle hands.

The reason April and John were proposing this was because of research into how children's minds form attachments to places. There is something different about truly free exploration in the way experiences are coded in the brain. It makes a difference whether the direction is coming from an external source or not. John mentioned that there is a school in Connecticut that started mandating a 2 hour outdoor recess over the lunch break, and the students are actually doing better. Outdoor exploration in nature appears to have a balancing effect on the psyche. I am not up on this specific research (I'd love to learn more!), but I do know that same feeling from my own childhood. It felt like my brothers, my friends and I would basically be set free for the entire summer to explore the little woods behind our house and go fishing in the trout creek a few blocks away. I also could spend like an hour walking six blocks home from school. Time can shift during outdoor exploration.

So once the paradigm shifted and Land Exploration was planted in the schedule, we just had to decide how to do it. We decided to divide into our three activity groups and go to three different areas. April took a group to the Sunlit Maple Trail area, Jay took a group to the pond, and I led a group to the "far ravine" and the Sleeping Woods Trail area.

As my group set out for our adventure and walked to the far ravine, I occasionally had my teacherly persona pop up, as I pointed out plants and Land School history. I could sense how wrong this was, even as I was doing it. I was used to leadership and the students were accustomed to looking to me for leadership. It took willpower to try to shift my perspective. I decided to just be one of the students on the exploration activity. Once at the ravine, I just gave them a boundary of where to go and not to go. Most explored the dry creek bed. There was a brief burst of trying to break rocks to see what was inside. I stopped this (reluctantly) for safety reasons. I was mostly looking for agates and then some of the students joined me. I was aware that even my interjection of my quest for agates colored the experience for some of the students, because soon the land exploration was about rock collection for these students. The two hours flew by. There were many discoveries and experiences. We could have gone for more, and were left wanting to climb on trees and have more imaginative play.

The next day April decided to trade structured outdoor games for more land exploration. I went along with her to the Sunlit Maple Trail and just sat with her as she watched the children explore. I could tell that with the adult as a watcher and not an intimate participant their play was different. They looked to their own leaders and challenged each other to different physical interactions with the environment. Although April was there to step in if needed, she was apart from their world.

I am excited for land exploration to become a permanent part of our "curriculum" here at the rural campus. I am certainly won over.


  1. Hey Andy,

    This is very cool (thank you April for sharing with us parents!). I grew up in the woods and recall countless hours wandering with my brother by ourselves over the expanse of the 10,000 acre state forest that abutted our home. We had so much fun! We got a lot of scratche, a lot of poison ivy, a lot of wood ticks... had a lot of secret hang outs; got to know the woodchucks, porcupines, owls; discovered cool windfalls; and we still have a secret giant white pine that we refer to as adults. All in all, these were unstructured, unsupervised experiences. I heartily encourage you to allow my kids, John and Liam, to wander freely at the Land School.
    Best regards, Curt

  2. Wow, this brought tears to my eyes, actually. I'm so glad Addie had a chance to be part of this experience, and for her to call the Land School her own. I too grew up running wild, in a suburban wooded backyard/creek area. My kids don't have that same opportunity, living in the city.

    Interesting, too, to hear about your own struggle to button down your "teacherly" instincts. As a teacher myself, I struggle with that as a parent. Don't worry, you're not copping out! We appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you approach introducing the children to the land, and this is no exception.

    Amie DeHarpporte