Nature Education: reconnecting our children with Papatūānuku

We “want to foster in children an ecological identity, one that shapes them as surely as their cultural and social identities. I believe that this ecological identity, born in a particular place, opens children to a broader connection with the earth; love for a specific place makes possible love for other places. An ecological identity allows us to experience the earth as our home ground, and leaves us determined to live in honourable relationship with our planet.” (Ann Pelo, A Pedagogy for Ecology, 2008).

In order for the canoe to know where it is going, it has to understand where it has come from.” (Joce Nuttall, 2005).

At Open Spaces we focus our teaching provocations around the concept of place. We believe that a crucial part of our work as teachers is to give children a sense of place, to braid their identities together with the place they live by calling their attention to the air, the sky, trees, water and all the creatures who inhabit it. With place comes knowledge, respect, relationships, the past and the future; it becomes part of 'I' and 'I' becomes part of 'us' – community.

Every child lives someplace. And that someplace begins to mater when children are invited to know where they are and to and to participate in the unfolding life of that place – coming to know the changes in the light and in the feel of the air, and participating in a community of people who speak of such things to each other,” (Pelo, 2008).

Place-based education (PBE) is a pedagogical framework that further develops these ideas of place alongside a strong social and cultural context. PBE is very much about living in Aotearoa and meshes perfectly with our bicultural curriculum, Te Whāriki. It is about recognising that the early childhood centre is not just space, but is an integral part of a community. It's about moving from passive observation to active participation by looking beyond the four walls and being part of this community. It is about embracing the complexities of whakapapa and tūrangawaewae through a critical lens that acknowledges that history and knowledge are more often than not constructed by those with power who seek to maintain power.

It is this action of stepping out of the centre - both physically, psychologically, and pedagogically, that makes PBE distinguishable from tradition teaching practice - it requires Kaiako to challenge conventional notions of education and ask simple questions like Where am I? What is the nature of this place? What sustains this community?

Manning (2012) describes this shift in thinking as being a 're-storying process' that enables tamariki to respond creatively to the stories of their home ground so that they are able to position themselves, imaginatively and actually within the continuum of nature and culture particular to that place. PBE resonates strongly with Te Whāriki and guides our commitment to genuine bicultural practice and partnership with Māori.

Children learn about place with their bodies and their hearts. We can underscore that intuited, sensual, experimental knowledge by fostering a conscious knowledge of place in children. The following principles are drawn from the work of educationalist Ann Pelo and help us guide curriculum building by acting as markers in our practice through both responsive and intentional teaching.

Walk the land.

As teachers we must be mindful of our cultural disposition for superficial knowledge. Rather than novelty, we invite children to look below the surface, to move slowly, to know a place deeply. Recurring visits to the same place over a long period gives the children time to feel comfortable with each other and the environment. “a few intimate places mean more than all the glorious panoramas...” (Nabhan & Trimble, 1984).

We walk the land – and we name those places that become special in some way. Labelling places is a way to establish the relationships we have with our surroundings. To give a name is to give respect and recognition; it is the beginning of love. Love and respect are authentically developed over time and create a rich sense of place within the social and natural community. (Campbell & Thompson; Naturally Speaking).

Learn the names.

Often when studying new flora or fauna we generalise and lump the unique individual into indistinct groups like 'bird' or 'a tree' and unconsciously create a barrier to building a relationship – the first step towards kaitiakitanga. At Open Spaces we carry field guides and use them with the children when we encounter the unknown. This is not a learning 'shortcut' with an instant answer that ends investigation. We ask an expert, we give it a name, we begin to know it, to marvel, wonder and continue with our learning.

Embrace sensuality.

In a culture that values intellect more than emotion, typical environmental education too often emphasises facts in lieu of experience. To foster a love for a place, we must engage our bodies and our hearts – as well as our minds – in a specific place. Intellectual knowledge needs a foundation of sensual awareness and for very young children, sensual awareness is the beginning of most, if not all, learning. Feel the breeze, the wind and rain, smell the flowers and brush past the leaves...

Explore new perspectives.

Familiarity with a place can mean we are no longer surprised, or experience new ways of seeing. Our challenge as teachers is to always look as though it is the first time. Unexpected details and new insights lends an authenticity and humility in our experience of place. With an emergent curriculum approach we follow children's questions and developing theories on a meandering learning journey that is not solely anchored to environmental science lessons, but stays true to the spirit of fundamental questions that only a young child can pose: do leaves fall because they are sad? Can bad plants be good?

Learn the stories.

To form a relationship with a place we need to know the stories and histories that are linked to that place. In gathering these stories it is as much about children's imaginations as it is about names and dates. Secret fairy houses, taniwha, tuna...

Reading the stories of Tane is to introduce new ways of thinking about the ngahere that move beyond our lived experiences. Narratives based around such fundamental themes of life resonate with children who are always eager to contribute their own...

Tell the stories.

“We're often encouraged to see the earth as just scenery – something to look at but not participate in. When we collapse the distance between the land and ourselves and allow ourselves to become part of the story of a place, we give ourselves over to intimacy. This can be our work with children – weaving them into the story of the place where they live,“ (Pelo, 2008).

We can link the children to the land via our ripening plums, falling leaves, long hot days, days of rain, and the first butterfly egg on our swan plants...

As Richard Louv warns in Last Child in the Woods,  to save the environment we need to firstly save the notion of environmentalism. The endangered indicator species is our children - to save our planet we must get our children reconnected with papatūānuku. There is no plan B.

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09 437 5718


592 Ngunguru Road, RD3 Kiripaka
Whangarei, New Zealand