Wilderness School

TwoCoyotes2By Kate Foran. A second installment on her series on alternative education of her daughter Sylvie.

“When I show most people a rock I found, they say, ‘oh, nice.’ But when I show my teachers at Wilderness School, they say ‘Wow! It’s so beautiful! I love it!!” Sylvie, age 5.

The enthusiasm with which nature mentors and children regard rocks is a key piece in this patchwork quilt of my daughter’s education. On Mondays Sylvie spends the day at Two Coyotes Wilderness School, which meets in the woods surrounding Holcomb Farm in Granby, CT. She starts the morning with a gratitude circle, songs and games, and then it’s onto the woods for the day’s agenda (which might be building a fire with a bow drill or gathering wild edibles for October’s Ancestor Feast, or building a shelter out of sticks and branches.)

Not much time is spent with heavy-handed explanations of the whys and wherefores of what they do; the approach seems to recognize that the creation of a culture is more important than imparting lessons. For the Wilderness Awareness Education movement is not just about “environmental education” but about “creating connected kids”—kids who are connected to their own bodies, to their land and place, to relationships with mentors, and to a sense of identity and community.

Sylvie’s nature mentors understand that learning is a full-body, sensory experience. Instead identifying plants and giving information about them, the teachers invite the children to touch, smell, see, and in some cases taste the plant. They ask children what they notice, and elicit the children’s observations and narratives. Eventually the mentors identify the species and share what they know about it, but the children are more likely to remember the name of the plant because they have fully “met” it with all of their senses.

We live in a culture which separates the head from the body. In one of our Word & World sessions preparing for the Detroit Spirit and Roots Gathering, Jim Perkinson suggested that in addition to being about rhythm and lyrics, hip hop culture is an embodied experience which dominant white culture fails to understand and negatively judges. It strikes me that the same negative judgment plays out in schools, where children who “can’t sit still” are given labels and meds, and where we privilege a narrow set of skills and ways of knowing. As biomechanist Katy Bowman notes, “We don’t tend to think of it this way, but if one were to quantify ‘skills practiced’ in the classroom, ages 5 to 18, the winner of ‘Most Time Spent’ would not be reading, writing, science, mathematics, music, physical education, critical thinking or art. The winner would be sitting.”

There is a move to replace “sitting desks” with “standing desks” in classrooms, which is a good start, but Bowman warns that standing is no replacement for sitting—the point is that bodies—especially children’s bodies–need to move. A growing body of research shows that gross motor movement and kinesthetic awareness are prerequisites for academic success. Body movements that integrate the left and right brain hemispheres set the stage for a child’s ability not to just memorize “sight words” (as is the trend in most kindergartens right now) but to picture what they are reading as they read it—to comprehend it. Experts in child development suggest that making kindergarten more academic with more time at desks and more testing will have a negative impact on those students’ future ability to engage academically (not to mention, as Katy Bowman would emphasize, their physical health). Young children need to spend time playing, climbing, jumping, digging and running—all of which are benefits of spending the day outside at Wilderness School. And movement outside is key here–incidence of myopia (which is connected to other physical dysfunctions) increases with time spent indoors, for example.

My hope is that Sylvie’s experience Wilderness School will not just benefit her development, though. It seems to me that part of the anxiety we’re seeing in school performance right now is related to the fact that we don’t know what future we are educating our children for. Political campaign literature showing up at my doorstep this time of year talks about improving education so that children might “get ahead.” Get ahead of what, or of whom? What skills will make for successful adults? What will the economy be in 20 years? And scariest of all, what will the climate be?  A public school setting that was primarily designed to produce factory workers (as John Holt has argued) seems increasing irrelevant to these questions.

I don’t pretend to have answers. But by ensuring my daughter spends time outside in nature, I have in mind at the very least the wisdom behind a tenant of the Watershed Discipleship movement: you can’t save what you don’t love, you can’t love what you’d don’t know, and you can’t know what you haven’t learned. It’s a pedagogy of love and relationship, which seems like an awfully good place to start. I think of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, in which he describes a family that remains outside of The Economy of agribusiness, making a life on the town’s margins by the river. Berry suggests that their concern with “making do” with what the land makes available rather than “making something of themselves” will prepare them to weather whatever economic storms are to come. After all, there is a certain security which comes from knowing one’s landscape, at a very basic level (read: food). But before I expose Sylvie to threats about the future, or to the growing list of endangered animals; before I ask her to collect “pennies for the rainforest” (the kind of environmental education project offered in schools), I want her to have an experience of the joy and wonder of this Eastern Woodland. My hope is that Sylvie will have enough of a relationship with her beloved mica and garnets , red-wing blackbirds, and bright maples to advocate for their shalom.

I believe this sense of place will be a source of identity as well—being connected to something bigger and more lasting than herself. That is the idea behind the Ancestor Feast, held by the Two Coyotes community every fall—everyone brings a dish from their heritage, and we try to recover where we came from. (The kind of recovery work Lydia wrote about on this blog https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/10/20/drumming-and-jack-o-lanterns/ )

In a contemplative mood when she was four Sylvie observed, “The world is made up of two kinds of things. Some things are built and invented. But some things are found and named.” It seems like the worship of the built and invented (a definition of idolatry) is partly how we got to this point of ecological crisis. So piece of my daughter’s education is to spend time apart from the built environment, to wander like the first people, finding and naming. By the end of this fall’s session of Two Coyotes, Sylvie will be given a “nature name” based on qualities her mentors have observed. This practice of noticing a child’s gifts comes from the Wilderness School “art of mentoring,” which is not about filling an empty vessel, but drawing out what is within. I believe out there in the woods in the land where she was born is one of the places where my daughter will be found and named.

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