As a child one of my greatest passions was climbing trees. Finding suitable climbing trees in Southeast Alaska’s rainforest was a challenge, but I was always up for a challenge. Alders were the best for jungle-gym play and horse riding. I could climb the highest in hemlocks, without getting pricked by sharp needles. Up in a tree’s branches I felt both safe and alive. As a ten-year old, I voiced the lofty goal that I would climb every climbing tree in Sitka. As I grew older, adolescent problems were best solved among a tree’s sheltering leaves. As a young adult, among the many parameters I sought for college, “good climbing trees” was actually on the list. I did climb plenty of trees in college, but I also studied science – and while studying discovered my career passion – environmental conservation. I don’t think I arrived at that passion because anyone provided me with environmental messages as a child. I couldn’t even name many birds until I was an adult (though I knew lots of flower names!) I think my passion came from my deep connection with trees and from the rocky beaches and mossy forests I explored.
I was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about fifteen years ago when Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods” became a sensation within the conservation world. In his book Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” and stated “Direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.” The conservation agencies and organizations already knew that we needed to focus on connecting children to nature – but the real revolutionary message in Louv’s book was that children needed unstructured outdoor play and exploration. Most environmental education programs involved hands-on activities and games to teach environmental facts. Few allowed pure exploration driven by the children themselves.
Louv cited research that not only were children spending too much time in structured activities like organized sports and lessons – they also weren’t allowed unsupervised time outdoors because parents were afraid. He attributed this fear to an increased media impact in our society in which the rare scary cases are blasted across the nation. His research stated that there were not actually any more child abduction incidents in the last 20 years than there were 50 years ago. Yet it is now common in society, even in places with plenty of outdoor play space, for parents to feel like a bad parent if they let their child play outside without an adult.
Now at Lakeside School, I promise that we are not sending the children into the forest alone without adult supervision. We couldn’t get very far with our school license if that was our practice. Yet, our teaching methods strive to provide children opportunities to experience pure exploration, to play in the forest without the direction of an adult. Teachers accompany the children on adventures, and are models for developing outdoor skills, and of course they occasionally re-direct play when a child is having a bad day. However, in general our motto is “don’t tell, let them discover!” Our teaching style fits in so well with the words of one of my favorite conservationists, Rachel Carson. She said “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Our teachers discover life alongside our students, thus making each discovery even more amazing.
Through observation and hands-on manipulation, children at Lakeside School build a deep understanding of ecology, physics, chemistry, and even engineering. A child racing bark boats down a creek understands more about the physics of water than a child presented these facts in a lecture. A child capturing tiny brown toads in the leaf litter understands the habitat needs of this small mysterious creature. A child watching a woodpecker searching for bugs on a hollowed out snag knows the value of that tree, even after its leaves and branches are gone. The elementary students work with our partner farmer to compost horse manure, which they then spread on our school garden, thus learning about microbiology and chemistry, along with good farming practices. The kindergartners work with their teacher to create a fort at one of their forest outpost sites, carefully selecting the best branches to use and just the right leaning and towering principles. Now Finn, my kindergartner son, asks often “How did they build this (barn, house, etc.)?”
Lakeside students are learning the most important skills they need to become scientists. They learn how to observe and ask questions. They learn how to propose theories and then test those theories through trials and keen observation. They learn to ask even more questions. They are allowed to experience our natural world with little adult noise and direction – so that they can fully hear and understand the song of life.
With the environmental challenges we face in the future our world needs strong scientists. We also need conservationists – who care not because they are told to but because they both understand and love our earth. Baba Dioum, a Senegalese Forestry Engineer and Conservationist in the late 60s, said it so well “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” And so at Lakeside School we teach from the heart.