Friday, April 23, 2021

On Teaching Art: Playing In the Wilderness Is the Core of a Good Education

Discovering a gigantic (and partially slug-eaten) mushroom here in Canada.

My first outdoor art class was rather an accident. I was working with a group of kids from the American School in Wassenaar, the Netherlands, and decided we'd make a mural to revitalize the wall of a local underpass that at the time was covered with white supremacist graffiti. Taking the kids outside to paint the mural they'd designed was just the obvious next step in the process, and it required the city to drop off a ladder and high-vis barricades to keep us safe from passing cyclists. The city obliged, and we cloistered ourselves up against the wall and painted that mural.

But really we had to stand back quite frequently to look at the job we were doing, which meant stepping out of the barricaded area, across the busy bike-path, and onto the unkempt grassy area beside the overpass. That's where we took breaks, where we sat in the long grass and weeds and chatted, ate our snacks, pondered the mural, and generally did the work of assimilating all the learning that comes with designing and then painting a large mural in a public location--and confronting racism as a group of culturally displaced children. There, in the grass, we found little beetles climbing up the blades; we dropped breadcrumbs by accident and wondered about the safety of picking them up to eat them. We watched all the cyclists zooming by between us and the mural, and we soaked up the sunshine on our faces. We talked about neo-nazis, flowers, bicycles, the various countries we came from, different species of flies, the American School, flies stuck in paint, and languages of racist graffiti. I was nineteen, and really had no idea what I was doing with these kids, as a teacher, but the act of teaching taught me.

Scrubbing algae, tire-dust and graffiti in preparation for painting.

It took me quite a few years, more art classes taught for practical reasons outside, and parenting my own two kids into an unschooling paradigm before I realized the importance of that time spent sitting on grass in Wassenaar. I didn't originally take my classes outside because I knew it was the best place to learn. I took them because it was a place to let off steam; a place to find interesting textures for rubbings, collages, and still-life arrangements, or just the place we had to be to make the big art. Back in those early days I didn’t realize we were doing so much more than art. I took my own kids out just to escape the monotony of our living room, and the boring routine of meals, diapers, nursing, and play time. We did meals, diapers, nursing and play time in the forest, and let me tell you—that was not boring! And it wasn't long before I realized that we didn't actually need anything other than a snack and a spare diaper to go into the woods—that what we were doing there was so much more than just home in the forest: it was everything. Very soon, books, toys, and the stroller were irrelevant, and sticks, mud, water and plants became my kids' playthings. And playthings are learning tools. It wasn’t long after this that I started taking all my art classes outside for at least half our time together, and realized what I’d been missing, all along: connection.

The ecosystem that surrounds our curated homes is vast and complex and interconnected. It’s the seeming chaos that we tried to tame with our cities, boxes, and rules, but in actuality it’s the perfectly-tuned balance of millions of organisms, ideas and functions that we have not yet nearly achieved with our human-made system. Every concept humans dream up has roots in our basic understanding of the world and its natural systems.

Human-Designed Environment vs. Wilderness

The confines of a classroom or home are the curated attempt at a kind of intellectual ecosystem by a species that has become accustomed to putting things in boxes: to looking so hard at one object that we forgot to see the context it exists in. We put everything in boxes. We hang alphabet posters on the wall, keep fish or hamsters in a tank on a shelf for observation, and keep a stack of books, papers, or laptops for recording our observations. In this, we teach ourselves to exclude. We teach ourselves not to consider the wider context of whatever we’re seeing, because we’re afraid it’s too much for our small minds to fathom.

But our minds want to fathom! Our minds need to expand; to take time to sit and observe and wonder; to take subconscious note of all the millions of things that happen in the wilderness, from the slope of a leaning tree to the plants growing on top of it, to the smell of the soil, the mechanics of wings, jaws and elytra to the taste of sap. Our minds draw the connections between these millions of things long before we could ever articulate them.

One of the greatest tragedies of the current education system is our need for documentation and evaluation of learning. Students and teachers spend so much time documenting, testing, and evaluating that there’s no time left for sitting out in the wilderness, just assimilating. I can understand that, given the centralized nature of our system, the people at the top want to be sure every child is receiving the same instruction and meeting the same standards. But this is old. We’re progressing beyond the industrial society this system was designed for, where humans are needed to follow directions and work in factories. We’re on the edge of a new enlightenment, where the work we do with our minds is valued as much or more than our ability to assemble products. We don’t need the over-simplified, over documented fact-sheets of the industrial age, that break reality into such small pieces that it’s meaningless in the big picture. Our minds need a rich environment full of wonder, intrigue, and uncertainty to grow. The wilderness offers that.

Boxes vs. the Big Picture

As unschoolers at home, my kids were welcome to play and explore whatever interested them, free from the school system. But the fear I developed growing up in that school system led me to buy them a series of workbooks designed for their grade-levels. At some point my son was working on the science section (the only section he was willing to look at), and became furious. “This is a stupid book!” he declared. “They don’t know anything!” He was talking about the page that claimed killer whales eat other whales. He knew they ate salmon—at least those whales inhabiting our area at the time. And he knew that other killer whales ate seals and sea lions, but he didn’t care because they weren’t anywhere near us. I tried to explain that transient killer whales might, in fact, eat smaller whales, so maybe the book wasn’t wholly wrong. But both of us were dismayed at the description of something we knew to be a very complex system, as something so simplified as to be incorrect.

Humans are forever trying to make things simpler to understand them. It’s definitely simpler and less risky to put something in a box for observation than it is to go get to know it in its natural environment. If you put a killer whale in a big box with a smaller whale, I bet it would eventually eat it. But then you wouldn’t know anything about either species at all.

Boxes are more predictable, and we like predictable. The trouble is that the world and everything in it is not that simple. So in boxing everything; in teaching our kids “the simple facts” of, say, anatomy, combustion engines, or long division, we ignore the greater context of not only how these things fit into the vast ecology that we’re a part of, but why they matter. That’s why it’s OK to forget them when the test is finished and we move on to the next subject. They were never important in the big picture because we never saw the big picture: The ecosystem of everything.

The thing is, though, that that ecosystem is the context of our lives. We didn’t come from nature thousands of years ago and then progress beyond it with industry and technology, we are nature. We are the ecosystem, and our minds, unbeknownst to us, are naturally evolved to live in, observe, and understand it. Everything we are is the same basic particles that comprise a killer whale, a turtle; a beetle, or a piece of sandwich fallen into the weeds and digested by microbes, on the side of the bike path in Wassenaar. Everything we have built came from nature. Not just the raw materials, harvested unseen behind a slim screen of trees by the highway, but also our ingenuity. It comes from nature. It comes from people walking through the wilderness getting to know it; people living for thousands of years in their own ecosystem, learning and understanding the ecology of that place until they know how to heal themselves with specific plants, actions, and technologies. Humans learned medicine from the wilderness, and then learned to make it into pills. I learned about my own body’s anatomy by butchering rabbits with my family, as a child. Humans learned engineering from stacking, digging, and weaving pieces of wilderness to make homes and all other manner of ingenuity—like birds build nests and bears prepare dens for winter. Children build forts and mats; crowns and shoes and gardens in the wilderness. And this play is where they learn the core skills they need to become engineers, physicians, caregivers, fashion designers, mathematicians, and politicians.

That’s a lot of things to become! And you know it’s just my random little list. It looks like hyperbole but it’s really a gross understatement. I can’t think of a single career that wouldn’t be ideally begun in the wilderness. Why? Because our minds are capable of more than we know, and more than we can articulate. In sitting, playing, or living in the wilderness we give our minds space to learn. That’s why we learn better, there.

Natural play in the forest.

The Whole Picture: Interconnection

Getting to know our own ecosystems isn’t quantifiable. It’s not really so much about seeing or learning more as it is about seeing the interconnection of all things. What was missing from that infamous killer whale page in my son’s workbook was indeed just a lot of information, but more importantly it was the connection between all that information. Salmon is to killer whales what smaller fish are to salmon. And our local residents prefer chinook salmon. But where do they find them? And how do they interact or share territory with the transient (now Biggs) killer whales, who eat pinnipeds, dolphins and minke whales? What do minke whales eat? Who eats their poop? Oh yeah—whale poop is the fertilizer of the seas. Like rabbit, horse, and chicken manure on my garden. Like deer poop in the forest, and the leaves and berries that went into it, feed the ferns, trees, and the grasses that later were picked for the robin’s nest; the corvid that later stole the robin’s scrawny babies to eat; the blue eggshells that fell to the ground to be gnawed by insects and harvested for calcium. The picture goes on and on forever. It’s not just big; it’s whole. Try to put that on a spreadsheet and send it to the ministry for documentation of learning.

Really. I’ve tried. As an unschooling parent still enrolling my kids in a DL program in order to access community resources and group activities, I had to quantify my kids’ learning on paper once every term. I learned very fast that what my children were learning was absolutely unquantifiable; that an “education” in our province constitutes a list of checked boxes, but that what my children understood of the world was much more important. School-going kids also understand far more than is noted on their reports; more than they are seen knowing, by a system inclined to look at them mostly for the purpose of checking boxes. They understand the social connectivity of their class and school, of their families and the landscape of the places they are given to explore. If we want our children to know more about the world, we simply have to give them more places to explore. And if we want them to really become comfortable and fluent in complexity, we have to give them plenty of time exploring in the wilderness.

Exploring: Curated Experience vs. Free Play

Exploring doesn’t mean hiking along a trail. I mean, it might, if that’s where interest led you. But it might mean going off-trail, crawling into the underbrush, or sitting down to dissect a pile of bear poop. It might mean sitting smelling the wind, and maybe it’s autumn, and the wind carries a musky smell that turns out to be a very large rutting deer watching you from afar. He saw you first because he’s accustomed to this wilderness and used to noticing the changes. You’re the change in his wilderness, and now you’re a part of it. And you discovered something you didn’t expect when you sat down to smell the wind.

When kids play in the wild without direction they probably learn more than they would if the play was curated. Most times school kids are taken outside to play, the play is directed by a teacher. Maybe we play capture the flag; maybe we sit and read our books or go on a scavenger hunt. These aren’t harmful activities, but in the expectation of specific activity, they don’t leave much room for exploration. We learn to see outdoor spaces as locations for performing human-designed activities, as opposed to ecosystems to be a part of. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Take a group of kids into the woods with no expectations, supplies or instruction, and leave them to play. They will use their previous experiences, their broad complex understanding of the world, and their inquisitive minds to take stock of the situation and adapt. They’ll explore their surroundings. They’ll use whatever objects they find around (clothing, sticks, leaves, water) to act out and explore their ideas. It’s a lot like documentation, but freed from the constraints of ministry check-boxes and expected reporting methods, it will look like play. It is play. And it’s essential for learning. Just like in playing, a crow learns where the robins are nesting and where he might find his next meal. He learns how to slide in snow and dig for grubs. Play is essential for learning. In playing with kids in the forest, I learned the best things I know about teaching.

The wilderness provides the best playground for our imaginations, because it’s complex enough to house all our ideas. It provides the best place for learning, because, when we give ourselves time to just be there, we can discover and come to understand—intrinsically—the roots of everything. Without constraints on space, complexity, or imagination, we really can be wholly educated. We can become everything we want to be.

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