Updated: Mar 5
Recently I was loading dishes and I watched my daughter get under the sink, the kitchen sink! The all time biggest no-zone of the house. I could have freaked. I could have leapt frantically in her direction. But I sat back and observed, curious about her curiosity. I discovered that she was helping me. In less time that it would have taken me to grab her arm and tell her “no,” causing confusion and dismay, she opened the unlocked cabinet door, grabbed the bag of detergent pellets, and brought them to me by the dishwasher. Smiling, I opened the bag and handed her a pellet. Through her own observations she knew exactly what to do. She stepped to the soap holder, placed it in, and closed the lid. She then closed the full dishwasher door to raucous applause from the crowd of spectators, a stunned and amazed mom and dad. Was I ready to run the dishwasher? No, but I would have hit go if she had made the slightest request.
It is amazing what a little patient curiosity has done for my relationship with my daughter. She continues to amaze me at 20 months of age. She understands much of what I say to her and is putting more complex sequences together, such as how to run the dishwasher apparently. All is so lovely until there are the stare-you-in-the-eye tests she administers. “Please don’t throw your food!” is followed by “now we need to clean up this mess together.” At this request she will immediately turn on her heels to get the dustpan. How can I stay mad when I realize she is just testing her boundaries? These are rather mundane occurrences to the casual onlooker however how we react and redirect behaviors, a task repeated 1,000 times per day at this young age, can have great consequences to the relationships we build with the children in our lives.
Rewind to a failure of patience that took place the very same evening just a few hours before with an after school group of nature explorers. This particular collection of 2nd and 3rd graders has been a challenge for me this semester and I can’t seem to crack the code. “Stop!” “Did you hear me calling you?” “What are you doing?” “Don’t you realize that we are trying to do something fun here?” My various authoritative tendencies prevail by the end of some sessions, which leave me feeling defeated and confused. While never abusive, I do clearly show desperation in my attempts to manage the group. It feels as if I am in my first classroom with management tools completely unsharpened. Any veteran of education will attest that they still encounter difficult or challenging groups no matter how long they have been teaching. But isn’t the outdoor setting supposed to break down all the barriers to connection? Shouldn’t this be easier than trying to keep 30 students organized in a classroom? Aren’t we just playing?
The intentions and potential value of these programs are massive. I provide wild nature play and enriching outdoor programs to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to get outside in their community. Their barriers are both perceived and real in the schools I work. The difficulty arises when what I believe to be valuable programming does not match their needs or wants in the moment. My patience breaks down as my own expectations overtake a clear vision of the students standing in front of me. My need to be listened to, my need to be seen, my need to control the situation, and my need to feel that I am contributing something of value supersede those very same needs from the children I am attempting to mentor. So it’s time to take a breath and get more curious about their curiosity.
Wild Nature Play is not about executing prescribed curriculum designed for measurable growth. Wild Nature Play provides the opportunity to explore through questioning and risk-taking in a safe environment where participants reveal their passions through experience. The role of a mentor is to keep everyone safe, provide instruction when requested by the participant, and enrich situations by bringing in personal experience and expertise. When done correctly, the mentor can build deep lasting relationships through honest exchange intrinsic in the lessons. The connection built with both mentor and nature is where the magic happens. Children and adults who participate in nature connection models gain more than just an understanding of the flora and fauna in their area. They connect to themselves, their peers, the place they live, and eventually to the world at large.
The wisdom truly needed with this group is to be kind to myself in order to bring kindness to the lessons. It is out of my control what external situations are brought into our 2 hours together. When problems arise, this is not a failure of my own making, but an opportunity to bring calm to what may have been be a tumultuous day. Nature is healing, and the more one can be outside in its presence the greater the healing opportunities become. Through Wild Nature Play I hope many may access the power of time spent outdoors as a teacher, healer, and connector.