“What’s more important in preschool, learning your letters or learning to overcome your fear of tromping through that deep puddle? Or does learning to overcome your fear actually create a foundation for learning letters?” (Sobel, 2015, p. 41)
I’m smack in the middle of Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens by David Sobel, and this question has been posed, both outright in the above quote and within the subtext of the book. It’s a question that I’ve asked myself, that I’ve toyed with while considering my parenting as well as my teaching, whether working with young children or adults. Of course, I tend to think of this question from a wider standpoint – what is more important in education, the collection of facts and data or growing as a person? Or does growing as a person create an environment that allows one to expand intellectually and become life-long learner?
In the United States, there seems to be a battle regarding where our educational system’s focus should be. Should we be demanding our children perform ever-more academically challenging tasks in hopes that it will boost the results on one dimensional assessments, or should we be challenging our children within their zones of proximal development (ZPD), both academically and also personally, within their souls, allowing not only their skills to grow at a developmentally reasonable pace, but their ethics and emotional intelligence as well?
When Sobel asks if “learning to overcome your fear” creates a foundation for further (perhaps more academically-oriented learning), he’s suggesting that allowing children to grow into themselves, to know themselves more intimately, creates an environment where academics can more readily be embraced. It’s a bit like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – you can’t reach the highest level (self-actualization) until all other needs, including the basics like food, shelter, and safety are met. The ability to function academically at a higher level can’t happen in a fluid, developmentally appropriate way until children have had a chance to meet their emotional and soulful needs. In other words, if a child isn’t secure in herself and being then she is not going to be secure enough to explore intellectually.
And often times, school does not allow children this chance to grow into their bodies and brains and use them in the ways they are meant. Children need to move and talk and touch, but these are all things they’re being asked to not do. They must sit, they must listen, and they must keep their hands to themselves and not touch anything unless explicitly told to do so. How counterintuitive to a child’s natural being? How can a child learn a new concept (especially if it’s already particularly advanced) if they’re not fully within themselves, never mind that they’re being asked to do it in a way that is counter to their natural inclinations.
When I think about our plans for this summer, when I think about what we’ve already begun this week, I find myself wishing it were something I could provide for my daughter and son year round. I wish it was something I could provide to any number of children I know, or could have given (or even give now) my own adult students. It is extremely frustrating to look at an entire system, see the potential for all the good that could be done, the desire that is within the many professionals who participate in it, and then see it all going in the totally wrong direction.
Mama’s Forest School is just one thing I can do to give my children positive learning experiences, to help them see that learning isn’t always sitting and listening and doing paperwork. I want to help create a place where they discover new things and process them in an organic way. I want them to build a connection with the environment, to feel as connected to it as they actually are. We’re already starting this journey with our time this week, and I cannot wait to dive in more deeply as they days get warmer and our time apart becomes less and less.