Planting Edmonds is a monthly column written by and for local gardeners.
“Our challenge isn’t so much to teach children about the natural world, but to find ways to sustain the instinctive connections they already carry.” — Terry Krautwurst
One of my favorite moments of teaching nature-based education came in 2020. On a cold November evening at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, I was standing in the gathering darkness and could neither see nor hear a single student. All was quiet in the Garden. Perfect.
While losing your students in the dark woods might be terrifying, at this moment I was thrilled. I was playing flashlight tag with a group of young students, and this was the first time they all felt brave enough to run off into the darkness, hide, turn off their flashlights and wait to be found.
During those strange days of the pandemic, parents were clamoring for opportunities to get their kids outside, socialize with others, and learn beyond the digital walls of their Zoom classroom.
Our after-school nature clubs had no tests for learning comprehension, no pop quizzes about the names of plants and definitely no standard rubric on which they were graded. But in six weeks with these kids, I saw the students gain confidence in their abilities, test and develop their own theories and laws of nature, and forge a connection with the natural world.
I had a bug lover, a bird watcher, a fort builder, a make-believer, and a stump hopper. The students each focused on what they wanted to do in ways they found interesting and meaningful.
We’ve all heard it. We’ve probably even said it. “Kids these days just don’t get outside as much as they used to.”
In nearly a decade of working with people of all ages in nature-based education, I hear adults say some version of this refrain over and over. But it’s really about quality over quantity when it comes to nature-based learning. This quality comes from how we interact with nature, using our senses, our bodies and our emotions to create meaningful experiences and forge a lifelong connection.
After I had found each student on that chilly November night, we had our typical debrief so students could share what they experienced while hiding.
“I had such a good spot that you passed by me twice!”
“My dark coat helped me camouflage.”
“I pretended I was a deer and cupped my ears to hear better.”
“I could see better in the dark after my eyes got used to it.”
“I think I heard an animal.”
The exhilaration of running through the Garden at dusk, the restless patience of waiting, the genuine awe as an animal comes into view and the fascinated disgust of getting muddy — each experience intensely evoked a deep curiosity about everything. Even without a lesson or worksheet, the students were able to draw connections to what they already knew and apply them through playful exploration.
What I believe adults are really lamenting when they talk about the amount of time kids spend outside is something they rarely experience for themselves anymore – the sense of awe, excitement and deep connection to the natural world that comes so easily to children, no matter how many hours they spend in it.
As busy urban adults, we can train ourselves to recapture some of that sense of awe and curiosity by practicing mindfulness and observation in the outdoors. Paying close attention to the nature around us can be a powerful way to cultivate that awe and joy. Take a walk in your neighborhood and instead of obsessing about your daily worries, turn your focus to the amazing natural elements around you.
Nature-based education isn’t just about teaching about plants and animals, but rather it’s about nurturing the intrinsic connections we already have to these natural things. As adults, we can intentionally cultivate the excitement and curiosity that children naturally have when it comes to nature.
It’s pretty easy to find “awe” in natural surroundings living in Edmonds. First, you notice the macro – the stunning Olympics as a backdrop to the Kitsap Peninsula, with Puget Sound in front changing color every day, the shifting cloud formations worthy of an Andy Eccleshall painting.
Then you see the midrange – the tall trees, the seals lazing on the log in the water, the two blue herons that hang out by the jetty, the constant activity of water wildlife. You may fail to appreciate all the tree detritus that lands on your roof, but oh, our trees! They are magnificent.
The constant activity of our environment can stop you in your tracks, as something new blooms every day. The rabbits and ants are incessantly busy. The little bushtits flit around nervously in the understory as the crows overhead supervise it all.
The micro elements of our environment are happening just out of sight – a mushroom popping up in the soil reminds us of the incredible network of mycelium below the surface. The soil that produces so much abundance is alive with bacteria, worms, and actively decaying vegetation.
To rediscover a sense of awe, even in the middle of this urban habitat, take a step outside. Walk through your neighborhood and look for those small opportunities to find joy in nature. You may just discover something that makes you say “wow!”
— By Emma MacDonald
Emma MacDonald is a nature-based educator with deep roots in the PNW. With a background in wildlife biology, Emma is a HUGE nerd for all things weird in the woods from ferns to fungi, bugs to slugs. Most recently, Emma was the program manager for the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden Foundation, designing fun and educational programming for youth and adults. Emma brings her passion for teaching, excitement for the natural world, and terrible puns.