Learning from Nature

By January 11, 2019

What an amazing and rejuvenating experience to go trekking through the woods this week with Mr. DeFlorio and two groups of Oak Meadow students, from Lower Elementary and Upper Elementary. As you know, our school is incredibly fortunate to have the Cobb Woods Conservation Area (a nearly 80-acre reserve) located just footsteps from our campus. Throughout the year, our students have the extraordinary and enriching experience of being able to learn about the wonders and interconnectedness of nature and the outdoors, with two amazing naturalists and guides on our staff, Mr. D. and Mr. Poirier.

Lower Elementary students reach their destination after a long trek

Our Lower Elementary group, 1st through 3rd years, were at home in the woods, fearlessly trudging in their boots through the thick and wet undergrowth, uphill and downhill, through plants and around trees, expertly using their individual compasses to navigate a route to the destination pre-selected by Mr. DeFlorio. At one point, running into a stream, the students had to figure out how to get around the obstacle while staying on-course. Fortunately, one of the students found a wooden bridge upstream. The students visually selected a tree-stump on the opposite side of the stream, so they could cross on the bridge and immediately stay on course to their final destination. After about 30 minutes, the group reached their goal, with older children helping younger children along the journey.

The Upper Elementary group, 4th years through 5th years, had the more difficult assignment of breaking into pairs, with one person hiding a small object in the woods, and then providing their peer with the compass setting and distance in feet (five feet measured as every two footsteps) to see if the other student could correctly navigate the path to the hidden item.

Upper Elementary students digging into the curriculum before heading outside

The curriculum of the nature-based program is filled with experiences that teach our students about the outdoors, and just as importantly, fill our students with a deep respect for nature and an understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things. The curriculum includes following the seasons, understanding the magical rhythm of nature, Native American wisdom, forest and vernal pool ecology, interpreting animal tracks and sounds, seed viability testing, heirloom seed saving, harvesting food from our school gardens to prepare meals for the community, discussing alternative uses of objects found in nature, learning to read and create maps and use a compass, orienteering, and understanding one’s own place within the natural environment. With this kind of hands-on curriculum, it’s not surprising to find that nature is one of the favorite classes of Oak Meadow students.

Is the study of nature important in our modern and highly technological world? I asked Mr. D. about this during the outdoor exploration this week. He told me that all of us as human beings intrinsically have a deep connection to nature, and that we are able to actually extend our brain’s capacities when we allow ourselves to reconnect to the natural world.

Discovering a true compass bearing for life

Another well-known naturalist shared a similar sentiment. Here’s a quote from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau:

“In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.”

Thoreau and the Language of Trees, By author and photographer Richard Higgins, University of California Press, April 4, 2017