Hands on Nature

Submitted by admin on 28. May 2011 - 17:30
Grimeland, Gisle


Gisle Grimeland
Associate Professor
Telemark College
Department of Teacher Education
Lærerskoleveien 40, N-3670 Notodden. Norway

Paper presented at the Bahá'í Development and Environment Summit
Sidcot, UK, 15-18 August 1999

Are children wasting their time when they build huts in the trees and when they study insects?

In my opinion they are not. Unorganised activity and play are motivated by children's spontaneous and natural need for knowledge. This situation is characterised by informal learning - perhaps the most genuine way of experiential learning. Children will benefit from experiential learning when they build and develop new concepts.

Children's joy of exploration is coupled with the development of observation skills and experimentation. These are also the basic skills when children learn to read and write.

This reminds us of Helen Keller's experience at the water pump. Anne Sullivan, Helen's wise teacher, pumped water on to her hand. As she did so, she spelled out the letters w a t e r in Helen's other hand - again and again until Helen realised the connection between the water and the letters that made up the word water.

"Water and everything else in the world had a name - and each name gave birth to a new thought."

Let us remember Helen Keller's simple knowledge when we try to teach young students. Anne Sullivan's methods are relevant, in general not only for blind and deaf students. Experiences through the senses are the first steps to the understanding of words.

During this lecture I would like to focus on experiences which show a close connection between children exploring the natural environment and the visual and verbal expressions of their experiences.

When children build huts in the forest and find out about insects and other organisms, they gain happy experiences and many ideas which, as Helen Keller realised, give birth to new thoughts and new concepts which are for many children the best way to prevent reading and writing difficulties.

Nature and Children

Nature is light, soil, water and air - a system of different spheres, which permit life to exist in the biosphere. The biosphere is an extremely thin layer which includes the highest mountains and the deepest ocean trenches.

Man's existence on Earth depends on the same support for life as other organisms. We have the intelligence to understand our position in, and our power to influence on the lithosphere, the atmosphere and the biosphere. This makes the great paradox - Man being one of the youngest organisms on Earth, is able to change the environment to an extent that endangers the diversity of life, including us.

Our children's future depends on how far they understand Man's role in the biosphere.

Children are open-minded and curious when they feel secure and know their surroundings thoroughly. This secure place and situation make a reference area and a starting point for the children to explore more and become familiar with a larger environment. The healthy and secure child is instinctively able to conquer the world because it simply knows the way home.

This behaviour is typical when children play and explore natural surroundings. When they have found a place where they feel free from the influence of adults, they investigate details like trees and bushes, holes in the ground, rocks and trees for climbing, plants, insects and other living things.

Here are some of the barriers, which often inhibit science teaching, especially Outdoor science teaching:
- "I don't think my students are old enough to understand science."
- "I can't teach science because I don't have enough ideas."

The fact that very few teachers use the environment for natural science teaching has become a challenge to me - a challenge to make the barriers easier to cross.

My experience from years of biology teaching is that teacher-training students are more motivated, and more eager to learn biology when fieldwork is an important part of the course.

What about pupils in the primary school?

In order to find out I worked out a simple method for investigating insects and other small creatures in the immediate surroundings of the school in different 1st - 3rd grade classes.

These are the aims:

Short-term aim
1st step: To appreciate playing and being in nature
2nd step: To discover small creatures in the forest
3rd step: To realise that the animals play a role in nature

Long-term aim
4th step: To influence, and contribute, to a healthy environment
5th step: To become responsible for the future environment

- white sheet
- lens box
- insect pooter with spare hose
- box to keep the collected animals for a short while
- paper to make notes on

When all groups know where to work, the teacher demonstrates in front of everyone how to spread out the sheet, how to shake the twigs and how to use the equipment.

This is what happened.

The students went to the activity with eager attention. All the groups discovered several different creatures and managed to identify almost all of them. Most of the students recognised creatures like flies, ants, greenflies, beetles, snails and spiders. After having investigated one tree, some of the groups moved spontaneously to a new spot and continued the activity. Encouraged by their luck in finding creatures, some groups began to compare one tree to another. From coniferous trees different spiders drop, in addition to insects. From deciduous trees the children often found snails, ladybirds and lacewing larva hunting upon greenflies.

For most of the children it was a new experience to discover animals dropping down from the trees. The following text is Kristine's experience.

(To prevent any misunderstanding, I have to explain that when I am together with children I often eat one or two ants because this behaviour has a remarkable magnetic effect upon the children's attention.)

Fig. 2 Kristine's letter.

We found many greenflies. - It is the first time I have seen greenflies - thanks very much -I can't understand how you can eat ants - I know that some people like sour things - but I don't understand how ants can taste nice - it was fun being with you - and a pity that you left - kindest regards from Kristine.

I would like to underline the first sentences of Kristine's letter -We found many greenflies. - it is the first time I have seen greenflies - thanks very much.

Kristine is conscious of her very first time of discovering an aphid. She is less conscious of the fact that a lifelong process just began in her head - the process which leads to a new concept.

Kristine is in a similar situation to Helen Keller's at the water pump - she paid attention to, discovered and experienced a new object, which gave birth to new thoughts.

Fig. 3 Kristine's drawing.

Let's take a look at Kristine's drawing.

You find a smiling, secure girl involved in observing creatures dropping from a deciduous tree down onto her sheet. Kristine is lucky because some of the creatures are Greenflies, and this is the first time she has discovered such creatures.

This is the great moment, the teacher's opportunity to have an influence on Kristine's knowledge.

This is the opportunity to block out further studying by e.g. proposing the use of insecticide to get rid of these "awful greenflies".

But - it is also the opportunity to make the experience more meaningful and more inspiring for the children by e.g.
- Telling how the green leaf absorbs the energy from sunbeams and synthesises sugar from carbon dioxide and water
- about the greenflies which use their hollow mouth to drill tiny holes into the sieve tube and intercept the sugar laden sap
- about the food chain
- how the ladybird and lacewing larva hunt greenflies
- mutualism between ants and greenflies
- about the great tit which need hundreds of insects to feed ten young birds in its nest.

The trees and animals are all pieces in the green jigsaw puzzle - however how many pieces it has, each piece has its right place in order to complete the puzzle.

Hands on Nature

So then - Watching nature films through television and video is exciting and instructive. It depends on the quality of the film how much knowledge the children gain.

The film might be in touch with real life. All the same it could never replace true nature experiences where the children's own eye and spontaneous attention, not the camera lens, decide what they look at.

The senses are entry gates to explore objects, organisms and phenomena.

Grown-ups often notice what they can see and hear. But all senses give relevant information.

The sense of touch and the sense of movement give us the most concrete experience of locality while taste- and smell experiences leave chemical impressions for life.

In the natural environment there is endless possibilities to find material of educational value which can be investigated through the human senses.

When children work naturally they respond to the same starting point in different ways and soon become interested in different aspects. They are able to draw and write about their experience. Gradually they acquire the ability to make general statements or form concepts.

Insufficient experiences leave muddy concepts. When the children miss the starting point, there is nothing to respond to, no concept to be developed.

In my opinion there is a close connection between children exploring the natural environment and the visual and verbal expressions of their experiences.

There may also be a connection between lack of first hand experiences and reading difficulties because the key words are based on clear concepts.

With muddy concepts the children may be bad readers because they don't understand the key words.

Example: Try to read the quotation without key words.

"Take nothing but memories" This means Don't pick _____________ (they _______ fast anyway); never take _______________ or ___________; never collect _________ or ____________. Little harm is done by picking _______________, __________ or ___________ providing the quantities aren't excessive and no damage is done. Make sure you leave ______________ plenty of _____________ and other ___________ ___________ to provide __________ for next year's crop.

"Take nothing but memories" This means don't pick wild flowers (they wilt fast anyway); never take birds' eggs or nests; never collect butterflies or beetle. Little harm is done by picking blackberries or fungi providing the quantities aren't excessive and no damage is done. Make sure you leave nuts plenty of growing mushroom, and other edible, fungi to provide spores for next year's crop.

Remember Helen Keller's experience at the water pump. That was her starting point to develop the concept water - everything had a name and each name gave birth to a new thought.

As teachers we are responsible to bring the children in touch with nature - to bring them to the starting point to developing new concepts.

We are all responsible to conserve the diversity of nature to assure that the starting point is still there. Sometimes the starting point may be a greenfly.

" We found many greenflies. - it is the first time I have seen greenflies - thanks very much....."

Thank you for your attention!


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International Environment Forum - Updated 14 August 1999