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Authentic Child-led Discovery in Nature Based Education

On a beautiful September morning where the sun has yet to reach the floor of the reforestation area on Agraria’s main campus, 4 young children and their parents meet.  Our first program since COVID-19 changed our social interactions brought eager anticipation from children, parents and educators alike.  While adults met and discussed the agenda for the day, the children were tasked with finding a hidden treasure among the maze of native trees and wildflowers.  New trees are marked with stakes and bright pink flags, neon and bright in the shade we still found ourselves in.  

The shell is found and marveled at, but one boy wanders away when something catches his eye.  Perched atop one of the flags was a mystery substance.  “Bumpy, brown, and melty” were words he used to describe this phenomenon.  He was fixated and called his sibling and new friends to join in wonder.  Adults, with their years of experience and ability to look around at the environment, knew right away what it likely was.  But!  Simply giving the name and moving on would rob this group of problem solving and critical thinking.  The Agraria staff posed “I wonder” statements, gathered tools for further discovery, and held space for the children as they puzzled.  

With no definitive answer, we moved on, enjoying our visit with chickens, the gardennand the forest.  We shared a story Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld about a unique friendship that forms-mirroring the friendships forming as the sun rises above our heads.  On our journey back up the path, the children discover a cache of osage oranges or hedge apples, the fruit of the Osage Orange tree.  Introduced to Ohio in the 1800s as a strong natural fence for hedge rows, these trees produce large rough surfaced and dramatic fruits that are neon green and a delight for children and squirrels alike.  We filled our arms with them and carried them back to our meetings spot.  

The children noticed that the rotting spot on one of them reminded them of their mystery from earlier that day.  We ran to the spot and sure enough-it matched!  Our eyes traveled upwards into the branches above and- Eureka! More bright ripe Osage Oranges weigh down the branches, just waiting for a strong wind or the inevitable march toward winter to pull them down.  

Today was an example of adults in the space walking the edges-like a coyote, helping children feel confident in their own knowledge and learning.  When we allow children space to create meaning on their own and provide an environment rich with possibility, they use their past knowledge to develop new understanding.  Studies show us what we intrinsically know, when children are able to use all of their senses their learning synthesised at a higher level than if the adult had just provided the knowledge.

Over time, thousands of these experiences culminate in an older child that is able to more deeply connect with complex and abstract concepts in any subject.  This is the heart of nature based education.  It is the heart of what we do at Agraria.

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