When I was growing up we moved around BC a lot, from Nelson to the Sunshine Coast, to Victoria and back to Nelson. Although the location, the houses and the friendships changed, most of my childhood memories hold one thing in common: a connection to the natural world. The beach and the forest in particular were my playgrounds. I gathered berries and wild asparagus, discovered animal tracks and marveled at mushrooms, unfurling ferns and banana slugs. I climbed trees and built bridges over rushing water to cross creeks. The relationship that I had with this part of my environment was important to me, even from a very young age. However, as I grew older I began to forget about this relationship. New friends, boys, getting a car, getting an education, building a family… as I grew older my focus changed and although I still appreciated and respected the natural world, I wasn’t as sure of its place in my life as I once had.
When I became a teacher I felt an even further disconnect from this part of myself as my focus shifted to my students, their parents, learning outcomes, learning intentions, report cards, colleagues, classroom, practice. I learned about teaching and learning from exceptional teachers who inspired and awakened in me a passion for deeper thinking and learning. I decorated my classroom as I had seen them do, with cute borders on my bulletin boards and posters encouraging children to be the best they can be. I gathered play materials and books, often based on what I could find that I thought was a good deal or that I saw in other classrooms and thought I ‘should’ have in my own.
After about 5 years of teaching, I had a bright and cheerful classroom bustling with energy, filled with children learning, and lots and lots and lots of stuff. At that point I began to feel more confident in my teaching and my passion for learning and taking things deeper led me to a graduate field study diploma program. Early in this program I had to choose a focus. I began looking at shifting my students’ thinking about their writing from being focused on conventions to content (important, but also something I had spent a lot of time over the previous 5 years focusing on), and then I attended a conference on full day K. At this conference the key note and many of the workshop presenters spoke about self-regulation, its importance and connection to our students’ ability to learn, and the way that the environment, and specifically our classroom environments, affects this. As I was listening, I made a lot personal connections to my childhood, my students and my own children, resulting in a reflection on my classroom environment. Around the same time I picked up the book Learning Together with Young Children by Curtis and Carter (2007), a book that again talked about taking learning deeper and the importance of the classroom environment in supporting and facilitating this. All these ideas I was hearing made so much sense to me, and I began to think about the classroom environment in a new way.
The focus I had chosen for my graduate program changed and I decided to look at the environment as third teacher, and bringing more natural, open-ended materials into my classroom. I began to get excited because these ideas made so much sense and in so many ways felt like they fit with me, that part of me that had been somewhat forgotten, that connection to the natural world. I realized that all the borders and posters and brightly coloured bulletin board paper up in my room was there because I had thought it was what I was supposed to do, as opposed to a reflection of my beliefs about what is important for children and their learning.
I purged a lot of the stuff from my classroom, stripped the walls, and began to collect materials with an entirely different focus in mind. I sought out neutral colors and natural materials whenever possible for containers and toys, and naturally open-ended sticks, rocks, shells, etc for play, art and work in the classroom. I looked for things that were open-ended rather than single purpose; wood, wool, silk or rock rather than plastic, and beautiful rather than cute. I wanted the students in my class to have opportunities to create, problem solve, develop a sense of place and a connection to nature. I wanted my classroom to be a place of calm, interest, curiosity, creativity, thoughtfulness, rather than a place with the potential to overwhelm, or where any child may feel the need to shout, push or shove (metaphorically) to have their ideas or identity be heard over the noise in the classroom environment.
From early childhood I have been inspired and intrigued by the beauty and mystery of the natural world and to now incorporate this into my classroom has created a shift in my thinking that has led to what could perhaps be called a revolution in my entire practice as a teacher. I am excited by these changes, by their potential, and by the fact that in many ways I feel like I am coming home.