Most people expect a math teacher to have a protractor. Generally, number two pencils are par for the course, and there’s not much surprising about a ruler. But walking down the hall with 23 neon colored pool noodles? I definitely get some confused looks.
Part of my job as a math teacher is to connect math with other subjects. When the sixth grade works with earth science, in math we’re talking about the ratio of uranium and thorium in basalt. When seventh grade learns about mechanical advantage in their physics block, we’re rearranging mechanical advantage equations. I’m always looking for connections to other content areas, but when Ms. Simpson, the eighth grade main lesson teacher, announced the class play was going to be an adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth I didn’t see an immediate connection. This was probably due to my not having read the book.
So when Jade, one of the eighth grade students, announced to me that she was the dodecahedron, I was slightly confused. I’d imagined The Phantom Tollbooth as a type of film noir murder mystery, but I was obviously mistaken. I quickly borrowed a copy from Nori, another eighth grader, to take home and read over the weekend.
The next week, during our regular meeting, Mrs. Simpson and I brainstormed. The eighth grade students were about to do a unit on platonic solids; how could we incorporate the play’s dodecahedron into the unit? We decided that students would create a dodecahedron costume in math class.
Now, here is the point when I could wax poetic about the benefits of organized project planning, practicing working in groups, and visualizing 3-d shapes, but instead, I’m going to give you a few conversations.
Upon cutting the noodles to make the dodecahedron:
Student 1: “So wait, how many do we need to cut?”
Student 2: “We can figure that out – we know how many sides and everything”
. . . busy calculations . . .
Student 1 and 2: “There’s not going to be enough!”
Student 3: “What do you mean?”
Student 4: “Oh, man, look at the math! It’s not enough!”
Student 2 to me: “There’s not going to be enough for every side. We don’t have enough noodles”
. . . I deliberately look busy with something else, listening in case I need to step in. More students gather around, looking glumly at calculations . . .
Student 5: “Wait! It’s okay, because we don’t have to double every side”
Student 4: “What do you mean double every side?”
Student 5: “We have a separate pentagon for every face, but the sides connect and double up”
Student 4: “Yeah! Yeah! We could just connect the one in the back with the others!”
Problem solving? Check. Communication? Check. So let’s move on to visualization. After all, most people have a very solid picture in our head of a cube, but not so much a dodecahedron.
Upon installing the dowel rod “frame” to help our dodecahedron keep it’s shape:
Student 1: “Don’t we need another stick over here to help support the other side?”
Student 2: “No! There’s only one pointy bit!”
Student 1: “Wait, what? Why?
Student 2: “Because the faces are pentagons!”
Student 1: “Uuuugghhh!! Duh!”
Upon coming back from winter break and trying to complete a chart of all the platonic solids and their corresponding number of faces, vertices, and edges:
Ms V. : “So how many folks remembered the cube?”
. . . everyone raises their hand . . .
Ms. V.: “Why do you think that is?”
Student 1: “They’re everywhere!”
Ms. V. : “Absolutely! We have a great picture of them in our heads, and you all have used them in art, and seen them a lot. What about the dodecahedron?”
. . . some laughter and raised hands . . .
Ms. V.: “Why do you think that is?”
Student 2: “Because we made one!”
When I think about creating lessons, there are a lot of things to consider. Research about how many facts a student can hold in their working memory (generally 5-7), the key concepts I want my students to master, and how I’m going to get students interested enough to participate actively are just a few. The projects that go across the curriculum, that involve art, planning, organization, mathematical calculations, visualization, and communication grab everyone. They allow each student a chance to create something larger than what they could have accomplished on their own, and, especially in this case, contribute to an even larger project. This is what happens in experiential education: ownership in a deeper understanding of how and why something works.
So when you see me walking down the hall, you can rest assured I probably have a protractor, I will usually have a number two pencil, and I may also have neon colored pool noodles. But what I always have is a plan to create connections and involve students in exploring the many facets of math. Even if there are exactly 12 facets (with 20 vertices and 30 edges).
It’s 6:30 a.m. when I pick up a cheerful and eager Dr. Ghosh in Greenlake. I am a little unsure at first, but know that there’s a lot of excitement and encouragement around someone on the faculty attending the WAETAG Conference. WAETAG, which stands for Washington Association of Educators of the Talented and Gifted, puts on an annual conference with the goal of educating the educators – providing information through presentations and talks about how to meet the needs of gifted students in the classroom.
As we head down I-5 towards Tacoma, chatting about Dr. Ghosh’s background in working with gifted students, I wonder what I will learn at this conference. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to participate in a lot of professional development from workshops at Sunbridge Institute (a teacher education program for Waldorf methods), to attending the annual NWAIS (Northwest Association of Independent Schools) and General and Special Education Conferences. Each opportunity offers unique flavors of inspiration, practical ideas to implement in the classroom, and the sense of a greater community working towards the highest quality of education for students. What would I learn today? What could I bring back to my colleagues to help inspire and encourage them?
When we arrived, the WAETAG Conference was bustling. Teachers from districts across the state filled up on coffee and picked out their sessions. Dr. Ghosh and I looked through the books available and picked out some that we thought the faculty might be able to use. I chose the sessions I was interested in – mainly focused on math or practical application of methods, and headed to my first room while Dr. Ghosh went to present to the WAETAG board.
As I listened and took notes, I began to dream about my classes and what the most pertinent ideas of my experience had been. The following three made the top list.
1) Give Students Opportunities to Observe and Communicate: As a whole class, students can begin to practice looking at patterns. In my case, they’re looking at patterns in mathematics, but there are also patterns and choices in language, history, and science that are observable as well. If I show you that the absolute value of 2 is 2 and that the absolute value of negative 2 is also 2, do you have a guess as to what the absolute value of 8 is? What about negative 8? From that, can you find a definition? Providing students with truths and asking them to find patterns or other examples in their lives can allow everyone to participate at many different levels. Those students who are ready for a challenge might also be able to guess at what the absolute value of nine minus thirteen might be or what the absolute value of x might be. This idea also corresponds with the Waldorf idea of approaching a topic from whole to parts.
2) Think about the questions you will ask: Open-ended questions allow more opportunities for students to discuss, engage, and explain their thinking. Instead of asking a question like “what is .04 divided by .2” you can ask a question like why is .04 divided by .2 equal to 2? Many students will start with an explanation of how to perform the division process with a decimal, but you can continue to push students who are ready to go further to draw visuals and go deeper to look at the relationship between .2 and .04 and 2 and 4.
3) Group Flexibly: There are many different ways to think about grouping students. For some activities it’s helpful to have a range of abilities or mindsets, but it is important to also let students work in groups where they can interact with peers with similar interests and abilities. Thinking about when and how to group is an important part of making sure that all students get the support and encouragement to learn and grow.
By then end of the day, I felt energized and motivated to share what I had learned! Despite my earlier trepidation, it turned out to be a wonderful and engaging Saturday. My experiences at WAETAG informed my classroom practice and served as discussion points about meeting all of our students.
It’s through time and reflection that we gain a true understanding of how our past experiences have built, shaped, and molded our lives in some capacity. It is through new experiences and new opportunities that we see where our capabilities lie. Our Alumni Panel offered an evening that did just this.
We were fortunate enough to be joined by a diverse group of six wonderful alumni last Tuesday, October 28 for a night of reflection as well as a chance to hear about the success and opportunities that have been presented to them. Our amazing eighth grade teacher, Ms. Simpson, lead the panel members through a series of questions that engaged conversation on topics ranging from their favorite experiences at Bright Water School, to challenges in their public or private school high school experience, to homework, to their major takeaways from life at BWS.
The open panel allowed students, parents, and faculty to ask questions to our alumni as well. This open and honest conversation allowed both our middle school students and parents to hear firsthand how high school was for many our alumni. Our panel spoke about challenges they had with math or science, dealing with stress, and the fear of selecting a high school. Throughout the night it seemed clear that many of our students felt advanced in their ability to publicly speak, take on academic challenges, make new friends, and find confidence in themselves to try new things.
It was impressive to hear about the varied interests many of our alumni have ranging from the medical field, to a focus in theater and creative arts, as well as social justice and comedy. Many of our alumni spoke about what was truly unique to Waldorf education and the differences between themselves and their peers. Most of our alumni focused on the care and warmth their teachers here at BWS provided. How they were presented with opportunities such as circus arts, eurythmy, and a strong focus on arts and music. It is through the grit and hard work here that many of them learned their strong work ethic, their love of writing, and found and pursued their passions and dreams. Many students spoke about the “power of stories” and the teaching of both myths and fables as well as the world views on history and culture. Through the consistent practice of “group dynamics” our alumni learned leadership skills, how to operate in a group or team, and how to collaborate despite challenges they might face.
It was lovely to hear them reflect on their individual classes and speak about their favorite times here from the Olympiad, to field trips, to drawing and creating their own boarders for their main lesson books, to Movement classes in Volunteer Park. After having had time to reflect on their experiences here at Bright Water School, they discovered they were all truly grateful for the opportunities they were presented. It was that time, space, and distance that allowed them to recognize how Bright Water School had really shaped their views on the world, people, and learning.
Overall the night was extremely successful and we would like to extend a special thanks to everyone who joined us as well as the Parent Association, middle school teachers, alumni parents, and most of all our alumni participants for helping shape and create the night. We hope to continue to build and strengthen our alumni relations and provide more opportunity to hear what our wonderful alumni are working on.
It’s 4:00 p.m. and the jubilant crowd has surrounded my teammates and I like a circle of red fire. This is where the pumpkin meets the pavement, I think to myself. Who knows what could go tumbling when too-big scarecrows get suited up in the heat of a wheelbarrow relay. I anxiously watch Michael raise his shining blade to signal the start of the race and…
I’ve often found that the ways in which groups of people orient themselves in public spaces can affect the temperament and soul of the occasion. One attends a piece of live theater or a film where they themselves are choreographed – planted into slightly curved lines of seats, ones which are draped in darkness – and experience an evening of public solitude (as well as entertainment).
A group of individuals converging for a meeting or collaboration often inhabit the shape of a circle. I don’t think this is merely a perfunctory step carried out to accommodate for a smaller space. This kind of everyday, human architecture signals a willingness to engage with the whole as an individual, as a limb among limbs in a larger body.
Our faculty meetings are punctuated with a mood of congeniality and reflection, a spirit that’s buffered by the circle shape we consistently take. Everyone is visible; everyone is heard.
I did not necessarily anticipate this rounded way for Michaelmas Festival. Student plays and assemblies are typically seated, box-like affairs.
But the community continued to gather. Soon a center circle of Skinner Theater’s floor was fenced with a second circle – that of Bright Water School’s students, faculty, parents, and other friends. We watched the second and third graders dance and sing about, teasing out the flames of the Dragon that St. Michael was poised to confront with courage and sword. The sixth graders came swirling through as the Dragon itself, that ethereal green and gold monster. There stood Michael, brave. And finally the Bright Water community, each person equidistant from the struggle and triumph. I believe the circle helped wrap one another into the moment, and wrap the play up in itself more fully as well.
…In the aftermath of the race, I could only laugh. The eighth graders proved victorious over myself, Ms. Robin, and Ms. Holli (both from the Woodland Kindergarten class). Loose hats fell; wheelbarrows toppled; pumpkins went rolling on out too – this WAS where the pumpkin would meet the pavement, after all.
My first Michaelmas was memorable: the sloppy relay race, the dragon slain, delicious apple spirals, and the shape of the Circle. Somehow I attended both Sugar Plum Faire and May Faire before partaking in Michaelmas. It was fitting though, in a sense: had I attended Michaelmas straight away after joining BWS, I don’t think I would have recognized nor appreciated the significance of the circle when it comes to community gathering. We must gather up strength within ourselves for the coming winter months, but that experience can be shared; fortitude, multiplied.
Originally published June 25, 2006 in the Tacoma News Tribune
As children throughout South Puget Sound eagerly embrace their summer activities, the sophistication inherent in the world of play can be easily overlooked. The importance of play in our daily lives cannot be over-emphasized.
Bertrand Russell said, “To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization.” Imagine the joy a squirmy child feels when he gets out to try the new jungle gym. What about a highly social child who longs for the opportunity to organize other children for a game of tag or football?
When you want to see what children are really interested in, watch what they do when they have nothing to do. For children, play is always purposeful. It is up to us as adults to unearth the special significance of the playful act. The child may be trying on a role for the future.
In this age of accountability and emphasis on achievement, it is easy to count time on task as the real teaching time; yet it is the incubation time play affords that is essential to creative thinking, the preservation of joy, and the creation of a balanced life.
People who play are prone to live healthier lives, a fact that becomes more critical as life expectancy grows. Playful people are also more likely to have their lives consist of many interesting parts.
The old adage that the family that plays together stays together still has strong social implications for a world that continues to pressure our youth to plan every moment. The clamor for good test scores has caused us as a nation to diminish the value of play and free time for our children.
Increasing pressures to achieve and meet preset standards cause educators to mistakenly squeeze out precious time essential for the healthy growth of the spirit of our youth. We all need to look at our children’s schedules to be sure our students really have the kind of “open time” they cherish.
Why is play so important in the lives of children and adults? James L. Hymes, child developmental psychologist, says, “Play is thinking time for young children. It is language time, problem-solving time. It is memory time, planning time, investigating time.”
Notice the skip in a child’s step as the bell for recess rings. Play is a time for children to try out new skills in their physical, social and kinesthetic world. Play is a chance to learn the lessons of fairness and the resolution of conflict that children need to learn on their own. It is their chance to exercise initiative away from adult direction.
Will children do better on tests simply by spending more time in the classroom? Any good teacher will tell you sufficient breaks are necessary for children to extract meaning from classroom teaching. Open time allows children to build some context and to have the time to raise questions.
In fact, physicist Fritjof Capra says, “During these periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight.”
Play is essential time for children to share their thoughts with each other and to have opportunities for the full range of human emotion. Play time does not require ready answers. Ambiguity, uncertainty and unfinished business are part of the package of play. Perhaps planted during these precious times are the seeds of new thinking and new possibility, with no report card required.
There is a proven way to release tension before returning with renewed vigor to the challenges of our daily lives, and that way is through play. We do not acquire the skill of play as adults, or even as adolescents, but as young children. The way we learn to play at an early age has a huge impact on how we play – or if we play – as adults.
Churchill famously remarked, “Wars are won on the playing fields of Eton.” The amount of time we set aside for our young people to play is important. The quality of their futures and those of the people whose lives they touch may depend more than we realize on the skills they develop this summer through their own initiative on the playgrounds of Tacoma.
By Cameron LaFlam, Communications Coordinator
Novelty comes as no surprise when an event is utterly new for the participant. The first swim of summer in the salty ocean; putting pedal to metal and driveway to highway; buying and loving a pet of one’s own, whether dog, cat, fish, ferret, or bird. Over time though, the amplification of experiences like these can diminish: the flattening of feeling through repetition and expectation. This tapering intensity is rejuvenated in periods of newness – and through the conscious effort to engage with superficially similar moments as full-bodied experiences, not shadows of memory. Not referential but substantial. This effort becomes easier when the event is seminal and novel to an overwhelming degree…such as, say, May Faire!
Who knew delicate floral wreaths could double as head-wear? (Well, I didn’t anyway!) Although I missed the initial crown making festivities, I was gifted one from Carolyn McRae of the Woodland Kindergarten. How could I pass up on a menagerie of purples and pinks to dapple my head?
Photographic evidence confirms the crown’s material reality. Flora McEachern of the Dragonflies Preschool donned hers with stylish ease. Rocking a band of flowers around my noggin: a May Faire first.
2. Maypole Dances and Weaving
Although I’d seen a maypole from afar a couple of times, I hadn’t yet experienced a true maypole dance. Check that off the list! Grades one through eight performed surprisingly self-assured choreographed numbers with the guidance of Mrs. McCall and the musical accompaniment of Mr. Burns on accordion (and other musicians as well).
There were Balkan dances, dances with sticks, dances with swords, jumping dances…eight well-rehearsed movements in all. Of course, the fourth grade had the privilege of weaving the pole. The bending blend of ribbon colors, in and out and in out around the center, was mesmerizing. Sun rays and rain competed for front row seats. Thankfully, the sun won out and we were treated to a (mostly) dry celebration.
I appreciated the joy and effort worn so candidly on the students’ faces. A deserved kind of self-satisfaction arrives as the result of performing well after a lot of practice and hard work. The maypole dances were indicative of this reaction. I felt happy just to be a part of the outer circle – snapping pictures and admiring the fusion of movement and tradition.
3. A complete community gathering
No, this is not the first time I’ve been a part of group, as it were! But May Faire was my first May Faire – with Bright Water School or any other. As I approach my one year mark as a staff member, my experiences lend me the opportunity to reflect on the rhythm of the school year.
Sugar Plum Faire was the high water mark for school events in winter time. I heard choir-singing, ate cookies (the miraculous Enchanted Cookie Forest), and witnessed the craft-making of soaps, felts, and candles. Although the kids were boisterous and the joy palpable, Sugar Plum Faire lacked the open-aired vitality of May Faire. That’s no discredit to the former; it is a veritable tradition that summons a fuzzy holiday glow. But everyone was off at different stations scattered throughout the inside of the school. With May Faire, the community was outside and – at least during the hour-long procession of maypole dances – we were united in a solid circle to watch, clap, and cheer.
We were whooping for the well-timed sequences of step and music note, sure; standing on the precipice of summer in the outdoors alongside parents, students, and faculty is an energizing feeling. Spring is a full house of great green growth. At May Faire, we celebrate the connections between us, as well as the connection we have to the four seasons. And within those deep folds of season are many shades. The Waldorf curriculum is deliberately connected to the natural progression of fall / winter / spring / summer / fall…
May Faire is a culmination of what we’ve done, then, while also signaling the path ahead: a world draped in long-lighted days until we whirl around the circle again to autumn.
By Cameron LaFlam, Communications Coordinator
It’s a Friday afternoon at Bright Water School. The sky is blaring blue after a morning of hard rain and grey, bloated clouds. A number of sixth graders have coalesced beneath a narrow, long-leafed tree. Two third grade students are entranced by a square of garden patch. Others are wrapped up in ball games. I’m peering from the inside looking out, quietly admiring the children’s effortless outdoor engagement.
Their enthusiasm rides high even in a limited playground environment. As an urban school, it is exceptionally difficult to possess an abundance of green space. You work with what you’ve got. Thankfully, gratefully, Volunteer Park is only a couple of blocks from the school. Its sprawl of sloping hills, trails and trees, squirrels, owls, and sculpted grass facilitates many of their walks, explorations, sports, and activities. The school’s walls are not the threshold of their education; learning continues out in nature, out in the daily living that is fruitful and green.
These observations turn over in my mind as I read a blog article from Richard Louv titled, “The Right to a Walk in the Woods: Children’s connection to the natural world should be considered a human right.” The right to connect with the world around us: is it truly a right? Should we treat it as such for our children when it comes to education?
In the article, Mr. Louv echoes some of the dissenting opinions he received from people on the subject. They include 1) We as humans don’t have the right to connect with nature because we have abused this privilege by destroying precious lands and draining resources at an unprecedented rate; 2) When hundreds of millions of children (and adults, for that matter) are suffering from staggering levels of poverty, prioritizing the child-to-nature relationship seems insensitive and unproductive; 3) Increasingly, people claim a ‘right’ to many goods, services, and places – who is to say we are entitled to a close relationship with the natural world?
These perspectives are not without merit. I would argue that we are not entitled to a strong connection to nature; we have abused and neglected many aspects of the planet, some beyond repair. And yet individuals experience nature immersion on a daily basis. The connection is rooted in humility and gratitude rather than entitlement. Not for everybody, perhaps. It is largely the way Richard Louv envisions our experiences with nature though. The students at Bright Water School, for instance, seem newly thrilled each time they set out into the park. I try and remind myself often that being in nature is something to cherish and share; it’s not something to hoard and covet.
In September 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature passed a resolution that affirms
“the child’s inherent right to connect with nature in a meaningful way, as a substantial part of his or her everyday life and healthy development, and to enjoy, maintain, and strengthen this connection through the direct and ongoing experience of nature…”
This resolution, while not codified into international law in a substantial way yet, nevertheless represents a multilateral commitment to the relationship between youth and nature.
I believe the curriculum at Bright Water School acknowledges and embodies this “inherent right to connect with nature.” The children, from early childhood education and up, are able to play and question in their natural surroundings. A curiosity emerges, blooms, and deepens. First they are friends of nature; then they are students of nature; finally children grow up and become stewards and advocates. Stewardship is the likely result of someone who connected with nature early and often in their life. They understand its value and why its preservation is significant. Why would someone dedicate their time, energy, or expertise to nature as an adult if they didn’t have positive experiences associated with it?
The next step is for the United Nations Human Rights Council to incorporate a similar resolution in their Convention on the Rights of the Child. This year is the 25th anniversary of the CRC’s conception. UNICEF announced that 2014 is the “Year of Innovation for Equity – to focus the world’s attention on showcasing and developing innovative solutions for children’s well-being.” Many children face tremendously complex, difficult problems in today’s world – malnutrition, disease, clean water access, education opportunities, poverty – and therefore solving these problems requires different sets of solutions from a wide gamut of stakeholders. Issues are not ultimatums or mutually exclusive groupings. Why not develop innovate solutions for connecting children with nature? Their well-being lies at the heart of this subject. The U.N. issued a report as recently 2011 that they now recognize internet access as a human right. Why not nature access too?
In a recent piece featured on The Atlantic called “The Mind Does Not Belong in a Cubicle,” the author quotes the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson on nature. Laura Smith writes that, “E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist who studies biophilia, said our inherent appreciation and longing for natural environments, explains that “beauty is our word for the qualities that have contributed most to human survival.” Waterfalls signify an abundant source of life, flowers signify bountiful land. We are wired to crave the natural world.” This desire for nature’s proximity, then, should not be unnecessarily stymied. For children, outdoor immersion should be an integral part of their development. For adults, opportunities must be created and pursued to keep nature within arm’s length. This could mean cultivating a particular lifestyle suited for outdoor time, seeking an environmental-centric career, or utilizing one’s resources and social connections to advocate for nature-based causes.
Asserting access to nature as a human right underscores its immense value: we must care and protect it if we are to enjoy its manifold variations in landscape, weather, color, scent, sound, and life forms. Otherwise, what right do we have to it at all?
One fine spring day, so the legend in Mrs. Jordan’s class goes, a tiny hamster, cape on his back and sword at his side, was found on the steps of Bright Water School. The class was in first grade then and without a class pet of their own despite a preponderance of chinchillas throughout the school. I took the hamster, Mr. Tiny, as my office companion and Mrs. Jordan’s class helped me look after him.
Mr. Tiny was a regular visitor to Mrs. Jordan’s class in their second grade year. He accompanied me to the classroom twice a week for story time. His favorite books to hear were the stories of Humphrey, a fictitious classroom hamster.
Mr. Tiny passed on in September of Mrs. Jordan’s third grade year. He lay in state for the afternoon and then the students and I held a memorial service and buried Mr. Tiny in the front garden of the school, nearby the third grade room. After a suitable period of mourning, I filled the blank space on my bookshelf with another hamster, the insatiably active Mrs. Busy.
Mrs. Jordan’s class continued to care for Mrs. Busy throughout third grade and into fourth. She summered away from the heat and emptiness of the school and came back refreshed and ready for grade four. But in March, she became easy to catch when students came to clean her cage and feed her some treats. We knew from watching Mr. Tiny grow old that the end was probably near for our dear friend. Last Friday, when a student came down to take care of Mrs. Busy, she was too distressed to have her cage cleaned. At around 4 pm, Mrs. Busy passed on.
Yesterday morning I found a book of condolences in my office mailbox. I’m sharing just some of the students’ sentiments here. This morning I went up to thank them and to talk about Mrs. Busy and how quiet it is in my office now. They all wanted to know if there would be a new hamster for them to take care of, and some students had even thought of names.
Take a look at some of the fourth graders’ heartwarming messages here.
Humans love to identify patterns. It’s a great survival tool if you are able to recognize a pattern of animal behavior just before a predator arrives, or when a particular cloud pattern indicates storm. We need to recognize patterns to feel secure, to ascribe meaning to events, to attempt to predict outcomes or future events. So it’s no surprise that most of us would take a piece of chaos theory–the Butterfly Effect–and turn it around into a cause and effect example rather than its true role as an example of randomness. The Butterfly Effect is about unpredictability: we typically have a limited amount of information at any given time and therefore predictability of cause and effect is limited beyond a certain point. An accessible example of this is how difficult it is to predict the weather accurately beyond a certain point in time. However, many people interpret the Butterfly Effect to mean that even the smallest cause can create an effect. While this is true, finding a linear path that can trace that effect is what we can’t predict or measure.
What does this have to do with Hiromi Sensei? I immediately thought of her when my family offered to host two high school exchange students from Japan. My sophomore son, in third year Japanese, no doubt continued his language studies as a result of Hiromi’s work with him. When our visiting students arrived, I created a nice, linear path in my mind through Hiromi’s teaching, my son’s learning, on to the visiting students, and their return trip to Japan. One person, Hiromi Sensei, making a difference, influencing the world through teaching language.
It’s true that my family’s experience with Hiromi and the Japanese language may have influenced our decision to host students. That is part of the finite information that I began this venture with. The rest of it–the boys’ interaction with American high school students, their actions upon their return to Japan, and all of those ripples–are not predictable. The actions and outcomes are infinite, and that is probably the most beautiful thing about this Butterfly Effect. We have no way of knowing the many wonderful things that will unfold for our family or for our visiting students, Taka and Hibiki. We do know that we were enriched and enlivened by the experience, and truly touched at sharing time together. We were happy to be a part of such a big event in their lives, and we know they’ll remember us and the time they spent here.
By Cameron LaFlam, Communications Coordinator
Snow swam downstream from the cloud-dense sky, its river of fluff and dust blanketing the dark-lit grass as we entered the park. Just a few hours prior the day was still and bright; now the night was swirling and white.
Finn, our Border collie and scout, pursued the path as we walked behind. Occasionally tossing lumps of snow for him to play fetch with, they quickly disintegrated in his mouth or on his face. Soon, without consensus or plan, snowballs flew helter-skelter among the group too.
We laughed and jumped and slid along midnight’s glowing stage of snow and trees. Miraculously, the city’s light pollution proved to be a boon: my friends and I existed in a surreal space of all-seeing darkness. Were we dreaming? Most of the neighborhood was asleep – and yet in the silence, voices of light screamed off the Arboretum’s shadowy surfaces. As suddenly as the pulse of the snowball ‘fight’ had begun, its energy ebbed and we continued onward.
This spontaneous process repeated itself several times: snow-trail exploration, talking, a shook branch or two to rain down powder, and – POW – a fresh snowball to the gut. Eventually, we receded into our warm house, shielded from the elements. But we’d brought back an indomitable piece of the outdoors with us: the experience of nature-play.
I describe this experience because it is a recent, visceral example of how time spent in nature can facilitate spontaneity, wonder, and camaraderie. Having attended Richard Louv’s lecture at Town Hall a couple of weeks back, these ideas have been top of mind.
Richard Louv is famous for writing the 2005 best-seller “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” More broadly, he is a journalist and advocate for nature education, conservation, and research, and is one who deeply explores the relationship between children and the natural world.
During his talk, he stressed the importance of unstructured play for children. He differentiates this kind of play from things like sports teams and dance lessons. Although the latter activities are excellent outlets for exercise and teamwork, the presence of adults, rules, and an overall structure preclude it from being ‘unstructured play.’ Unstructured play is what occurred when my friends, dog, and I took to playing in the snow with no care for time limits or rules.
Nature is the ideal domain for unstructured play. It is a landscape of treasures and wonder ready to be explored by children. Young ones’ imaginations are magically vivid; a patch of woods transforms into an explorer’s discovery, a meadow becomes a sprawling desert with camels and cactuses. There are no limits to how children’s creativity can meld with the natural world. Mr. Louv speaks to this creative freedom – and the ‘hybrid mind’ concept – which underscores experiences that legitimately utilize all the senses. To touch, taste, hear, see, and smell your environment!
In contrast to the hybrid mind is the inert mind. He illustrated a disconcerting example of the inert mind, one which I can relate to from time to time. When one sits for a long, uninterrupted period in front of a computer or television screen, the brain begins to block out other stimuli. The body is already inert, frozen as it is in its chair. The mind follows suit, forming a tractor beam-like tunnel vision for the screen. According to Mr. Louv’s view, one becomes “literally less alive when inert in front of a screen” for an extended period of time.
It is the vitality of nature-play, then, which must be cultivated and protected. Not only for exercise and free-play, not only for full sensory engagement, but also for the overall social, emotional, and physical health & development it promotes in youth. Furthermore, engaging with nature on a regular basis from a young age is a strong indicator for whether individuals will invest energy, resources, and basic stewardship for nature in adulthood.
Richard Louv couched his emphatic insights and stories in the limitations of existing research, though. The pool of current studies one can refer to, to demonstrate the positive indicators between children and nature, have only surfaced over the last 5-10 years. It is correlative research; longitudinal studies of 15, 20, or 30 years are simply not available. Researchers and scientists didn’t think to study children and nature then; or they did and it did not seem a worthwhile pursuit. “More is coming,” Louv assured the audience. Powerfully, he said even with the limited research, “it is enough to ACT.”
I think about my childhood, how lucky and grateful I was to have had an acre or so of woodsy land to explore, as well as additional forest acreage beyond my fence. I freely explored with my friends, siblings, and dog; I pretended to be animals, explorers, wizards, dragons. The sense of being a part of that world – rather than apart from that world – is something I carry from that time of early youth.
My household had dial-up internet until I was 15 years old. I did not own a cell phone until I was 16 years old. Though I absolutely indulged in television shows and video games, the high-speed internet & mobile device culture did not exist then. The speed, fluidity, and ubiquitous presence of technology in people’s lives have climbed a rung or two on the cultural ladder in the last 15 years. That being said, I’m no Luddite. I am generally competent with and interested in technological advancements. I am 25 years old and find it awe-inspiring to have ‘grown up’ with the Internet in a sense. As our culture’s dependence on technology increases though, so too must our strength of will to maintain balance between the virtual and the actual.
Richard Louv agrees. He says that people often get “lonely, disconnected, apathetic, and lose touch with their body” when they devote too much time and concern to the virtual. The actual – that is, the real and concrete world – “can reinvigorate place and purpose. Experiencing the presence of animals, plants, trees, trails, mountains, streams, flowers, scents, and sounds provides an ineffable sense of connection to the wider world.” Spending time in nature is a potent reminder that we really belong to something greater beyond ‘ourselves.’ That we ourselves are more than just an isolated, solitary ‘self.’
Provide children with the opportunity for unrestricted nature-play and a vitality and appreciation will develop. This is what Mr. Louv hopes for. He hopes for it to improve children’s lives in the present day, but also so that we may collectively create a future that we and the world deserve. One that stands in brave indignation and contrasts with the future images that are so popular: dystopian societies, post-apocalyptic earth, chaos and urban overflow. These images deserve to exist in their own right for the sake of art, expression, and entertainment.
But what if an alternate set of images concerning the future became just as popular and enduring?
One in which our connection to nature is closer to the center of living, rather than permanently thrown out of orbit. According to Mr. Louv, if we truly desire this future, we must creatively envision it now – and work towards it child by child and adult by adult.
If you are interested in this topic, visit Richard Louv’s Children & Nature Network for access to research, stories, events, advocacy efforts, and grassroots campaign opportunities.