Tag Archives: Outdoor education

Freedom Tethered by Relationship

One of The Rose Garden parents sent me this photo yesterday.  The exquisite beauty of the young child’s connection to nature is so evident:  these brothers are free and at-large in the woods….living a life larger than the confines of their small bodies.  They are as large as their own imaginations, at home in the forest.  I am reminded of something I wrote years ago, as I prepared to write Heaven on Earth:


“I have found in my many years of teaching young children, and in my years as a mother of young boys, that most children are happiest at play outdoors. Young children are close to the realm of nature because they are still very natural beings. Because their consciousness is not yet separated from the environment, because they still live in the consciousness of oneness, of unity, they belong still to the natural world. In time they will belong to themselves, as the process of individuation becomes complete. But for about the first seven years, they are still at one with the world they inhabit. The process of separating from the parents and from the environment buds only around age seven. Before that, the child is moved along by life, something like the way a tree’s leaves dance in the breeze. The young child responds to the environment in a very unself-conscious way, a very natural way, and the open, complex, and diverse environment of the outdoors gives him that opportunity. If, in his excitement at a butterfly, he needs to dance and pirouette dizzyingly around the garden, no one has to say, “Be careful of the table.” If he needs to shout for glee or weep for sorrow, he is free.”


Through play in the natural world, we give our child the gift of freedom, tethered by and rooted in a deep visceral relationship.   Is that not the fundamental balance humanity strives for?   Such joy!


Mixed-age, Play-based learning: Ancient and Modern

A few years ago, I noticed a dramatic shift in the needs of parents. No longer was I receiving calls primarily from parents of three, four and five year olds, rather, I had as many calls from parents of two year olds. Many years before, at the Waldorf School I had witnessed a similar shift. Parental needs for good, wholesome, creative education of their children at that time, shifted from four and five year olds, to include threes, as well. The world and our lives are changing dramatically, and the needs of families reflect this.

So, a few years ago, with very careful selection, The Rose Garden began to accept children as young as two and a half. What were the benchmarks of “readiness” I looked for in such a young child? There is a time in the life of a toddler and new-two year old, in which the child is the king or queen of the Universe. Just watch how the parents and older siblings, the grandparents, and actually, every adult jumps to run along after the newly-mobile explorer! This is the time when the learning for the child is most efficiently conducted one-on-one with the parents, the other siblings, their primary care-taker. This child has not yet crossed the threshold, and moved from their position of royalty into the realm of simply being “part of the club.” At a certain point, though, the child’s matrix of concentration changes, and they can look further than their one-on-one contact, and wonder about a larger paradigm. The child becomes ready to learn from their playmates at school, to learn as part of the group.

It is a delicate balance, to ascertain when this moment occurs, in each child’s developmental arc. With faith in intuition, both the parents’ and mine, and with help from our twin muses… this enchanted forest and the little stream.…we began. It has been an amazing growth process! Rebecca and I looked at one another in astonished amazement that first year; the innate intelligence of these babies! We were in awe of their curiosity and willingness to join the older Rose Garden children in every aspect of the day, from baking bread to something as developmentally complex as Circle Time with all its focus on language, motor, spatial, imaginary, and social skills! What a confirmation of ours and their parents’ intuition!

In Sept, The American Journal of Play published research studying the kind of learning that takes place in mixed-age play situations. The research examined this kind of play-based learning, from cultures across the globe. Most striking to the researchers was the fact that this type of learning, based on humanity’s long evolution of tutoring (knowledge being passed on within the family unit nested within the village unit) is quickly vanishing in our time. Children are being separated into age-same groups, and playful learning is disregarded as inferior. Yet their research showed, whether in an African village, or a mixed-age, play-based program here in the US, younger children are capable of accomplishing skills, when in the presence of their older playmates, which  they are not capable of  in age-same groups!

This school year, we reap the harvest of our decision to open our doors, our minds and our hearts to such young children. These children, our “babies” of a few years ago, either are already five or will become five years old this school year. Today they walk into school confident, capable, intelligent, empathic,  curious and kind. Older children turn instinctively to their younger friends, helping, instructing, modeling, mentoring. They are being trained, in the traditional way, to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Science on the Playground

“How does the world work, and how do I fit into it?” This is the daily, living question of the young child. We can allow plenty of time and plenty of space for our children to wonder, to explore, to experiment, to keep trying, to learn. And isn’t much of learning discovering the right questions to ask? In this way, the questions remain alive; the “answers” are part of an on-going process. When we allow this hands-on exploratory learning, and do not limit  the questions or answers with our linear adult concepts, the children learn in the same way Mother Nature herself learns: through scaffolding, or “serial functional progression.” The answers become a platform for the next set of really interesting questions. Our children experience themselves as avid students of life.

In these photos we see the Universe hard at work: How many stumps, boards, bricks and pine cones does it take to make the see-saw go down and the children go up? How do “up and down” operate, and what is the relationship between stumps, elbow grease and results? And what might be the relationship between the big black bugs and the small brown one (in the blue bowl)?  When we learn to live the questions, life is rich!

The Rich Abundance of Simplicity

It had rained in the night, and the playground was wet yesterday morning.  I had kept bags of raked leaves from the fall, for this exact sort of moment.  I emptied a bag, so the children and I could rake a path of leaves from the gate to the door.  When I emptied  the other bags of sweet and fragrant leaves to be spread into their play-space, the children greeted this addition like I had given them mounds of gold!  They rushed for the rakes; they worked and played, laughing and jumping, raking and tumbling until they dropped, exhausted and giggly in Rebecca’s and my arms! 

Indoors today, a royal gathering was held.  Kings and Queens gathered to plan the affairs of state, and to share a banquet feast.

When we adults can give ourselves so fully to the joy of the moment, we will have become rich in our simplicity!

The Lantern Walk is Coming!

Autumn is a time to turn around and survey the work of the year.  A time to assess what has developed, before we make plans for what is to come.  In doing this, I looked back to my first post on this blog, and here is what I found.  At the exact moment we begin preparing for the Lantern Walk this year!

“All week long the children had been watching Rebecca and me make paper lanterns of their watercolor paintings, folding and cutting the stars so perfectly, gluing and stapling, attaching the wire handles, filling each one with a candle. Such anticipation….the Lantern Walk!

Finally in the gathering dark, each little lantern was lit, their cut out stars shone bravely and the warmth of their red and gold glow gave us good cheer as we walked the woodland path. Rustling through the fallen leaves, singing through the woods, happily we trudged up and ever up the forested hillside. Round we looped, until at my long driveway’s end, the children had a thrill: if their parents agreed, they might hand the lantern to the adult, then run like the wind through the dark, all the way to the playground gate!

Like the children, we can work, in our adult life, to create a sturdy container, then carry our light into a dark world. We can follow the thread laid out by our own heart, illumined by the heart’s light, regardless of the twisting path or depth of darkness. In the end, we run on light feet, we run toward Home! This is an image to live with, to give our children, an image to begin a new journey together.”

Anything Can Be Anything!

Here is a quote from Heaven on Earth’s chapter about creative play:

In thinking of the young child’s free creative play materials, a fitting motto we can keep in mind is, “Anything can be anything.” But what does that mean? Children need play materials that are open-ended enough to meet new needs each day, to fill the demands of their imagination. A toy needs to be “unformed” enough to be reasonably used as many things, in many circumstances. For instance, a red fire truck, with a remote control, will always be destined to be just that. But a simple, open-bed wooden truck can be a fire truck, a farm vehicle, a bus, a lumber wagon, or even a truck that floats on water! Or, better yet, an open basket can be a bed, a suitcase, a grocery bag, a hat, or, when turned upside down, a mountain, a prison, a cave, a hiding place ?.?.?. anything can be anything!

Yesterday on The Rose Garden playground we were surprised and delighted by this principle in-action.  Sitting on the tree stumps was a small group of musicians, busy singing, tapping their feet and strumming banjos, mandolins and guitars.  In the corner, the old wooden ladder had been laid down to become a rocket ship.  Comfortable reclining chairs for the space-explorers were under construction.  Beside the porch, a group of mothers attended their babies, giving them baths in the large bucket.  Occasionally we were asked to baby-sit the fresh-scrubbed babies so grocery shopping could be done.  What is the magic, what is the common thread here?  Banjos, mandolins, guitars, as well as comfy chairs for the rocket ship and even the darling babies themselves, all of these remarkably different playthings were….the playground boards!   The absolute wonder, the vast breadth of the young child’s imagination lies waiting for us to allow enough time and enough open-ended “toys” for it to blossom.   Toys:  sticks, pine cones, boards, bricks, lawn-mower tires, rope, pieces of slate, bales of hay, un-baled hay, piles of leaves….you get the idea!