Everyday, in all weather, I take my class outside to play in the garden, to make dirt muffins and mulch soups in our mud kitchen, and to swing in the trees. Always, the day is a new adventure and my children find unbounded ways to reinterpret and reinvent the world of our small preschool backyard by the sea. Like the rounded wood toys and fluid silks inside the school, nature outside is also round, fluid, and ever-changing. This environment encourages open-ended and imaginative play.
Our garden changes daily and so do the children’s stories and themes. Inside we experience the rhythm of the day, while outside we experience the rhythm of the seasons, passing seamlessly from a dark and dormant winter into newborn spring. Thus, no two moments are the same; each one is entirely new and creates a unique experience for each child.
In the garden children stoop over the earth and their tiny mud-coated fingers weave and hunt through the rich dirt looking for wiggly worms or whatever is living beneath, unseen. A wide-eyed child holds out her hand. “Look at my friend. He likes me,” she says, while an earthworm rolls and twists around in her small, cupped palm. Her eyes dance to the movement and presence of this little creature. She breathes in lovingly the smell of the dirt she wears and the creature she gently holds. “May I have a jar? I want to make him a home.” From a few scoops of dirt in a jar his home is complete and is carefully placed in the child’s school bag for the journey to her home. I smile inside with the memory of my student’s mom’s face that afternoon. With a secret whisper to my ear, the mom says, “I hate worms and I’m so scared of bugs – but I love watching her wonder and awe of nature.”
Here, among the newly growing plants, the children are learning about other living creatures and what they need to survive. When a child puts an earthworm into a jar to take home, he or she learns to include a few scoops of dirt so the worm can dig and make his home. They learn to be gentle holding beetles, not to squeeze the lizard too tight and that – if the lizard’s tail breaks off – it will grow back. They remind each other not to harm bugs and to be kind. If a dead creature is found, we dig a little hole and say a verse to welcome the creature back to the earth so that his cells may give life to another.
Research shows that early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder in young children. Wonder is an important aspect for life-long learning, and when deep bonds and connections are made through hands-on experiences with dirt, insects, animals, plants and trees, children naturally develop nurturing empathetic behaviors. This can help them interact in kind and gentle ways with people as well.
Daily, it amazes me when I see that my children greet whatever they find—earthworms, beetles, and clumps of mud—with unbridled curiosity and joy. As teachers, the best way we can help children learn is by letting them explore and experience.
In reflection, I remember the day I brought in some earthworms and briefly placed them on trays for each child to watch. Unconsciously, I had assumed the girls might be timid, but Iwas surprised when they were thrilled to see the little worms dancing in front of them and were not at all afraid to pick them up. They had no idea that I had expected them to be nervous, nor did any become so. Seeing their total lack of inhibition forced me to confront my own expectations and to remind myself that in their play, there are no limits.
It best serves the child for the adults to remain open and not allow fears and conditioning to influence them, because it is easy to impose our own ideas. If we tell them to be afraid or squeamish, they will listen. One great beauty of young children is that they haven’t limited their world – they have no set program for action – they just play. Through memories of past experiences, I see I have opinions and ideas that seem to compel me to repeat actions. From watching the children, I am learning that if we remember our past experience simply as experience and without value judgments, we can have an entirely new reaction in each moment. So, just as in spring, each moment is entirely new.
New to life, barely saplings, children can meet the world with openness and simple interest. Watching them, we can be reminded that our world is always miraculous; we need only be open enough to see it that way. Just as spring is full of the possibility of full bloom in summer, each moment in a child’s early years has the potential to unlock something wonderful if they are given the freedom to explore.
Adana Whyte is a LifeWays graduate and lead teacher at Seaside Playgarden, a LifeWays Representative Program in Jacksonville, Florida.