Relearning the Language of Nature
by Rich Hatfield
PWS students in Pre-K through Grade 8 encounter a wide array of experiences that enrich the curriculum and students' development. In the high school, the goal is to build on these experiences and draw a distinction between education outdoors (learning curriculum outside of the class room) and Outdoor Education (learning a skills-based curriculum to enrich students' experience of the out-of-doors). While these two modes of learning are often combined, we have been explicitly creating a developmental education around the outdoors since the foundation of the high school.
Never before has human culture been so far removed from the natural order of things. Cities are getting larger while wilderness and wild places get further away. Part of the intention of the Outdoor Curriculum is to relearn the language of nature and reestablish a living relationship with the world in which we live. This education gives students an opportunity to ground themselves on the planet, while providing time to step outside the daily rhythm of modern life and gain perspective on themselves and nature.
We take each high school grade on an outdoor experience for a week of school. The goals of our wilderness curriculum and field trips are to:
- Help students explore the ecological/economic implications of our use of natural resources and examine whether these pathways are healthy and sustainable
- Engender in students a sense of responsibility toward our natural resources
- Help students gain an appreciation of the nature of reciprocity - i.e. how we affect the natural world and how it affects us
- Give students tools with which they can examine physical phenomena
- Provide opportunities for students to engage in self-reflection through the experience of nature.
Ninth Grade: Survival Skills
This five-day trip usually takes place in the fall and most recently has been combined with the geology block. Newberry Crater National Volcanic Monument provides an excellent site for our students to study both geology (education outdoors) and survival skills (outdoor education). Students lean to build different kinds of shelter; they learn fire-building techniques and basic orienteering and map skills. These experiences meet ninth graders' growing sense of self and helps them find comfort in their place in the world, while also learning how to become independent and provide for their own basic needs. In addition, the ninth-grader also learns to hone observation skills and experience time with no distractions.
Tenth Grade: Looking Outwards
The tenth grade explores the question: What else is here and how can I find out? Students learn more advanced naturalist skills. They further improve observational skills while learning to track animals and recognize animal sounds and language, using journals to record their impressions. This program takes place at Oxbow Regional Park with two local naturalists.
Eleventh Grade: Backpacking Trip
On the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park, students travel with everything they need on their back for five days. Students participate in meal and menu planning and learn the importance of appropriate and comfortable gear. Students also can become group leader for a day,which includes map reading and route planning. The group travels over difficult terrain, timing river and headland crossings around tidal fluctuations. Students investigate the animal and plant life around them, learning many of the native plants and trees, focusing on the ethnobotany of the Olympic Peninsula.
Twelfth Grade: Solo Sit, the culmination of the program
Students apply all that they have previously learned to a 24-48 hour solo experience. After working for several days with experienced leaders to set intentions for their trip, Seniors step out of their circle of friends to spend time in the wilderness alone. Often students start by establishing a shelter and then observing the natural world around them. They live with experiences as they come, working with their stated intentions or developing new ones. The experience provides the opportunity, time, and space to establish a deeper relationship to nature and a framework to ask: Who am I? What can I offer? What is my unique contribution to the whole?
Immediately afterward, students gather together to work with guides. Each student shares his/her story and the guides offer reflection and questions. What began as an individual journey ends collectively as students bear witness and provide support to each other.
Rudolf Steiner was troubled by the separation of Science and the Humanities, and the separation of human beings from the world that created us. Spending time in nature bridges this gap for students. We encourage them to blend scientific inquiry with a celebration of their collective and individual journeys. At a time when cultural pressures demand more and more time inside, we need to reconnect with the earth to engage our heart, head and hands. Our goal in Waldorf education is to allow students to develop a creative relationship to the world they are enterlng and to give them the freedom to find their true identities.