“ Imagine a world in which all children grow up with a deep understanding of life around them. Where obesity is reduced through nature play. Where anti-depressants and pharmaceuticals are prescribed less and nature prescribed more. Where every school has a natural play space. Where children experience the joy of being in nature before they learn of its loss, where they can lie in the grass on the hillside for hours and watch clouds become the faces of the future. Where every child and every adult has a human right to a connection to the natural world, and shares the responsibility for caring for it.”
—Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods
I am fortunate. I have all of this in my life. When I am at home with my youth spending time in our garden or climbing trees I am one with nature. When I am at Open Connections (OC) with the Open Program (OP) youth spending time by the creek making a dam, by the pond searching for frogs or in the woods lifting rocks I am one with nature.
Spending time outside and soaking up nature is absolutely my favorite place to be. I probably spend about 80% of each day enjoying the outdoors. I cannot imagine what it would be like to not have a deep understanding, respect and connection to all living things. I cannot imagine what it would be like to spend 80% of my days indoors, away from what keeps me balanced and gives me peace of body and mind. The fresh air helps me relax and think freely. Having this connection with nature makes OC the perfect fit for my family—so much so that we choose to spend four days of each week with our OC family.
Every day is an adventure in the OP, whether we are inside creating projects in the wood shop, problem solving how to fit 55 Cuisenaire Rods into a box, sewing a new pair of pajama pants or hiking outside and exploring the OC property. The value of our time spent in nature is exemplified in the OP. New social interactions are always taking place in the program but there is something different that happens when we are in nature. I notice new connections forming, new relationships being created and many more youth-led group activities taking place around the property. In his book The Nature Principle Richard Louv talks about a sixth sense. I wonder if there is something in the universe, a force that creates this sense of connection between people. My group of twenty youth will hold hands and run down a hill together cheering and yelling. They take turns leading the group in rolling halfway down or running all the way to the bottom only to come right back up to the top and do it again. If one young person falls another will give a hand; if someone gets hurt many will stop to make sure everything is all right. All of these social interactions are valuable in aiding us to be happy people. Recently I watched one youth start a game of Animals on a Field of Boulders. Anyone who passed by was invited to play. All who were invited joined in and became any animal of their choice, from bats to tigers to dinosaurs. It was fascinating to witness multiple new bonds being made among the youth. I can only speculate that the youth are experiencing this “sixth sense” that Louv speaks of, which leads them to feel at peace with themselves and perhaps opens them up to feeling more interconnected with one another.
In addition to positive connection-making, spending time outside also gives us time to develop our physical capabilities, motor fitness and coordination. With our 28-acre campus, there are seemingly never-ending spaces to run and roll and jump in, and space to feel free. At times youth may be dashing about the outdoors in an energized game of tag, while other times the outdoor landscape serves as a space to move slowly and take in the world around us. Youth at OC spend time climbing rocks, developing balance on ropes and balancing boxes, climbing through creeks, hiking up hills and through woods. They develop coordination and muscles by climbing rock walls and swinging on a tire swing. Nature has provided us with our favorite Sliding & Climbing Rock and Scootch Log where youth increase their physical abilities and belief in their abilities. A giant hill gives us space for sledding in the winter. No matter the weather, youth at OC are afforded the opportunity to spend much of their days in the outdoors, growing and learning in nature.
Our time outdoors is never dull or stagnant. Sometimes we go outside with a particular purpose or goal in mind, and other times we simply head outdoors to see what experiences and activities unfold naturally. On one autumn day, OP youth worked together to catch a giant frog in the pond. The young people collaborated to give space for the net to come through the water just in time to catch the frog. It was a team effort to transfer the frog into an aquarium for further exploration. The excitement and enthusiasm that was generated during this endeavor was infectious. Youth (and adults!) from other programs were eager to discover what all the (happy) commotion was about as the shrieks of joy could be heard all over campus. The OP youth who caught the frog invited everyone to come and get a closer look at the giant bullfrog. After a good look at this creature he was returned back to where he belonged. What makes this group of youth so special is their respect for nature. It was clearly important to them to make sure the frog was placed back in its natural habitat. “This is where he belongs,” one youth shared. Another stated, “How would you feel if someone took you out of your home?” I attribute their heightened awareness and sensitivity to the fact that they have been exposed to nature on a daily basis, and therefore the youth have come to understand the life cycles of living things in our world and the importance of respecting this natural process.
“ We cannot create observers by saying ‘observe,’ but by giving them the power and the means for this observation and these means are procured through education of the senses.” —Maria Montessori
Looking back on the idea of a sixth sense, could it be that being outside in nature heightens our five senses and that this heightened awareness becomes our sixth sense? We tend to listen to what is around us outside: singing birds, leaves blowing in the wind, peepers peeping. Our sense of hearing is telling us to open our ears and listen and discover what is around us. Colors of the earth are beautiful; whether it is the brown soil, colorful leaves or a blue sky, our sense of sight encourages us to open our eyes and be more aware. As I watch young people lie in the grass and run it through their fingers, jump in a mud puddle and cover their skin, stick their faces in cold wet snow or climb a tree feeling the bark under their fingers, I can see their sense of touch telling them about each detail the Earth provides. During OP recently, one youth had the need to jump in the pond. He had to be wet and feel the pond life around his body. He had to feel the soft squishy muddy water pour into his creek boots. “I really need to jump in that pond today!” was all I heard before the loud splash. In the fall we smell the crisp leaves and the apples growing in the orchard. In the spring, we smell flowers blooming, skunk cabbage opening up and mint blowing from our herb garden around the chicken coop. The smells alone are enough to heighten our senses. Do not forget our sense of taste. Autumn berries are in abundance around OC. We have eaten more than a mouthful by now. Many of us in the OP have even enjoyed Autumn Berry jam. We have eaten apples, mint, onion grass and veggies from our gardens.
Our nature and sense explorations expose us to so many new ideas. What better way to learn about self-sustainability than through gardening and harvesting? What better way to learn about nutrition and environmental health? What better way to learn about collaboration, inclusiveness and responsibility? We learn that when we treat nature with respect it will be there when we need it. Likewise, when we treat the people around us with respect, they will treat us respectfully too. We are so fortunate to have such an amazing piece of nature available to explore with all of our five senses, perhaps leading to the development of a sixth sense.
As we continue spending time in nature, planning activities based on nature and exploration of the outdoors through the year, we will develop our independence, our concentration, our imagination and our risk-taking capabilities as well as build our physical capabilities. When we head outside we never know where our senses will take us or what adventure we will come upon. I look forward to each and every day that I am fortunate enough to spend with my wonderful young people and the ones that are shared with me.