Educator Spotlight: Children Learn What They Live
Story and photographs by Cindy Ross
Our family was paddling amongst a group of islands on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, when I was reminded how much this magnificent waterway and its riverlands teach us.
The area we were exploring, with a naturalist friend, was the Sheets Island Archipelago State Forest Natural Area. We were looking for opportunities for nature-study and wildlife observation.
On tiny Wade Island, 400 pairs of nesting Great Egrets and black-crowned Night Herons populated the half-mile long, one-acre island. We paddled up in close proximity and watched the birds bring fish and an occasional baby wood duck to feed their young. Our young children, Sierra and Bryce, observed with horror and fascination, as the circle of life occurred before our very eyes. Later that day, we had an introspective talk about topics like the food chain, and life and death.
Adventure and learning
My husband, Todd Gladfelter, and I knew that our children’s science teachers could not possibly impact learning on this personal level. It was up to us, their parents. Todd and I love to paddle, as well as hike and cycle, and we have used recreational activities to share adventure and learning with our children. These kinds of lessons cannot be conducted within the four walls of a classroom. A school environment can’t give children’s minds the freedom to explore and it often falls short when it comes to opportunities that feed a child’s soul.
While we were paddling the Susquehanna that day, we also ran some rapids, charging us up with adrenaline and excitement. We practiced our steering techniques, reading the river and working together, captains and stokers. Todd and I have steered our children down the Susquehanna and other streams in the watershed, teaching them not just how to navigate a waterway, but how to navigate life.
The natural world as teacher
We learned the incredible value of experiential learning right out of the gate as young parents. We led our small children 3,100-miles across the Rockies on the National Scenic Continental Divide Trail. We used pack llamas to traverse and execute this grand, five-summer adventure. It was on that trek that we began to use travel and the natural world to teach our children with intent. It is the subject of my seventh book, The World is Our Classroom- How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018).
In the book, I illustrate for parents how to use opportunities and resources in their extended “backyard,” like the Susquehanna River and its lands, as one big Classroom. We believed it was part of our job as parents—to show our children the world and help them understand it.
When the Indian Steps Museum along the Susquehanna in Airville, put on their Native American Festival, we attended to experience the Lenape culture and music. We were mesmerized with their drumming and participated in some of their circle dances. Since our daughter Sierra had expressed an interest in archaeology and loved looking for artifacts, we later signed them up for a dig. The kids learned to excavate a site with trowels, use sifters to screen dirt, and measure and map their units. Sierra did not evolve into this type of scientist as an adult but we exposed our children to many different kinds of experiences in hopes that one day they would discover their life work.
Our job, as parents
A parent’s job of raising healthy, happy children is being challenged like never before. Kids are over-scheduled, addicted to screens and tempted by drugs, all the while spending less and less time with their parents. Todd and I understand a young person’s need for adrenaline-filled activities but we wanted to show our children that there are healthy alternatives like running rivers and climbing mountains to experience that rush. We also wanted to show them how to challenge themselves and illustrate healthy risk taking. As soon as the kids were old enough, they left the security of sharing a canoe with their parent and began to paddle their own kayaks.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, said, “Expecting kids to know how to make wise decisions and look after themselves when we limit their opportunities to do that makes about as much sense as expecting them to know how to drive safely without ever letting them practice.” Some parents think they need to protect their children from everything, that there are dangers lurking everywhere. It is a fact of life that all movement entails some risk. But if you do not play and you are not psychically active, there is even greater risk. It just takes longer to manifest itself, in sickness and disease later in life.
In fact, overprotective or “helicopter” parents are not giving their children many opportunities to test their courage nor challenge their ability to cope. Parents need to remove themselves from their comfort zone, be willing to push themselves alongside their children, and not preach only limits and boundaries. Children will learn to make choices in their lives that are not based on and controlled by fear.
Protect our Earth
There were other desirable results Todd and I hoped to manifest from immersing our children in nature. We hoped the exposure would help to raise environmentally-conscious kids who will protect Mother Earth, and ensure that the natural world will remain healthy and present for future generations. That cannot happen unless children forge an intimate, personal connection to the natural world. If a child has never played in the dirt to look for bugs and worms, encircled an old growth tree with their arms or traveled down a river, how could he/she care that a species is disappearing, or our forests and rivers are being exploited and need protection? It’s difficult to miss something you’ve never experienced. Children need to feel like going outside into nature is really coming home.
Some parents might be nervous about relying on what is right outside the door to entertain, occupy and teach their children many of life’s lessons. But given the right formula of free time, open space, a few materials, and a tiny bit of guidance, a whole universe of lesson plans is amazingly close by.
We used the Susquehanna River, its lands and communities as well as river-oriented festivals and programs as a catalyst and an excellent source for learning/teaching. This kind of experiential learning can create a life filled with abundance, passion, purpose and gratitude, and it will stay with your children for the rest of their lives, because they have lived it.
Cindy Ross is the author of seven books, including The World is Our Classroom-How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education.