Someone on the radio said research had shown that the typical American kid spends an average of just 7 minutes each day outside. “Yikes!” I thought later, as I walked under oak woods and tall white pines, past a beach still covered with snow. I couldn’t have heard that right.
What happened to the outdoor recess that should be every schoolchild’s right? Even in winter, it had to be really cold and windy to keep us inside. Kids conducted unscheduled experiments with snow and rocks and mud, learned how to approach a group and join it, invented complicated variations on gym games and argued about the rules; shouted each others’ names under the sky, and learned how to run in a long chain, or backwards–or how to conduct a complicated conversation while walking at full speed.
We could read the importance of this outdoor time, in experiments conducted by nature. Even a few days of pouring rain took their toll on kids’ patience, stamina, confidence and social skills.
My father died a few weeks ago, a long, slow, mostly peaceful death. I kept seeing him, in my mind, in one of his boats, following the bends of a creek in no hurry to reach open water.
The mortality curriculum, I used to call it–something we would never go hunting for, or plan into the life of a class–something that would find us, one way or another–not an experiment of nature, exactly, but a reality.
Reading and writing can give us ways to think about endings, and the place they have in stories. That’s part of why we send our students there. Taking a break from blog posts, I gave myself the kind of assignment I used to give my students, and wrote a version of my dad’s story, going back to think again about the impact of his war on his life.
Beyond that, spending a lot of time outdoors was always the most important way we held onto huge, hard-to-manage realities–and it remains that for me now. Because my father always spent as much time as possible outside–gardening, shooting baskets, working on boats–it’s a way to think about him even without thinking. I’m walking a lot these days.
As I watch the spring melt (finally) pouring over the steps of the channel downhill, I keep worrying about all those kids indoors too much. What about sitting outdoors at dismissal? Walking or bicycling home from school?
For that matter, what about outdoor learning? At Touchstone, we deliberately encouraged curriculum that could be carried outdoors, or actually required the outdoors– outdoor sketching, perched on stools in the gardens; outdoor biology directly related to the school grounds, for example, studies of the macroinvertebrates to be found in our compost.
What about quick unaccompanied runs around the school, and the invaluable discussions of the ground rules needed to guard against people hitting the ground?
Finally, what about outdoor homework? We asked kids to follow the run-off water from their back yards, or pace off the distance from the front door to the nearest rock bigger than a loaf of bread (rarely a long distance, where I live, in the glacial debris field of New England.)
But maybe the most important thing we did, to preserve kids’ free time outdoors–emphasis on the word free–was our homework policy, limiting homework strictly, faithfully, including a generous amount of reading time within the limit. (Almost every year, at some point, my class had a conversation about kids’ favorite places to read outdoors.)
Here’s a game, or an assignment, or a meditative practice–take your pick. It’s based on something Holling C. Holling says in the feast of marginal notes in his rich, sprawling, problematic and wonderful classic of American geography, Minn of the Mississippi.
As he’s following a snapping turtle down the river, Holling says that a miniature natural history museum could consist of just four things–a pebble, a leaf, a feather, and a button. Something mineral, for geology / from a plant, for botany / from an animal, for zoology / made by a human, for anthropology.
Minn was published in 1951. We might organize those sciences differently, now–and I was always tickled by the kids who said, “But humans are animals, too. Why are they made separate here?” Still, I come back again and again to the task of finding Holling’s four things, when I’m walking,
Here’s a collection from a recent walk at Hopkinton State Park.
Early on, in my career of using this exercise, I swore that I wouldn’t pick up cigarette butts, although they are almost always the easiest human artifact to find. That day, I found two human-made things that intrigued me: a piece of crockery, and a tiny woven cord. For my final collection, I chose the crockery.
That day, as almost always, the hardest thing to find was the animal thing. The melting snowbanks were strewn with dog poop, but I wasn’t going to pick that up and carry it away.
Rodent tunnels disappeared into the remaining snow, and I thought of the mole’s wine cellar I found at the family farm in Maine, crabapples crammed and fermenting in a tunnel beneath the snow, revealed when the snow melted away. I’m just guessing that the critter was a mole. In any case, that too defied being carried anywhere.
Unless you’re at the beach, it takes very careful observation to find a feather, or a shell, or a bone, or a bit of hair or fur snagged on a thorn. Mostly, animal remains get hauled off to be eaten, or processed by beetles and bacteria pretty quickly. They disappear. But this day, I found that tiny feather where the snow had just melted.
Find Four Things made a wonderful assignment for homework outdoors. (Here, to the left, are most of the collections of a recent class.) We said that kids could do this in their backyards, or in other outdoor places, but should skip things found indoors–so, for example, no shells from Florida, sent north by cousins.
We took plenty of time sharing these collections, hearing about where they came from. Then we left them set up on the table–a museum of miniature museums.
What’s learning without arguments? If you can’t find any animal remains at all, can you count a souvenir of animal activity, for example an acorn bearing obvious toothmarks, or those channels of tiny micro-arthropod travel inscribed on the inner surface of tree bark? Is it a human artifact, or a plant thing, if it’s something humans made out of wood? But isn’t everything mineral in origin?
I’ll let you imagine all the productive channels those discussions could follow.
Sometimes I bring home the set of four things I settle on. But I’m here mostly to practice gathering and letting go. I stand outside, under an enormous sky, and hold enormous things in my small and always aging heart. All the living beings of the natural world–not just we humans–dwell in the compost pile of what has been, and in the seeds and (often invisible) eggs of what will be.
As I lay down my collection, gathered from that dear rubble the melting snow reveals, I think of all those children trapped indoors. I really don’t believe that thing about seven minutes. Still, just in case, I mutter to the air at large: Let my people go.