The best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky
Margaret McMillan, (1925), pioneer of nursery schools
A four-year-old asked me, “Do you think clouds cry?”
When I thought about it, of course they do, it’s obvious isn’t it? The clouds gather together, they go sad and grey, sometimes scream and shout (thunder and lightning) and then they cry. I could see where she was coming from – can you? Small children’s minds are not yet closed to possibility.
In NATIONS UNITED: Urgent solutions for Urgent times, Richard Curtis, United Nations, 2021, tells us that the four major challenges that face humanity are climate change, environmental degradation, poverty and inequality, and justice and human rights.
By International Early Years Education Consultant Sarah Kingham
So an educational curriculum needs to create people who can come up with creative solutions to these big challenges. As a teacher with 35 years’ experience, I outline my suggestions for a new curriculum for 3–18-year-olds.
The human nervous system is adapted to nature. Our ancient ancestors lived their lives in a state of relative calm alongside other species and in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. In comparison, today we are wrapped in technology, experiencing much of life ‘second-hand’ and increasing numbers of people are living in a heightened state of stress.
As 50% of the United Nation’s challenges are linked to the natural world any new educational curriculum should be aware of how we live now and have an understanding of the natural world at its core. Alongside creative individuals who think out of the box and have sufficient emotional intelligence to persuade others that changes to the status quo just HAVE to be made.
Young children are highly curious. They will stare in awe for ages at the spider slowly crawling around the frosty web. They aren’t scared of the creepy crawlie under the log, in fact they’ll happily pick him up and look for others. They love creating snail races and making bug hotels; they are curious and want to find more. They love ‘nature’s playground’. But once these children have left the early years and are within the constraints of the ‘test driven’, ‘knowledge tested’ national curriculum there isn’t time to build on that excitement and curiosity. For deep long-lasting learning, we all require repetition and that includes experiences that develop that deep commitment to the environment.
The Forest School approach is a child-centred learning process that originated in Scandinavia. For those schools so able, it offers children opportunities for holistic growth through play, exploration, and supported risk taking in the outdoors.
I believe that All children need to grow up with a deep meaningful understanding of the natural world. The outdoors helps all learners socially, emotionally, spiritually, physically and intellectually and inspires a deep meaningful connection to the world.
A curriculum spanning 3-18, where every teacher and teaching assistant experiences regular training (outdoors) in understanding the natural world; where all children regularly have first-hand experience of the outdoors and develop a deep understanding of their own local natural world, so they will truly want to care for it.
Teaching that enables children to learn to make more conscious choices. As they start to understand decisions made elsewhere on the planet, they will be able to question whether that is what they want, think is right and appropriate.
They will learn to appreciate some of the decisions made by others across the globe to satisfy the greed of the West and be able to suggest solutions based upon firsthand experience and deep understanding.
Because, when you understand something you are more likely to respect it, and when you respect something you are more likely to be curious about it, ask questions, engage in conversation, and ultimately WANT to come up with solutions to solve the challenges it presents.
Nature is in competition with technology for children’s attention. Devices have been created to become addictive. Their speed gives a rush of dopamine which is more exciting for the developing brain than the slower peaceful way nature changes over time.
But if children have had repeated first-hand experience of being close to nature through regular facilitated visits outdoors, there is a greater chance that the memories and feelings of freedom, fun and laughter may be a stronger draw than the device. Being in nature may then become more attractive.
Nature is becoming a catalyst for adult mental well-being – in fact research is now indicating that being deprived of it is potentially harmful to humans. Why would we not want vast amounts of it for children in school?
But, let’s look at why an education system with a significantly greater emphasis on the outdoors is necessary for children. Outdoors offers unique opportunities for learning that cannot be found indoors and is essential for children’s normal, healthy, intellectual and physical development because:
Children burn more calories – there is evidence that children as young as three are exhibiting signs that they are at risk of heart disease
Children learn more information about the world
Many children are denied safe outdoor play spaces
Some learning can only happen outdoors
The sun builds vitamin D in the body
Physical achievements enhance self esteem
It encourages positive behaviour
It offers opportunity for ‘risky’ freedom that can’t be found anywhere else
For this to work, and be valued by schools and their leaders, it has to be mandated in law. The only way to ensure that it is valued as much as the other core subjects, English, Maths and Science, would for it to be given equal status by schools and OFSTED. Teachers need to be trained on it from the early years through to GCSE and schools need to report on it as regularly as they do on the other core subjects.
The world needs emotionally resilient, kind, compassionate, numerate, and literate humans with a curiosity about life and an awareness and understanding of their surroundings – the natural world. Unless we teach these things, in a world full of ‘fake news’ how will the next generation understand the issues facing the natural world and the consequences of their choices on it?
The earth, the sea, the plants, the wildlife, the sea life and human beings across the globe, need our children to have this level of knowledge so they can play their part in saving our planet.
Sarah Kingham, BEd.
In 2015, Sarah founded Readit2, a one-to-one reading programme (2-6years) training adults to inspire children to love to read and learn.
During the lockdown 2020, Sarah read stories online and created Discovery Packs, a collection of recycled, upcycled and handmade resources all put together in a little box for little hands to explore.
For the last 20 years, she has worked as an Early Years Adviser for Herts for Learning supporting schools and early years settings.
She is a published author, keynote speaker, trainer and a teacher of over 35 years, in 3 London boroughs, Greece, and Hertfordshire.
Presented at the (1st) Early Childhood Conference in Dubai 2018. In 2021 she trained KG teachers of the UAE on assessment in the early years, using an idea based upon Discovery packs.
Champions the work of COSE, an international group of professionals, alerting society to the dangers of excessive screen-time on children.
She is an active member of All Party Parliamentary Groups for The First 1001 Critical Days, the Prevention of Adverse Childhood Experiences and parliamentary round table on the Foundation Years.
For more info contact Sarah here