By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE
We are – and we must be convinced of this – inside an ecosystem: our earthly journey is a journey we make along with the environment, nature, the universe. Our organism, our morality, our culture, our knowledge, our feelings are connected with the environment, with the universe, with the world. And here we can find the spider web of our life. ~ Loris Malaguzzi
When I began my journey of Reggio inspired practice I would not have anticipated that it would take me in the direction of the forest. Over twenty-five years ago, when I discovered this innovative educational approach, my focus was the indoor learning environment. As my path has recently ventured into the splendours of nature, my thinking has also taken a new direction. I had the amazing good fortune to have recently spent a week in the forest with a group of kindergarten children as part of a pilot environmental inquiry project. These children and their teachers have five minutes from their classroom door, a magical forest to discover. With each day of adventure these children became calmer, more focused and their level of engagement in inquiry deepen. I suspect that they, like me, have made a connection to this place that will last a lifetime. Ultimately, the key to this experience was time. More time in nature yielded these greater results.
I am grateful that I had the time to spend the time with these children, their amazing teachers, and with my friend, Tanya Murray, whose vision and dream led to this experience that will have lasting impact on all involved. The connections made with each other, with the land, and within ourselves will help us find the spider web of our life.
It seems fitting that this morning when I began to write this blog post that I came upon this video and I am inspired by the words of a four year old who says, “the thread of life starts from the heart”. My heart was filled with such joy in this magical forest because of the connections made to people and to place.
When I am in the forest, time seems to stand still. To be there to see the wonders of the world around me – to look closely at the flora and fauna, the worms, centipedes and snails– to see the beauty that is real and not purchased plastic or behind a screen – it is right here in front of me and for the time I am in the place of nature, I am part of it. I belong. During the time, I am not thinking about my long to do list and the others places I need to be. I see time as a gift – one that I receive and one that I can give. I take time to connect to people and places. Many months ago, I took time from my summer vacation to connect with Tanya who had found me via The York Region Nature Collaborative. Our friendship began with a long telephone conversation not unlike the one I had recently with a young PhD student from Penn State University, Becca Brittain Taudien who contacted me after seeing a post I made entitled Learning and Development in the Forest: Inspiration from Reggio Emilia in the Reggio Emilia Approach Facebook group . While I have been very busy and tired after spending time outdoors with young children, I took the time to connect with Becca and she has provoked my current thinking about nature and it’s impact on teaching and learning in early childhood education. I think Becca was surprised at this but by giving the gift of time, I received so much in return. Becca is interested in the connection between the Reggio Emilia Approach and nature and is looking at this as the basis of her dissertation. In our conversation we both wondered about the lack of attention outdoor learning seems to have in the writings of the Reggio educators. With current attention here in North America being paid to learning outside, it seems odd that these forward thinking and inspirational educators don’t have chapters written in their books about outdoor learning when they always seem ahead of us in their thinking. In Becca’s readings she found words written by Lella Gandini in 1993 that addresses this and relates the absence to a cultural perspective as Italian parents worry about the cold weather and the affects it may have on their children’s health. Somewhere in the tangles of my mind I have jumped to thoughts about the atelier. A few months ago, once again, I had the pleasure to listen to Lella Gandini speak and in this talk she focused on the atelier and the words that appeared on the screen before me must have made an indent in my thoughts because I have come back to them to help me focus my current thinking about ateliers.
It wasn’t until 2011 during my second visit to Reggio Emilia, that I realized that the atelier was not just an art studio. During that visit I remember standing in awe in an atelier of light and then in an atelier of sound. Sparked by my conversations with Becca and in thinking about helping a former student and friend, Tanya Farzaneh with her Masters work on Reggio inspired learning in nature, I decided to explore the connections that can be made if I framed my search around the idea of an atelier of nature and I have discovered much more to ponder about as I continue on my path of Reggio inspired practice. When the atelier is seen in a more abstract way as a place as of research, invention and empathy, expressed by means of ‘100’ languages it does not have to be confined to an indoor space. If we see nature as an atelier, rich in resources, with potential to dig with our own hands and minds, the writing of the Reggio educators resonant with connections. The atelier of nature offers everything that an indoor atelier provides and taking this frame of thought opens up possibilities of exploring the concept of ateliers as they relate to nature. Vea Vecchi writes in the final chapter of Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the role and potential of ateliers in early childhood education about blue flowers and bitter leaves found in many parts of Italy in the summer months. These blooms of startling azure blue when spread in a “myriad of clusters to form drifts of a special blue, surrounded by an even more brilliant green” of the common chicory plant with it’s slightly bitter leaves (p. 181) are the impetus for Vecchi’s thoughts on ateliers.
If these flowers are gathered and put in water, they lose their intense colour and do not last very long. Like poppies they are not flowers for picking, they are better left where they are, and their presence transforms any place into somewhere special. Like poppies, chicory flowers seem fragile, but the seed is strong and the plant is really a weed and has the strength to invade and grow ~ Vea Vecchi
This takes me back to an earlier blog post where I reflected on the tendency I see for educators to focus on bringing nature into the classroom. While I love the feel of a naturalistic learning environment and understand the potential of natural loose parts for learning, I am concerned that our inclination to “bring the outdoors in” has diminished the experiences we offer children in the outdoors. I am again inspired by the words of Vecchi who likens the presence of ateliers to the blue flowers and bitter leaves. “The presence of ateliers in Reggio schools is of this nature; an intense and visible presence, but which becomes less strong and visible when the atelier is taken out of a pedagogical context to a place that cannot embrace it or use it in an instrumental way” (p. 181).
The philosophy and experience, which has been put together over these years, represent the resilience of the atelier. Transplanted into other contexts, the more it finds terrain and environments possessing some of the elements that made its birth possible in Reggio Emilia, the more it will break new ground and be capable of carrying out its role participating in innovative education ~ Vea Vecchi
Join Tanya, others and myself as we explore the atelier in nature this summer at beautiful Swan Lake, where we will dig with our hands and with our minds to break new ground in thinking about our connections to the environment, nature and the universe on our journeys of Reggio inspired practice.