We say it often: Learning happens all the time and everywhere. I sometimes even joke that my kids never have a vacation. At the moment, summer break is in full swing here in Colorado, however, our children’s natural learning continues daily. The best part is that they are not even aware of it. For them, it is just playing! So what does outdoor natural learning in Colorado look like?
What is Natural Learning?
“Natural Learning students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Natural Learning encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child.”
Modified unschooling definition on Wikipedia
When the kids are younger they don’t engage in formal education. You can call it organic learning, natural learning or unschooling. Learning happens all the time and everywhere. Children are innately curious, and they want to figure out how the world around them works. Even when the kids are older, learning continues all the time. The curious questions never stop, especially if you as an adult engage in their never-ending-questions.
Our job as parents is to facilitate and help them search for the answers to allow them to figure things out themselves.
Outdoor Learning: What Does It Look Like?
We are lucky to be blessed with an average of 300 days of sunshine per year. When we were living in the Netherlands, we would always say: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only perhaps the wrong clothes or lack of preparation. Here in Colorado, however, you do have to prepare for frequent weather changes. For instance, in January, one day you could be wearing shorts and flip-flops, and the next day you will be needing a snowsuit. So we have learned to always make sure we have different types of clothing in the car.
Because we have so many days of sunshine we are outside almost every day.
On our walks, we point out our surroundings. In this picture above, our youngest child is looking at ants and is counting them. Before I took this picture we were looking at the sky, and I asked him what color it was. It’s a playful way to learn about the colors. We also introduce foreign languages at this time by asking the question and replying in at least two different languages (Dutch and English). We sometimes do it in even more (Spanish, Italian, and Bahasa Indonesia).
Another positive aspect of being outside is that the children can move around more freely. They can use all that energy they have and direct it towards exploring, climbing trees, running back and forth, playing hide and seek, building shelters, collecting wood to build a fire, etc.
“We learn from books, from nature, from visiting museums and ruins, from history, from experiences.”
During our walks, the children have tons of questions. Conversely, we have a lot of questions for them. For example: How does this area change during the year? What effect do the seasons have? How do trees lose their leaves? Which animals can we spot. and how many have we seen? What color is the grass? Why does the moon change? And so on. The questions are never-ending.
We read the signs we encounter on our walks and practice reading while gathering more knowledge. They are encouraged to wonder. That’s part of their job being children. What happened to the structures and old buildings we encountered along our travels? How did people live here years ago? We make maps of our walks, and then we return to a particular location to try out the accuracy of our maps. We bring our sketchbooks and watercolors to paint animals, flowers or leaves. Without even being aware, the children study the weather, seasons, science, biology, geography, astronomy, history, math, foreign languages, reading and writing, and even poetry.
Teaching Living History
Road trips are very educational too. While we’re traveling to our destination, we listen to audio books. Currently, we’re listening to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. This is a charming and addictive story about a 15-year-old governess who is charged with three non-ordinary children, The Incorrigibles. The author has woven tidbits of knowledge into the story, which we all enjoyed.
What we listen to depends on our destination. Here you see a picture of the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. On the ride to the site, we listened to books about Native Americans, their history, and how they lived. We learn from books, nature, visiting museums and ruins, history, and experiences. We learn from our surroundings and grow from them. It is enriching when you’re able to walk somewhere that you’ve just read about, especially when that story touched your heart. History is more tangible then and can come alive.
Outdoor learning is not only about learning in nature, but enjoying it and experiencing new things. Our oldest son has been wanting to go sailing since he was three years old. Before we could go sailing, however, he had to learn how to swim. In this way, the desire to learn how to sail logically leads to a need, and desire to learn how to swim. Safety first. And this year, at last, he took part in his first sailing classes. He learned general sailing navigational terms, different knots, wind and sail direction, and social etiquette on the water.
“Teaching kids to appreciate and value nature is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.”
Our 4-year old, on the other hand, loves horseback riding and archery. The latter is, in fact, an activity we enjoy as a family. Even our youngest had his first horseback riding and archery experience recently.
Patience, Peace, and Beauty
Teaching kids to appreciate and value nature is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. It also teaches them about themselves and their inner wisdom. It can teach them to be patient when they are trying to catch a fish or climb a difficult hiking trail. Outdoor learning presents us with so many lessons and so many opportunities to learn.
At the same time, they are also learning and improving social skills. We wait for one another and practice kindness. Towards ourself we practice self-compassion — to not be hard on ourselves when we don’t succeed on the first try. It’s okay, and often beneficial, to try it again. While engaging in larger groups, for example during our nature studies or when we participate in field trips, social skills are required and continuously developed. It’s living and practicing life in real life and enjoying everything that comes with it.
“The beauty of nature surrounds us everywhere, all we have to do is open our eyes and take it in.”
Exposure to nature doesn’t stop when we are inside our house either. For example, at night we read aloud from “The Dragon and the Unicorn,” written and illustrated by Lynne Cherry. It is such a beautiful story. Our 4-year old picked out from the library. It’s a story about a magical forest where the ancient trees are being cut down by a king. The unicorn and the dragon that live in the forest are hunted by the king and his knights. They are eventually able to persuade the king, with help from the princess. It’s such a sweet story with beautiful illustrations. It makes us appreciate nature from the comfort of our home.
The beauty of nature surrounds us everywhere, all we have to do is open our eyes and take it in. Experience it with our whole being. It is a gift you can give yourself, that will cost you nothing except perhaps some time, effort, willpower, and appreciation.
Nature is our sanctuary. A place where, although everything is in constant motion, at the same time stays the same…that same beautiful, peaceful place we have visited before.
Natural Learning: The Benefits
Being able to provide the opportunity for learning, without necessarily being aware that learning is happening, is priceless. Isn’t everything more fun when you don’t have to?
So what are the benefits of outdoor natural learning?
- Kids can practice their social skills
- Natural learning lets kids be aware of their surroundings and the changes that happen
- It instills a love for nature
- It provides an environment for children to continue to wonder
- Natural learning allows learning about all things life-related in real life; it’s interconnected and touches on a wide range of traditional school subjects while combining contextual experiences
- It helps to build confidence and competence
- Kids learn to keep on enjoying life
- They learn self-compassion
- Kids experience infinite learning opportunities while developing a growth mindset
- It is a perfect way to burn energy
Kids exploring their own curiosity is where it all starts when it comes to natural learning. Children who are allowed to asks tons of questions are more likely to develop a growth mindset. They are aware there are a lot of things they don’t know or can’t do yet. At the same time, they are confident they can learn whatever they want.
How do your children explore their curiosity when they are out an about? Let us know in the comments!