nature/environment

Adventures with Norwegian Children

It was a Tuesday morning in early August, and we got off the train at Finse, Norway, a snow-covered mountain-top town with only a rail station, bicycle-rental shop, and lodge. The nearest anything-else is a 30-minute drive away, if the roads aren’t frozen over. The trail that begins here, the Rallervegen, was built from 1902-1904 for railroad workers building the tracks. It is now a famous bicycle route. We were so excited to cycle this 3-foot-wide path down the mountain. Other than a few other cyclists all we saw were sheep and goats.

We headed out on the pebbly, unpaved trail to ride the winding 4,000-foot descent. We snaked along rivers, passed by countless waterfalls, went up and over a few snow-covered passes (where we had to get off and push our bikes), and saw an abundance of super-fuzzy moss-covered rocks. About a third of the way down the trail we came upon four girls, right in the middle of the path, between the ages of 5-12. They were suited up in snowsuits with a small folding table, some folding chairs, pitchers of lemonade and fruit punch, and a plate of cookies. They excitedly offered us refreshments as my boyfriend said to me, out of the side of his mouth, “Where are their parents?” I smiled at him, knowing we’d have an interesting lunch-time conversation about independence, nature, culture, and the benefits of being left to your own devices without any digital devices.

As we rode away we saw their home in the distance, maybe 500 feet away from their snack stand. It was the only home we saw that entire day, which also made us think about the experience of growing up so far from civilization. Of having only you and your siblings to occupy your time. Of wanting to meet new people and being totally cool with it being only ten cyclists a day. Of offering refreshments without any idea of making money off it. Of carrying these things from your far-away home. Of occupying yourselves all day without screens. Of finding people to practice English with. Of the simple joy of being able to brighten a stranger’s day.

We wondered how they would handle an injury. Our questions started from the overprotective and moved towards the Scandinavian way. Did they have a first aid kit? If someone got hurt would they carry her home? Would someone run to get help? Would they assess the situation and, if it wasn’t so serious, deal with it later knowing it was only a minor injury that didn’t require immediate attention? If it was a small cut or bruise, would they just grab some snow and make an ice pack or use the melted ice to clean the cut? Did they know of healing plants growing nearby?

These children were self-directing their own learning. They were creating experiences that forced them to act on the spot, navigate emotions and social interactions, make group decisions, and practice first impressions. They were building their self-confidence, independence, and self-regulation skills. These are important life skills that, I would argue, many millennials in the US are lacking.

This makes me wonder: We know that we are better able to learn new languages at a young age. Wouldn’t this also apply to social and emotional skills? If we focused on these skills in early childhood, they would be ingrained, and the next generation would be more adept at supporting each other and solving the world’s problems.  

A New Kind of Public School

After reading countless articles, studies, and whitepapers on why homework is counterproductive, creativity is being squashed by the soldier-like regimen of public school, and why people forget more than half of what they learned in school, I’m prepared to offer a new kind of public school. 

I recently attended the Brooklyn School Alternatives Conference and heard from a panel of micro-school directors about what learning is like in their (private) schools. Here is what some of them had to say: 

“Experience ourselves as capable of changing culture” – Tomis Parker, Agile Learning Center

“Structure with flexibility” – Noleca Radway, Brooklyn Free School

“City as classroom” – Noah Mayers, Brooklyn Apple Academy

"Student-led open school and opt-in adult-led classes" - Monique Scott, Freebrook Academy

“Our curriculum is to everyday challenge the insular nature of the classroom” – Sara Casey Taleff, ALC Cottonwood 

These micro-schools in Brooklyn are doing it right. The schools are structured around community and communication, not content. In many of these schools the teachers are called facilitators and are trained in helping students develop strong communication skills, independence, and self-regulation skills. Instead of corporations and non-educators deciding what students should learn and when they should learn, and master it, students choose topics of interest to dive into. 

Students are taught to set intentions, reflect on their actions, and hold themselves accountable, while also learning to be flexible. 

The current public school system could be transformed into this by using the same infrastructure and materials, changing the curriculum from an absolute to a supplemental tool, and making professional development for teachers center around communication skills, problem solving, and nurturing students instead of mastering benchmarks. A new kind of public education can be fostered, without much additional costs. 

The focus is on students discovering their own learning style and then running with it. 

The public school I envision has only 4 parts: 
-    Creative play- passion projects, maker-spaces
-    Outdoor exploration- neighborhoods, parks, fresh air, sun, rain, and snow!
-    Self-guided learning- solo and group, built in facilitator support, opt-in classes
-    Reflection- what and how you are learning, your actions and choices

There would be opportunities for internship, apprenticeship, field trips and travel, and guest speakers, experts, presentations, and workshops- decided by the students and always optional to attend. 

What kind of adult would you be if this was your school experience? 
  

Reverse culture shock & the power of positive thinking

I had said I didn’t want to return to New York. I had been overwhelmed by the feeling of being unable to escape consumerism at every turn. I wanted to live in the world of Gift Economy - trusting in humanity to provide for me and offering my services freely for the greater good.   I left India, where I had happily lived in a Gift Economy-bubble for more than a year. I had a backpack’s worth of possessions and people to share them with, not needing anything else. My service to the community was met with a hut to live in and three vegan meals a day. The community I was living in had broadened my view of and affirmed my belief that we need very little to survive and can live without doing further damage to the earth.   The community also humbled me with regard to the juxtaposition of how large the world is and yet how small it can feel. I met like-minded people from all over the world who, on most occasions, felt instantly like family. I am just one of many but I am connected to all. It is a powerful feeling to abandon fear and live as though the world is my backyard.   After doing my first bicycle tour I rediscovered my body, my physical strength, my desire for sweat-inducing adventure. And so I set out to cycle solo through Europe on my second bicycle tour. Cycling, I realized, forced me to be dependent on myself but also to admit that the world around me would support me. In this experiment of sorts I survived on, at most, 10 Euro per day. There were many days when I spent nothing. I slept in the homes of kind strangers who fed me and sent me with extra food for my journey.   I rode all morning and afternoon, feeling thankful for my connections to humanity and also thankful to feel fearless, knowing that I’d connect with the earth, with my body, and with other kind strangers along the way who would help me fulfill my needs. At farmer’s markets across the lands I was asked about my story, encouraged to keep going, not to lose my sense of trust in humanity or my bravery to travel alone, and I was rewarded for inspiring others with extra stuffed grape leaves, oranges to keep illness away, and an extra shot of espresso to keep moving and not feel the cold.   I lived on the road for almost 10 weeks in a society much older than my own, feeling the weight of age in the physicality of roads, villages, churches, and farms, trying to understand the history that came before me, the people who’ve passed on these same roads for different reasons, and the current economy of Western Europe, a rich entity not unlike the U.S., my home. I found it easy to live peacefully with nature and people and feel like my one-on-one human interactions were my added-value to open up minds and explore feelings of those who felt stuck, or unable to make change, or like they didn’t have choice. I was always supremely aware of my privileges: having saved some money over the years so I could make experiments like this, not being in debt, having people to support me if I fail, not having any dependents… freedom in so many ways.   I said I wouldn’t return to NY. I marveled at how well I felt mentally, physically, and emotionally being outside all day on my bicycle, feeling my body work to cover ground, breathing in fresh air, hours of quiet time, the sound of a rushing river, being among animals, and learning the stories of others as I shared my own. In this time I found a partner, from NY, who encouraged me to spend the holidays with him and to rediscover NY, give it another chance, see how jaded I really was, and find out if it was still my home.   My past life in NY was fast. I rushed from place to place, always needing more time in the day, never feeling finished, my to-do list always growing. I spent little money but nonetheless I paid for things that never occurred to me were optional. I ate on the subway, I crashed hard at night, I never felt like I had time for me, even though my work as an educator was enjoyable and enriching- it was everything but also felt like a sinking hole I’d never get out of.   After my time living in India, enveloped by nature, barefoot more often than not, living outside among trees and creatures, sheltered from consumerism, celebrating on a daily basis the contributions we can make to the earth through our life choices, and then cycling through rich lands where I chose to live simply and share my experiences, I have become calm. I am less reactive, more patient, waiting to take in all that is around me- the environment, the conversation, the big picture. I am not in a hurry. I am not impatient. I am not worried. Friends say I am more grounded.   And so I have rediscovered NY. I am not waiting, impersonally at crosswalks with other people in a rush; I am chatting with cyclists waiting for the light to change, secretly sharing joy in experiencing the city this other way. I am not in a high-rise apartment building, disassociated from people, feeling the city hum below me; I am living on the edges, with friends, in ethnically-diverse communities, artist-rich communities, feeling “neighborhood” more and more. I am not racing to teach my heart out until I collapse at the end of the day; I am reading and writing and meeting with other education reformists who see opportunities for change and are working with me, waiting for the right moment, to pounce.   I am different, but so is my relationship with NY. I remember being told many times by many people that you are who you are no matter where you are, that changing your environment will only change you temporarily; you are already formed. I disagree so much with these sentiments; your experiences form you throughout your life and they are dependent on  where  they happen,  who  they happen with, and how you  reflect  on them, incorporating the changes you like into the habits of who you are. And so, once again in my life, NY is home, even though I’m inside buildings, wearing shoes, and averting my gaze from the barrage of advertising that is capitalism.   I am grateful for my privilege, my choice, my adventures and experiences, the people I’ve crossed paths with and those I hold close, the times I cycled alone for hours being one with this planet, and feeling bold in the face of a plagued public education system while my brain fills with solutions for our children.   “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Norman Vincent Peele said this. He was the godfather, of sorts, of the power of positive thinking. 

I had said I didn’t want to return to New York. I had been overwhelmed by the feeling of being unable to escape consumerism at every turn. I wanted to live in the world of Gift Economy - trusting in humanity to provide for me and offering my services freely for the greater good.

I left India, where I had happily lived in a Gift Economy-bubble for more than a year. I had a backpack’s worth of possessions and people to share them with, not needing anything else. My service to the community was met with a hut to live in and three vegan meals a day. The community I was living in had broadened my view of and affirmed my belief that we need very little to survive and can live without doing further damage to the earth. 

The community also humbled me with regard to the juxtaposition of how large the world is and yet how small it can feel. I met like-minded people from all over the world who, on most occasions, felt instantly like family. I am just one of many but I am connected to all. It is a powerful feeling to abandon fear and live as though the world is my backyard.

After doing my first bicycle tour I rediscovered my body, my physical strength, my desire for sweat-inducing adventure. And so I set out to cycle solo through Europe on my second bicycle tour. Cycling, I realized, forced me to be dependent on myself but also to admit that the world around me would support me. In this experiment of sorts I survived on, at most, 10 Euro per day. There were many days when I spent nothing. I slept in the homes of kind strangers who fed me and sent me with extra food for my journey. 

I rode all morning and afternoon, feeling thankful for my connections to humanity and also thankful to feel fearless, knowing that I’d connect with the earth, with my body, and with other kind strangers along the way who would help me fulfill my needs. At farmer’s markets across the lands I was asked about my story, encouraged to keep going, not to lose my sense of trust in humanity or my bravery to travel alone, and I was rewarded for inspiring others with extra stuffed grape leaves, oranges to keep illness away, and an extra shot of espresso to keep moving and not feel the cold.

I lived on the road for almost 10 weeks in a society much older than my own, feeling the weight of age in the physicality of roads, villages, churches, and farms, trying to understand the history that came before me, the people who’ve passed on these same roads for different reasons, and the current economy of Western Europe, a rich entity not unlike the U.S., my home. I found it easy to live peacefully with nature and people and feel like my one-on-one human interactions were my added-value to open up minds and explore feelings of those who felt stuck, or unable to make change, or like they didn’t have choice. I was always supremely aware of my privileges: having saved some money over the years so I could make experiments like this, not being in debt, having people to support me if I fail, not having any dependents… freedom in so many ways.

I said I wouldn’t return to NY. I marveled at how well I felt mentally, physically, and emotionally being outside all day on my bicycle, feeling my body work to cover ground, breathing in fresh air, hours of quiet time, the sound of a rushing river, being among animals, and learning the stories of others as I shared my own. In this time I found a partner, from NY, who encouraged me to spend the holidays with him and to rediscover NY, give it another chance, see how jaded I really was, and find out if it was still my home.

My past life in NY was fast. I rushed from place to place, always needing more time in the day, never feeling finished, my to-do list always growing. I spent little money but nonetheless I paid for things that never occurred to me were optional. I ate on the subway, I crashed hard at night, I never felt like I had time for me, even though my work as an educator was enjoyable and enriching- it was everything but also felt like a sinking hole I’d never get out of.

After my time living in India, enveloped by nature, barefoot more often than not, living outside among trees and creatures, sheltered from consumerism, celebrating on a daily basis the contributions we can make to the earth through our life choices, and then cycling through rich lands where I chose to live simply and share my experiences, I have become calm. I am less reactive, more patient, waiting to take in all that is around me- the environment, the conversation, the big picture. I am not in a hurry. I am not impatient. I am not worried. Friends say I am more grounded.

And so I have rediscovered NY. I am not waiting, impersonally at crosswalks with other people in a rush; I am chatting with cyclists waiting for the light to change, secretly sharing joy in experiencing the city this other way. I am not in a high-rise apartment building, disassociated from people, feeling the city hum below me; I am living on the edges, with friends, in ethnically-diverse communities, artist-rich communities, feeling “neighborhood” more and more. I am not racing to teach my heart out until I collapse at the end of the day; I am reading and writing and meeting with other education reformists who see opportunities for change and are working with me, waiting for the right moment, to pounce.

I am different, but so is my relationship with NY. I remember being told many times by many people that you are who you are no matter where you are, that changing your environment will only change you temporarily; you are already formed. I disagree so much with these sentiments; your experiences form you throughout your life and they are dependent on where they happen, who they happen with, and how you reflect on them, incorporating the changes you like into the habits of who you are. And so, once again in my life, NY is home, even though I’m inside buildings, wearing shoes, and averting my gaze from the barrage of advertising that is capitalism. 

I am grateful for my privilege, my choice, my adventures and experiences, the people I’ve crossed paths with and those I hold close, the times I cycled alone for hours being one with this planet, and feeling bold in the face of a plagued public education system while my brain fills with solutions for our children. 

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Norman Vincent Peele said this. He was the godfather, of sorts, of the power of positive thinking. 

What if school was playing in a forest all day?

School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten (trailer)

This film looks amazing. These kids play in nature, learn through exploring, and are learning to learn! 

What if "homework" was about living life and learning yourself?

Instead of boring worksheets and more sitting(!!!), what if homework looked something like this:

1. Go Outside
2. Get Bored
3. Spend Time Alone
4. Read
5. Make Something
6. Write
7. Clear the Table (Contribute to your home/family)
8. Rest 

What if children explored some dangerous activities and instead of stopping them we joined them?

From the authors:

Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) is the first book from the people who created Tinkering School. With projects, activities, experiences, and skills ranging from “Superglue Your Fingers Together” to “Play with Fire,” along with 48 other great ideas, the book is a manifesto for kids and parents alike to reclaim childhood. Easy to follow instructions, fun facts, and challenging undertakings that will engage and inspire whole households.

Why Fifty Dangerous Things? First off, Five Dangerous Things just weren’t enough (although the audience at TED thought it was a good starting point). More importantly, there are many “dangerous” things that are interesting, eye-opening, enlightening or just plain fun! And while there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger. Most of us learn how to walk without toppling over at a very young age, so that walking is no longer dangerous. Next we learn to negotiate stairs. Why stop there? Why not practice and become proficient at walking on the roof or walking on a tightrope? These are just a few of the Fifty Dangerous Things that we invite you to try.

What if half of the school day was outside play?

It's great to give students movement breaks, stay 5-minutes longer at recess, and even have standing desks, but Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, reminds us that children need to move. They need to develop body awareness, which inevitable improves learning. All of our systems are connected, remember? They all need to be nourished, and not just for a few extra minutes.

She writes:

In order to create actual changes to the sensory system that results in improved attention over time,  children NEED to experience what we call “rapid vestibular (balance) input” on a daily basis. In other words, they need to go upside down, spin in circles, and roll down hills. They need authentic play experiences that get them moving in all different directions in order to stimulate the little hair cells found in the vestibular complex (located in the inner ear). If children do this on a regular basis and for a significant amount of time, then (and only then) will they experience the necessary changes needed to effectively develop the balance system–leading to better attention and learning in the classroom.

So, what if half of the school day was outside play? 

Hills, trucks, strangers, and airplane wheels

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I had really wanted to camp on this cycle trip of mine. Unfortunately for me, France is experiencing colder weather than usual for this time of year. My wonderful hosts in Lyon let me stay one more day to set up some more Warm Showers hosts for my trip down the Rhone River.

I headed out yesterday morning from Lyon. I was advised to take the train the first 20 kilometers as it’s industrial and there are no separate or scenic bike routes. I often don’t heed this advice as I enjoy seeing all the parts of a city: the center, the residential, the posh, the up-and-coming, the industrial, the suburban, even the highways and major intersections. You get a real feel for the people when you see the many different environments they create and how those places interact with each other: Are there clear boundaries? Does the friendliness of people change as the neighborhoods change? Do drivers and pedestrians smile back? What’s the sanitation like? The graffiti? The teenagers? The construction workers? The construction signs? These are all aspects of the culture of a people that we often don’t look for, yet they are the majority, the everyday, the this-is-what-we’re-like. If you combine this with the tourism side, the city center, the museums, you can really get a feel for their values, how they live, and how they want the world to see and think of them.  

Finally I met with the river in what looked on the map like a small city. I crossed over the river on a cute little pedestrian bridge into Vienne. I found a small shopping center, locked up the bike, found an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, and the center for tourism where I went first to get wifi locations and some route advice. The center had many young people working there who were all deeply apologetic and maybe even a bit embarrassed that there was almost no wifi in town. Not even there at the tourism center. They were, however, excited to tell me about the sign-posted, newly paved cycle route along the river that I could take for pretty much the next 300 km.

Before leaving Vienne I had to find some internet to contact my next hosts, get there exact address and find my route to them with the assistance of my phone’s GPS and the map app Pocket Earth. I stumbled into the “old city” filled with churches and even a courtyard with a small Pantheon. And there was Bar du Temple, what may have been the only bar/café in town with wifi. They seemed prepared for me: they gave me coffee and didn’t hesitate to charge my phone behind the bar while I took in the lunch crowd and slowly sipped a double-espresso.

Very soon after I found myself on a 2-meter wide bike path, just a bit higher than the river, with the changing autumn leaves, and not a soul in sight. I had the whole river to myself! It was very cold so I layered up and then I got lost in the scenery, void of vehicles, people, or noises other than nature. There was peace and calm and I couldn’t stop smiling; this was the adventure I had dreamed of when I first learned about cycle-touring; riding between water and farmland with the changing smells of nature.

Two hours and 40 km quickly passed. I ventured off the river route, called Via Rhona, into a hamlet to find my hosts. Without realizing it I had begun a steep ascent filled with very fast-moving cars and trucks zigzagging up and away. Quickly the shoulder I was riding on disappeared, and after my previous 70 km of the day I was exhausted. I was about 300 meters high and didn’t know how much further it or I could go. I could see on my map that I was only a few kilometers away from my host’s home. What to do?

Across the road was a truck, on a shoulder-pocket that seemed to be there just for emergencies. I waited for traffic to subside and hurried across. The driver was cleaning his dinner gear and getting ready to get back on the road to drive some Boeing wheels across Europe to get repaired. Most of his truck was empty and he graciously offered to drive me over the rest of the hill. It turned out to be only 1 km more, but 200 more meters high.

Finally I was on my bicycle on a back country road with 2 km to go. But the road was still slowly rising and I was more tired then ever. I cycled-and-paused probably 20 times. Unbeknownst to me, my host began to get worried and came out looking for me in his car. He found me and drove all of my bags to his house, riding slowly in front of me, cheering me on out his window. I was able to ride the last kilometer with all of my might, moving faster (without all of my gear!) up the slow gradient.

The young couple I stayed with live in the middle of nowhere, in a huge house (4 bedrooms!) in a hamlet, with a garden. They just turned 30. They have huge parties where they host all 30 of their friends for a weekend at a time, with friends sleeping everywhere. They moved here for a job opportunity. Plus it’s so inexpensive to live here. She’s an optician and he is a chemist who specialized in centrifuges. They come home for lunch. They are saving up to take off on a year-long journey comprised of cycling, hitchhiking, and a few different continents. We hit it off right away. They made me pumpkin soup and promised to show me a scenic bike path, down the hill, for the next part of my journey.

Once again I am humbled by the kindness in this world. Yes, the Warm Showers network is special in that we’ve had similar experiences and can guess, pretty accurately, the needs of each other. But everyone from the bartender who charged my phone, to the truck driver who gave me and my bike a ride, to these hosts for whom I was their first Warm Showers guest(!) treated me like family. With a quiet understanding, an extra blanket to sleep with, a cup of hot coffee waiting for me in the morning, and the knowledge that we are bound as members of humanity, we are connected. I could see these people at any time in my life and, again, we’d help each other out. And if we don’t see each other again, we know, at least, that we’re all continuing to connect with new people in an effort to make the world feel like one big community.

What if we reinvented the idea of family vacation and created an adventurous family lifestyle?

A young family takes their 4 year-old on hikes like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, instead of school. Together the family learns about nature, to take care of each other, to persevere through tough circumstances. Over time they are closer, more at ease with each other. What if we reinvented the idea of family vacation and, instead of taking a leisurely holiday with minimal family interaction, created an adventurous family lifestyle? What's really important, making money to sit on the beach at a resort, or making just enough money for food and emergencies and a life of exploring? 

http://www.backpacker.com/special-features/kindergarten-can-wait/

What if college students had to create public art projects that maximized social impact?

College students in Mumbai are addressing the needs of their city through school projects. They have created and implemented, with police support, murals, political commentary, repurposing of places that are frequently peed on (you read that right), and play spaces soliciting community feedback. They also created "The White Wall Project: A whitewashed wall, stage and canopy" to inspire gatherings, performances, and film screenings."

But my absolute favorite of these college students' projects were the ones that interacted directly with young children. They created playgrounds in the slums made from reused materials (tires, bamboo scaffolding). They hosted interactive art festivals fostering creative self-expression. And they performed plays inspired by the oral history of Mumbai on top of buildings next to public squares. Who said a rooftop can't be a stage?

Through these initiatives, read: university projects, these students have begun to transform the largest city in the world. Living in India I'm all too aware of the filth and forever-accumulating garbage in the streets preventing public gatherings. One college student began stenciling an image of Gandhi which ignited into a public-cleaning campaign and now, these inspiring college students, are also cleaning the streets of their beloved city. This is the next generation of India.

This is what higher education could be.