How to raise wild kids: place-based learning, food science, and green schools


Beyond imagining the subjective world of animals and plants (and fungi, and protista, and monera), how else does Scott Sampson suggest schools can help kids understand ecosystems? That is, how can we help kids grok that everything is connected to everything — in fact, not just connected, but interwoven? Three things, Sampson suggests: place-based learning, food science, and green schools.

I'm elated to say that our new kind of school has already been exploring curriculum that supports at least two of these (makes me feel pretty darned cool, actually!), so I'll sketch these out a bit more briefly than I have been, and give links to our signature curricula.

Crucially, each of these gives kids repeated experiences with the natural world — encounters over weeks, months, and years that allow children to gradually develop a complex, rich, and nuanced understanding of the world. (I've written about the necessity of such an approach in The secret to boiling an egg — and mastering everything else!)

Place-based learning

Place-based learning is a tried-and-true approach to school that privileges local environments. Instead of only reading books about the rain forest, for example, educators who fancy place-based learning take their kids outside. Local people and communities can play a role, too.

The point isn't just to observe the outside world, but to integrate it with what's being learned in the classroom.

I've seen nature place-based learning brought to its zenith by the Corbett Charter School, the Portland-area K-12 grounded in Imaginative Education and led by Bob Dunton until 2014.

The school was located near the Columbia River Gorge, and the whole school made a magical, three-year study of it, focusing (in sequential years) on the biology, geology, and human history of the area.

By the time the grade schoolers finished their three-year cycle, they understood not only more about the Gorge, but about all of geology, biology, and human history than I suspect I did in high school!

Food science

Food is nature. When we forget that, we become a little more alienated from the world around us.

And we ourselves are food! Every cell of us has been assembled out of what we've put into our mouths. As Sampson writes,

You're not merely connected to nature through the web of life. You're interwoven with it.

Paying attention to food, then, can be a route into deep understanding of science. Delightfully, there's lately been a crusade to bring food science into the classroom — the farm-to-school movement, like the Edible Schoolyard Project. Sampson points out that gardens are micro-ecosystems themselves, and lauds schools who have created gardens to grow food kids can eat:

Gardens are almost magical in their capacity to lift the curtain on our alienation from nature.

I haven't written about it here, but I'm proud to note that our first school — the Island Academy of Hilton Head — has been creating their own garden.

Our schools, though, are going even further than this. As regular readers know, we're taking on the radical project of having kids daily make lunch together — something I've summarized here, and have explored the grade-school practice of here.

Green schools

Sampson dreams:

What if schoolyards were transformed even further, into ecologically diverse landscapes? We all have a pretty good idea of traditional schoolyards: mostly asphalt with some dirt or grassy fields and maybe a few trees and shrubs.... Now imagine these old-style school grounds... replaced by a diversity of greenery, including plenty of native trees and bushes. Rain captured in downsprouts flows onto the grounds, nurturing the plants. Children welcome migrating birds in spring with nesting boxes and frolic in the autumn leaves amidst lengthening shadows. In addition to a vegetable garden, there's a butterfly garden, another just for hummingbirds, and even habitat for bees, which produce delicious honey.

I have little to say about this right now, except: oh, oh yes.

Let's do this.

We can reboot schooling and make it wonderful — and learning from special places, growing food and cooking it together, and re-wilding the school grounds are perfect places to begin.

Why science must be reductive AND holistic


Scott D. Sampson, in his book How to Raise a Wild Child, suggests that science education has taken a wrong turn:

One of the most prevalent ideas in science is that nature consists of objects.... We objectify nature to measure it, test it, and study it, with the ultimate goal of revealing its secrets.

In order to heal the Nature Deficit Disorder that plagues children, Sampson suggests we need to give kids EMU: experience, mentoring, and understanding. But, he argues, traditional science education (and traditional science) has hyperfocused on one aspect of understanding and ignored the rest.

As Wordsworth put it: "We murder to dissect." In breaking apart the things around us to see what makes them tick, we end up losing the dynamic wholes that fascinated us in the first place.

Sampson points out that this desire to "break down" complexities lies at the heart of the modern scientific disciplines:

Science subdivides nature into chunks or "-ologies": geology is the study of rocks, entomology the study of insects, and so forth. Within each discipline, scientists further dissect their object of study into an ever-smaller array of parts. Zoologists, for example, think of animals in terms of species, organisms, cells, genes, and the like.

There's a certain breed of thinker that thinks this reductive science is bad, bad, bad — that a healthy science must repent of this "reductionism" and do the opposite!

I don't think Sampson is among this group. That he is card-carrying member of a "traditional" scientific discipline (paleontology) seems to imply that he sees the value of breaking down complex phenomena to understand how they work. (Dr. Sampson, if you're reading, feel free to set the record straight!)

Rather, I think, Sampson is arguing that this reductive approach must be combined with an emergentist approach, that looks for connections and wholes.

We need both sorts of science.

How can we bring this emergentist approach — this holistic approach — into schools?

Sampson gives four suggestions: subjectification, place-based learning, food science, and green schools.

I'll be explaining his vision for the last three in future posts. For the moment, I'd like to gush about how Sampson suggests we bring "subjectication" into the school. 

Sampson invites us to imagine walking through a forest. What do we see? An evergreen tree, perhaps. A squirrel. A crow. A butterfly. A beetle. A stream. And so on.

But this answer focuses on parts, and misses the complex relationships between them:

If we could put on Mother Nature's goggles, the revealed world would be a kaleidoscope of flowing relationships. A fir tree soaking up solar energy while siphoning water from the soil below. A beetle chewing on an oak leaf, gorging itself on green sunlight. A butterfly dancing atop a flower, finding food while helping the flower make more flowers. A spider wrapping up some winged creature for a later meal. A rotting log giving sustenance to a bevy of decomposing critters.

Nature is chockablock with subjects, with agents trying to flourish. To do this, they've negotiated complex relationships with the agents around them.

Science class can be, in part, an exploration of these agents, and of these relationships.

Ultimately, science education, in concert with other areas of learning, could go a long way toward achieving the "Great Work" described by cultural historian Thomas Berry — transforming the perceived world from a "collection of objects" to a "communion of subjects."

I've written elsewhere about how our new kind of school might do this — might help re-enchant the world. We can do that, I argued, by drawing from an indigenous American cosmology (a view that world is full of subjects, rather than objects) and engaging this through the teaching philosophy of Imaginative Education (which holds that everything is interesting, and that even complexity can be explored through stories, emotions, mysteries, and metaphors).

I'm happy to say that this seems deeply consonant with what Dr. Sampson recommends!

He gives us a simple suggestion, however, as to how to start: get kids outside, and

ask children to find as many examples of nature's interrelationships as they can.

The long journey toward rebooting school can start with such simple steps.

How can we help kids FALL IN LOVE with an ecosystem?


Let's assume that our new kind of school can achieve what I set out yesterday, in "Make Naturalists, Not Biologists": get kids learning about and loving nature through mucking about in it. How can we do that? How can we cultivate a love of the natural world?

Scott Sampson — whose powerful How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature I've been riffing on lately — argues that local places can help us.

He suggests that there may be something deep in human nature that helps us fall in love with specific places.

Sampsons suggests a "topophilia hypothesis".

He's riffing himself off of E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis — that humans have an instinctive urge to affiliate with other forms of life. (For how we've responded to that, see our curriculum of animals and plants in the classroom.)

Sampson's idea, though, is a bit more specific. He starts by tracing the roots of the word:

In 1947, poet W. H. Auden coined a similar word, topophilia — literally, a "love of place" — to refer to the affective bonds that people often form with the places they live....

I decided to borrow this neologism to put forth a new idea, the topophilia hypothesis, which proposes that we humans possess an innate bias to bond with local life and landscape, inherited from our foraging forebearers.

Animals need to bond in order to survive: to food, to water, to members of the opposite sex, to anything that can protect them from predators, and so on. Animals are bonding machines, and each species needs to bond to somewhat different things.

What did humans need to bond to, throughout our evolutionary maturation?

Among other things: the particular ecosystems they were living in. 

Now, humans aren't koala bears: we're not just native to one specific ecosystem. So humans would need a general-purpose ecosystem bonding system: a drive that works something like "whatever the environment around you, pay attention to it. Be curious about it. Be prepared to develop affection for it!"

Sampson again:

I've proposed that topophilia evolved to help humans adapt to a diverse range of settings, each with its own unique suite of life forms and landforms.

Humans who bonded to the place of their childhoods — be they a savanna, desert, rainforest, or whatever — tended to understand it better, and hence tended to survive more.

This is, note, only a hypothesis. It's entirely possible that the lust we see for specific places doesn't come from a specific evolutionary source, but has arisen for other reasons. (We must, as always, be on guard against just-so stories.)

But what seems undeniable is that

a deep passion for local place often develops, particularly among those living in oral, indigenous cultures.... Our body, mind, and senses are "designed" to connect with nature.

Humans are designed to connect with specific natural environments.

A school for humans can make good use of that.

But how?

Here an idea from the Imaginative Education community can come to the rescue: Whole-School Projects.

And about that, more anon!

Make naturalists, not biologists.


A new kind of school — our new kind of school — is attempting to provide a fuller, deeper science curriculum than any school has ever achieved. Today — following my series of riffs off of Scott D. Sampson's powerful book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature — I'd like to suggest that, to do this, we shouldn't try to make biologists — we should try to make naturalists.

What's the difference, you ask?

It's subtle, but exciting.

Sampson talks about how scientists and explorers adopted the moniker "naturalist" in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles Darwin called himself a naturalist. So did Thomas Jefferson! And in the 1870s and '80s, so did a whole host of Americans.

Nature fever overtook the general public, resulting in hundreds of small natural history associations from coast to coast.

This wave of excitement brought us our great natural history museums (including the Milwaukee Public Museum, which I loved as a boy).

But, by and by, people started spending more time indoors, and the scientific field became professionalized. A new field — "biology" — was defined, focusing

on genes and molecules rather than whole organisms.

The professionals wanted (quite understandably) to differentiate themselves from the masses. And they had reason to, because the sorts of research they conducted was quite different:

Field observations, the bread and butter of natural historians, were replaced by replicable experiments conducted in sterile laboratories.

Ultimately, the word "naturalist" itself faded. Sampson laments:

By the time I began exploring that forest on Vancouver's west side in the mid-1960s, natural history had become a quaint hobby for amateurs.

But, I think, in the death of "naturalist" lie the seeds of its renewal.

"Amateur": an interesting word!

The New Oxford American Dictionary gives one definition of amateur:

"a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity"

It probably goes without saying, but: That's bad. We don't want that.

But there's something cool in the word. Remember that amateur comes from the Latin amare: "to love".

Amateurs are lovers.

A new kind of school — an actual new kind of school, that pushes beyond the tired educational debates of the 20th century — needs to be a school for lovers, even before it needs to be a school for mastery or a school for meaning.

And so, I suggest, we need to reclaim the word "amateur".

The good people at the podcast A Way with Words summarize the difference between "naturalist" and "biologist" quite nicely —

"Naturalist" connotes "muddy boots". "Biologist" connotes "crisp, clean lab coat".

You think "naturalist", and you think tromping in the muck. You think "biologist", and you think holding a tenured chair.

In the last few decades, people have valued chairs over boots.

Well: "naturalist" is coming back. It's being reclaimed by scientists — most notably E. O. Wilson — who see the need to reconnect people to the natural world.

Now, ain't nothing wrong with lab coats. And ain't nothing wrong with tenured chairs!

Ain't nothing wrong, that is, with learning about the natural world through carefully-controlled experiments conducted in sterile labs.

Our society needs (desperately!) more of that sort of science. And we need to do some of it in our schools, too.

But it's not where we need to start.

So, let's be clear on this: A new kind of school needs to do science in the muck. A new kind of school needs to bring back actual experiences — oftentimes messy, occasionally dangerous — into science. A new kind of school needs to reclaim the mantle of amateur science.

Sampson writes:

We're closer than you might think to rebuilding a country of naturalists.

A school for humans needs to be a school for naturalists. And that's one of the things, I'm proud to say, we're doing!

What can a science education be? (How stories and riddles can save the world.)


Reactions to our last post fell squarely into two camps:

  1. Oh what a beautiful idea! I wish I could have gone to a school like this.

Dialoguing with friends in Camp #2 about our "creation of the world" curriculum has made me realize that I haven't done a good job explaining why we're approaching history, science, and religion in this unusual way.

And to be clear: what we're doing really is unusual! I'm not sure I know of any other school that's setting its goals for student understanding so high.

It's to the folk of Camp #2 that I dedicate this imaginary Q & A.

Question: Plopping creation stories next to the Big Bang narrative makes me uncomfortable! What are you guys even trying to do with this history curriculum of yours?

Three things, I think!

First, we're telling the history of science.

Why? Well, scientific understanding is an odd beast: in theory, it's timeless — Gregor Mendel's idea of genetic inheritance (to take one example) could have been figured out by anyone in the ancient world.

But in practice, scientific understanding is often bound up in politics, social realities, religion, economics, and a host of other things. And oftentimes scientific discoveries depend on earlier scientific discoveries.

Science has a history, an arc — one that intersects with everything. Science is part of the grand human story — something that can get lost in the traditional curriculum! Our Big Spiral History curriculum brings us back to the humanity of science.

(Lest you think that Big Spiral History is the only way we're approach science, remember that our schools are also cultivating a scientific mindset with a host of other practices — among them question-posing & answer-hunting, dissecting technology, cooking lunch together, bringing animals & plants into the classroom, realistic drawing, Learning in Depth, and location study.)

Second, not only are we teaching the history of scientific ideas — we're emerging ourselves in the epic, personal stories of scientific discovery. 

This, I think, is something that got completely left out of my previous post.

Archimedes' "bath" method of measuring volume? Yes. William Harvey's realization that the heart was a pump? Yes! Anton van Leeuwenhoek's discovery of the "wee beasties" in pond water? Ho yeah!

And dozens and dozens of other science stories, besides. Using the Imaginative Education methodology, we can teach these stories with more intellectual respectibility and more emotional heft than is hardly ever done. We can have one of the most vivid history of science curriculums of any school.

It’s easy for students to fall into the feeling that "science" is a series of immutable truths that spring, fully-formed, from the head of Zeus. And, in reality, "science" (in one sense of the word) is exactly that — it's the real world! What's true would be true, even if no humans were around to talk about it.

But "science" in the sense of "scientific understanding" is human-hatched notions — notions that compete and prevail based on how well they are able to make sense of evidence. Notions that sprang from the heads of often quite interesting men and women, whose back stories are fascinating.

So we're not just teaching history of scientific ideas — we're teaching the history of science through personal stories. Actually, this is currently quite a hot subject! Think Bill Bryson's bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything, which chronicles the scientific breakthroughs of the last three hundred years. Think Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos TV series, which flips back and forth between CGI representations of scientific ideas, and animated narrations of the people who first cooked them up.

We can match the wonder and excitement and intellectual heft of those works. We can even surpass them — because of the third thing we're trying to do.

We're not just telling the history of scientific ideas, and we're not just telling that history through personal stories. We're using both of those as an opportunity to puzzle alongside. 

When you watch Cosmos, you're mostly along for the ride. Neil DeGrasse Tyson frequently asks questions of the audience, but I can't remember him waiting more than 15 seconds before giving us the answer. This isn't anything against Neil — it's a limitation of the medium of television.

But we're teachers, working with kids over the long term: we have access to all sorts of tools that television (and Khan Academy) don't. We can re-create experiments. We can prompt kids to explain phenomena that don't seem to make sense. And we don't have to tell them the answer after 15 seconds — we can sit in puzzlement with kids for minutes, hours, weeks! We can prompt them to expose their confusion, to ask questions, and to imagine what a resolution might look like.

A great teacher can do this — can make kids more confused than they'd ever be on their own!

And a great teacher can be a guide, too — giving clues, assigning students to ask their adults for their ideas.

This is part of what we're aiming for with our Philosophy for Children approach to literature, history, and everything. It's also part of why we're making question-posing and answer-hunting a staple of the week.

Here, in brief, is our vision for what a science education can be:

We live in a society that has been built up by millennia of brilliant human discoveries. We're in the midst of accelerating innovation, and are plunging into a future in which this innovation stands to harm us and to help us.

We can help children understand these discoveries, as if they were uncovering them for the first time. We can do so by tapping into our lust for vividly-told stories, and for solving riddles. 

Or, at least, that's part of our vision of what a science education can be.

Stay tuned for more.

Animals & plants


A problem:

Kids in classrooms can sometimes be like hamsters stuck in empty cages. Our minds are built to handle a specific type of complexity, and we feel satisfied when we're in it.

One aspect of the environment that we're built for is that it be filled with living things: plants and animals and fungi. That is, we're built to find animals and plants interesting. 

Biology, of course, grows out of this innate love — this biophilia, as a few authors have christened it.

We're built to crave being around living things, but schools (and much of modern society) largely divorces us from it.

Our basic plan:

We bring in as many animals & plants to our classroom (and to our school property) as possible. We find ways to put kids in contact with these living things, we encourage the kids to observe and pose questions about the living things, and we help answer those questions.

Our goals:

Our grade schoolers learn as much complex biology as many students learn throughout K-12.

Our students lose their "gross!" response (also an innate reaction!) as they encounter insects and worms.

Our students feel calmer.

Our students develop relationships with some of the animals, and from that become enchanted with the natural world.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Walking into our classrooms, you might notice the surprising number of plants that line the walls of the room. There are grow-lights galore, and a surprising number of hydroponic systems (the better for seeing roots, and being clear on how plants grow).

You might spot students taking time-lapse photos of a bed of mushrooms growing (to be eaten in a later lunch!).

Lots of schools have class pets, and we should pursue these, too: fish and hermit crabs and parakeets and gerbils. We might also pursue some of the ickier critters: worms and praying mantises and beetles; snakes and frogs and salamanders. Gross! shuts kids out of experiences that could support a vibrant intellectualism: helping kids desensitize to the slimy and creepy-crawly is part of our job.

I'd love for the school to have a chicken coop outside, with kids in charge of taking care of the birds.

For all of these animals and plants, we'd have kids make observations: drawing, especially, but also measuring growth and writing down behavior. (This can be done in blocks of independent work time.) We can then encourage kids to pose questions about what they'd like to understand: why does the gerbil get scared when I approach its cage? why do the mushrooms grow better away from the sunlight?

Having posed these questions (and perhaps shared them to our Questions Board), kids can start looking for answers, through Wikipedia, Zoobooks, The Encyclopedia of Life, and so on. Those questions which kids aren't able to answer on their own, but would like to have answered, are prime material for the teacher to have an Imaginative-Education-inspired circle time about.

Some specific questions:

  • What's the least number of animals/plants/fungi we'd like to start with?
  • What's the greatest vision for animals/plants/fungi we'd like to aim for?
  • Beyond the animals/plants/fungi that I've listed here, what other ones could we put in?
  • Lots of kids and teachers (myself included) have allergies to mammals. Does this automatically rule out having any in our classrooms, or are there clever ways around this?
  • What kinds of safety issues do we need to talk about, if we bring animals into the school?

Our technology/mechanics curriculum

[Over the next few months, I plan to be sketching out very short synopses of all of the pieces of our school's curriculum. From those, I'll create a new website — not merely a blog — so we can nudge the school one step closer to reality!] A trouble of the 21st century is that we're surrounded by technology we don't understand. We feel confused, and powerless.

But what if a school could explore the technological world from a very young age? What if we could raise a generation who was in awe of the complexity others had created, who was convicted that they could add to that complexity?

What we'll do

1. Our classes, starting in first grade, will choose an Thing of the Month — a toaster, a refrigerator, a light bulb, and so on.

2. Kids will interrogate the object with questions, as they tap it, squeeze it, sniff it, draw it, and use it. (How does it know when to pop up the toast? Why do the insides glow red?)

3. The teacher won't just slap on superficial answers that hide more than they reveal: "a timer!" "electricity!" Instead, she'll dive into a little research (books, websites, community members) and make suggestions and drop hints to guide students into deeper pondering.

4. Over the weeks, the class will have a conversation as they begin to dissect the object, slicing and dicing and shooting down old hypotheses as they propose new ones, and asking ever more questions. (Why don't the coils burn? What is electricity, anyhow?)

Our hope is that by the end of the month, kids'll have come to a deeper real understanding of the physical world than many students get in all elementary school.

Steve Jobs famously said, "Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use…. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again."

We can raise a generation that has gratitude toward the makers who came before, and who want to be makers themselves.

If you find this interesting, you also might be interested in our biology curriculum, our drawing curriculum, and our question-formulation curriculum (links coming soon).

Previous (and longer) blog posts on this include this and this.

Some open questions: Is there anyone who's already doing science like this? What sorts of liabilities do we have when teaching kids how to use saws and other sharp things?