Many leaders today are grasping at ways to reconnect children with the natural world. Recent studies that confirm the detriments of a childhood spent indoors have inspired legislative efforts such as the recently introduced Healthy Kids Outdoors Act and President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative. However, true change must take place on the frontlines of childhood – at home and at school.
At Lookout Mountain Elementary School, fourth-grade teachers are fighting on those frontlines through the use of an informal writing program, EarthWrite, which they say encourages wonder and inspiration in the outdoors. Fourth-grade teachers Susan Frankenberg and Cindy Jayne, both 22-year teaching veterans, integrated EarthWrite into their writing curriculum three years ago. This year, the two partnered with the school’s art teacher, Toni Gwaltney, and science lab teacher, D’Arcy Hughes, to integrate nature throughout writing, science and art.
Students designed their own EarthWrite journals in art class at the beginning of the year, and they are asked to write three journal entries each week contemplating nature, science and art. Most of the writing is done at home, and each Friday the two classes merge to read their stories aloud.
The students enthusiastically agree that nature offers a wealth of opportunities for writing, with topics including trees, morning clouds, sunsets, the noise of crickets, wind, fall leaves, mold, rain, flowers, animals, and travel adventures.
According to Frankenberg and Jayne, their students’ interest in writing and connection with nature has increased significantly through the use of EarthWrite.
“It has absolutely opened their eyes to the outdoors so they notice moments that they have never considered before,” says Frankenberg. “They talk about their outside play more. They like outdoor-themed books more. They just seem to have become more connected with the outdoors.”
The response of these 9 and 10-year-old students to EarthWrite is nothing short of remarkable.
“If it wasn’t for EarthWrite, I wouldn’t be focused on the outside,” says 9-year-old Katie. “It has taught me to go outside and look at everyday objects, like leaves and grass and trees. You get to wonder a lot.” Katie says she wanders in her yard and will stoop down to observe and write. “I never would have thought about going outside to write,” she says. “I am writing about stuff that I would never have thought about writing.” In her journal, Katie writes: “The air is cool with a breeze. The tree’s leaves are swaying a little. I can hear my foundation water coming from the rocks and hitting the pond. It smells a little like rain. I start to feel a little cool. The clouds are somewhat dark and the sky is white with a little blue.”
For 9-year-old Davis, the experiential aspect of EarthWrite is motivating. “I didn’t like writing before, but now it’s my favorite subject,” he says, adding that over the recent fall break his family went to Alaska and he couldn’t wait to write in his EarthWrite journal about his experiences there. In his journal, Davis categorized the animals he saw on his Alaska trip, from smallest to most fierce: “Eagles, mountain goat, gray wolves, red wolves, gray whales, moose, elk, caribou, white whales, beluga whales, black bears, brown bears, polar bears, grizzly bears – now that’s what I call Homeland Security.”
For Robert, age 9, writing is learning. “Nature is about life and energy and everything that’s living,” he says. “It’s just fun to write about nature – you can get all these good ideas and learn new facts.” His journal entry about dissecting an owl pellet reflects his interest in the project, as well as his comfortable use of words: “The owl pellet holds the secrets of the owl’s life. My owl was like a victorious leader. He conquered many prey. I bet he remained on the top of the food chain.”
Many students describe a special outdoor place in their yard – often a secret, hidden place where they are inspired to write in their EarthWrite journals. That these students even have a secret hideaway in nature where they can write is important, according to David Sobel, author of Children’s Special Places. Sobel’s research validates this age group’s tendency to create outdoor forts and dens and the important role these places have in connecting children with nature.
“Forts and dens, these special places of childhood that are both found and built, appear to be crucially important for many children from ages 8 to 11,” says Sobel. “Children in urban, suburban, and rural landscapes find and create hidden places, even in daunting circumstances. These new homes in the wild, and the journeys of discovering them, are the basis for bonding with the natural world.”
For 10-year-old Jack, his secret hideout beneath a tree and a bush is also his favorite place to write in his EarthWrite journal. “It’s really nature-y and hidden, sort of like the book The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles where they have a secret land.”
Olivia, age 9, describes her EarthWrite journaling space: “I normally write in this little place in the backyard where there is a little forest and a weeping willow tree that I sit under. I get ideas for stories there.”
Teacher Cindy Jayne says she sees the benefits of EarthWrite journaling transcending into other areas of her students’ lives. “When students can express themselves and share, they are so much more apt to share ideas that they would never share just through talking,” says Jayne. “We learn things about them, their parents learn things about them, and they learn things about themselves. EarthWrite gives them a creative outlet for what they are learning and what they experience in their everyday lives.”
Holden, age 9, exemplifies this. “When you go out into nature, you can write about anything you want,” he says, adding that he enjoys writing on a cushion next to a window where his dogs like to sit. “You don’t choose what to write about, the thing chooses you. I will feel drawn to things to write about.”
These inspired 9 and 10-year-olds have caught hold of something special: a sense of wonder for nature, writing, learning and sharing that has the power to affect change for the benefit of the natural world. In the words of 9-year-old Everett: “Sometimes when you wonder, it makes other people wonder, too.”
Jenni Frankenberg Veal offers a special thank you to her mom, Susan Frankenberg, one of the teachers featured in this article, for cultivating in her a lifelong love of nature and writing.