Each time he came to the center, he would devote his entire time to looking for insects under every log he could lift with his little arms.
With a bucket and some soil in the bottom, he would go explore the forest walking from one log to another, lifting, digging, excavating, and collecting all the insects he could find.
He was always excited about the fact that he might find out about new insects that he didn’t know before. He was an explorer discovering under each log about the existence of a new living world. Austin could identify all the insects and knew all their names.
We would compare their characteristics, finding out about their similarities and differences.
When he would unearth a new insect that he didn’t know before, his joy was indescribable, it was his happiness of exploring and learning about new things in his natural environment.
After collecting the insects, we would observe them moving in the bucket. Austin would observe the way they survive in his bucket. He would watch the way the insects would fight for life in this new “man-made” environment before releasing them out in the wild exactly where he had found them. As he said, “insects were like machines programmed to survive whatever happens, unlike humans who were often giving up if things were getting harder”.
This brought to us the question of consciousness, were the insects conscious of their urge to fight for life or were they just machines without any kind of consciousness? And maybe this was the difference with humans, that unlike insects, we have another consciousness of our environment.
By exploring the forest and looking for insects we were learning about the diversity of life, about the significance of existence, our place in the living world, what it meant to be a human being. Did we have something in common with the insects?
Austin was free to explore, free to move in his natural environment. Sometimes by looking for insects under the logs, we would find other small animals, like frogs, toads…it was a good opportunity to expand his interests, to talk about their characteristics and compare them to the insects. In our quest, we were also looking at the different kind of leaves we could find, the one we could eat, the one we couldn’t; we were observing the different types of trees that were surrounding us.
By being free to explore in nature, he could thus develop his interests, find out about the meaning of life and his place in this living world.
Each child has their own way of exploration but one thing that every children have in common is that they are born natural explorers.
Free exploration in nature is part of human life. Modern humans evolved and have lived in intimate contact with nature, in the savannahs and forests, for almost their entire history. It wasn't until recently that most people lived in cities.
So it’s not surprising that nature brings a natural joy of learning and discovery. It stimulates children's natural curiosity and imagination. In fact, studies have shown that walking in nature changes the brain, reduces stress level and increases creativity.
Moreover, numerous studies have shown nature also develops cognitive thinking skills and problem-solving abilities.
Nature is especially essential for autistic children because it removes all the bad sensory triggers that can be overwhelming for them in cities (such as artificial lights, noises, smells, and large numbers of people…). In fact, because of a malfunctioning sensory system, their amygdala (region of the brain responsible for the stress response) is often over-activated, and this triggers the release of high levels of cortisol, the fear hormone.
This causes their brain to shut down and they are not able to interact with their environment anymore.
Nature reduces the activation of the amygdala, allowing their brain to be free to explore their natural environment and to learn. [See science of learning]
What if free exploration in nature was part of education?
One of the greatest things is that nature is free. You don’t need to invest in any expensive or fancy outdoor play equipment. Simply go to your backyard or a public park and let the children freely explore the natural environment.
Observe the way the child explore their natural environment, and follow them in their exploration so you can help them develop their skills and interests. Talk to them about what humans created so they can learn the common knowledge of humanity.
Humans created things by learning deeply about their environment and by interacting and sharing their knowledge.
So education is not just reading a book and passing an exam. It’s learning how to be connected to each other and to the earth, so you can learn about yourself, your place in the living world.
Allow children time to move and explore in nature so they can understand the importance of life and develop their sensitivity for the infinite beauty of nature.
And when you learn how to observe nature and its infinite beauty, you develop a mindfulness of your environment, and compassion for others and for yourself.