Interview - Coffee Break with Claire Warden

15th Feb 2019 • Enrichment

Bush School.. nature pedagogy.. experiential learning.. you may have heard it before but what's it all about exactly and why is it becoming more and more important in our technology filled universe? We recently spoke with pioneering education expert, best-selling author and nature advocate Claire Warden to learn a little more.

For those who haven’t heard the term before, what is nature pedagogy and why is it significant?

There are many, many ways for young children to experience the natural world. For some it will be playing outside in a garden, or going for a walk, or visiting an urban play park. When we look at education and childcare, there are ways in which we work with children that are driven by philosophical values, which can in turn lead to the creation of models or defined approaches. There are some that identify themselves as models, such as 'nature kindergarten', 'forest school', 'forest kindergartens', 'nature pre-schools', or 'scogsmulle'. Discussions around nature pedagogy are inclusive, as the key focus is how to ‘be with nature’ in all approaches and models. Nature pedagogy presents the natural world through a sustainable, eco-centric approach, which is a lens for viewing nature where the natural world is an integrated system where humans are affected by all the other living and non-living things and vice versa. An ego-centric approach places humans at the top of a hierarchy and views them as consumers of the natural world for food, wealth and pleasure.

In the design world, we draw on biophilic design to create settings that appear to embrace the natural world through using natural colour palettes, organic building features and finishes, organic furniture shapes and natural materials for décor and imagery on the walls. These are the places we play, live and work, but the natural world has added benefits far beyond aesthetics. The sustainability of what we do and how we live needs to run through us as a set of values. Nature pedagogy is therefore significant, as it provides an educational framework that doesn’t just teach about nature, but integrates it into our buildings and rooms, outside into play and learning landscapes and beyond into wilder spaces.

Who or what inspired your interest in nature pedagogy and experiential learning?

My mum was my inspiration, as she used nature pedagogy without calling it that. As a teacher post-World War 2, she had no money available for resources, so she used natural materials and spaces outside the buildings to find motivational ways of teaching young children. There is a tendency in teaching today, and education generally, to over-purchase resources to teach children, but I suggest that effective teachers/educators can frequently teach in the moment using what they have around them. So, when you are in the natural world, something as simple as a leaf has many possibilities for learning. A leaf can be ripped into pieces to make a jigsaw, or several can be collected to count, measure, compare, explore symmetry or even Fibonacci spirals - the list of potential knowledge, skills and concepts is immense, if we only see and act upon the possibilities. As a child I was lucky to have access to open countryside, and my parents gave me the freedom to explore it. Those early memories gave me so much in terms of driving my own intellectual inquiries, emotional encounters and physical challenges. We really are narrowing children’s potential if we don’t use the natural world of the outdoor classroom. It is a way of approaching education, to be active and to learn through authentic real-world experiences.

It is safe to say technology can play a role in the amount of time children spend outside. Are you noticing an increase in interest from education professionals and parents worldwide?

There are two ways to engage with technology - the first is to be on the receiving end, passively, such as with games or amusements, and the second is to use it proactively, as a creative tool.

The latter has great potential for children when they seek to explore, manipulate and challenge their environments, inside or outside. Social media can support friendships, but if those experiences only exist in the virtual world they can be distorted, without consequence or social context. Life and education should be about real experiences - rain isn’t the same when we watch it on a screen. How will a child experience the learning and simple joy of jumping in a puddle if they only watch someone else doing it? Perhaps we need to consider carefully what kind of children we are leaving for the planet, rather than just what planet are we leaving for our children. Restricting screen time is about supporting children (and us as adults) to make wise choices, whilst focussing on creating balance. Technology has been part of our homes for a long time now, but one issue is that it now goes everywhere with us, so we don’t walk away from it when we go outside. Some notable individuals who have been instrumental in designing the systems we use restrict their use for their children under 7 years old, because it gets in the way of play, whether inside or outside… what does that tell you? There is interest, and now we are seeing legislation, about phone-use in English schools, but it is social time that presents the biggest challenge, when children (and their parents) need to make the tough choices to balance the virtual world and the real one – and actually benefit from the technology at our fingertips, rather than let it have a negative effect.

Can you tell us a little more about the Association you founded; the International Association of Nature Pedagogy?

The idea of nature pedagogy is that it links us all as humans to the rest of the natural world. So, to support adults to connect, we wanted to create an association to make it easy for people to meet and communicate across the world. When people connect, I am convinced that great innovations emerge. Even if the creation and theorisation of nature pedagogy sits with me, it needs to be shared with individuals working at every level of society. There needs to be a wider understanding of nature pedagogy, but it still requires some definition for it to be acknowledged in universities and colleges, as a subject to study. Involving many people – those who have the ability to connect and share their thinking - really will make light work of this, which in turn will improve the quality of early years provision for children and families.

Each country has its own organisations for nature-based advocacy, which have emerged in a place influenced by politics, law and regulation, curriculum and culture. The IANP isn’t seeking to take over, but to link people together and share the practical wisdom they have gathered over time to support new groups and individuals.

Can you tell us something most people wouldn't know about you?

I was born in Kampala, Uganda. 😊


For additional resources and more information about Claire Warden:

Claire Warden - Educational Consultant


International Association of Nature Pedagogy