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Resources & Activities

Land as First Teacher

In Reggio Emilia, Italy, they commonly say that the environment is the third teacher. But at the York Region Nature Collaborative at Lake St George in Toronto, they talk about land as being the first teacher. Hopi Martin, Johnny Moore and Diane Kashin unpack exactly what this means for them in their nature-based learning space.

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Hopi Martin stands in front of a wigwom
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Land as First Teacher - An Indigenous World View

When using an indigenous world view of children’s learning, nature is at the forefront of your work. Learning to live in harmony with Mother Earth is essential. 

When the educators at The York Region Nature Collaborative talk about land as first teacher, they say this because they believe Mother Earth was here first. And they were here last. This belief frames their work and underpins the remarkable learning experiences children who are lucky enough to attend their learning service have. 

Reconnecting With the Land

Dr Diane Kashin lives very close to Lake St George, and has been fortunate to have access to the land as an early childhood educator and a professor of ECE. With the land being accessible to children in the early years, and to the indigenous community, Diane feels that having opportunities to reconnect to the land is an honour and privilege. 

In this wild and wonderful site at Lake St George, the educators believe that Mother Earth gives them everything they need to survive. And it is the lessons that she gives them every day, throughout all four seasons of the year, that are lessons we can ALL learn from. 

You see, these lessons relate to the early years, and in Ontario specifically, to the Four Foundations of How Does Learning Happen which is Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years. 

The Four Seasons

Nestled within this wonderful space, is a wigwam built by Johnny Moore - Eagles Calling - of the Turtle Clan and part of the Early Years Project. The wigwam embodies all four seasons. With it’s flaps attached, the children and educators can be outdoors in winter time, still comfortable and with a fire for warmth.  The flaps can also come off so that they are closest to Mother Earth as she warms up the land in spring and into summer. 

The educators and children have ceremonies at this site. The word wigwam means “a home” and so it is that this wonderful place surrounded with nature is their home in the bush where the children can come and have a safe, familiar and cosy place. A place in the bush where they can learn about traditional ways, but can also play and have fun. It is a holistic way of learning and one that can be transported to any context around the world. 

The wigwam tells a story of the four seasons of the year, and Hopi shared some of the basic teachings relating to this. Each of the posts that form the structure of the wigwam has a name. One post relates to the moment of passing and is connected to that mystery. This post has black ribbon tied to it and connects with the Spring Equinox. A second post has green ribbon attached and connects to birth. This birth comes from Mother Earth and relates to natures growth. A third post with a blood red ribbon tied to it is linked to the Summer Solstice. It is symbolic of movement and is representative of the change and movement at the Fall Equinox. Finally, a post with blue ribbon tied to it is symbolic of relationships. 

These four intermediate directions always stay the same. Birth, movement, relationships and passing are the ways that they describe the life or growth cycle. Every single living thing, from a tiny seed to human beings all grow in this way. We all experience birth and we all come into movement. We all have relationships and we all have a moment of passing where we give back to the land. If we consider these four stages, they can give us a hint of how we can move through our seasons in a positive way. 

Four Foundations of Learning 

Hopi links these four “intermediate directions” that make up the structure of the wigwam to Ontario’s Four Foundations of How Does Learning Happen. They are Wellbeing, Belonging, Engagement and Expression. Without these Four Foundations, learning does not happen. These foundations are backed by non indigenous science and Western research. Although the foundations are applied to all children in ECE in Ontario, they have not been considered from an indigenous perspective. However, the principles of the four seasons of the year and the four posts within the wigwam, can be related to the four foundations:

  1. Wellbeing - Hopi suggests considering Mother Earth as being responsible for our Wellbeing and all of the things we need to survive. Hopi links this to our moment of birth (and the birthing in nature that happens at Spring time), as we would never survive without it. Without Mother Earth, we simply would not exist. 
  2. Engagement - As we pass through the seasons, think about the change and movement that occurs within nature. For young children, this movement can be seen in the way they physically engage with their environment. Moving their bodies and playing outside as they explore natures gifts. 
  3. Belonging - The concept of belonging is directly linked to relationships. These are not just physical relationships with other people, but also the relationships that we have with spirit, and particularly in Ontario, the spiritual connections that are often not talked about in mainstream society. Indigenous people believe we’re spiritual beings on a physical journey, so nurturing these relationships is essential for children to feel that sense of belonging. A knowing of what came before them. Hopi shares that this is evident in the significance of sacred fire and sacred medicines.
  4. Expression - Hopi shares how the concept of expression sits alongside the moment of passing. He tells us “give a child long enough that their wellbeing is taken care of. They’ve had time on the land, to feel engaged and enliven and they then start to see the relationships between things. There is nothing that they would like more than to come and talk to you about the adventures they’ve had and the stories they have made.” Giving children time in this way, is when they start to open up and give back. They love to tell you about their day, their adventures, discoveries, thoughts and ideas. When children tell you their stories, and they have a kind, caring adult to listen to them, and respond to them, they have that serve and return within that relationship. This is when you might see them get excited, and they can’t wait to show you more day after day. Supporting them to express themselves in this way, helps them to plant a little “seed”,. You will then find that they will come back to the same place again, and tell you much more. This is an example of a way in which you support them to move through the four foundations of Wellbeing, Engagement, Belonging and Expression. This way of moving, is in harmony with the four seasons, in harmony with the sun, and in harmony with the earth. 

And so, what if we consider these Four Foundations of Wellbeing, Engagement, Belonging and Expression in a different way. Rather than thinking of them as being fixed points, and standing singularly, we could consider them in movement with each other. This would give us a method for supporting our children, and helping them to live in harmony with the earth, rather than in obstruction to it. As a starting point, think about this concept of land as first teacher and reflect on what we can learn from Mother Earth. And consider this as a good beginning or foundation for living a good life.

Reflective Questions and Prompts

  • How do you support children in your learning service to connect with nature?
  • How do you integrate an indigenous world view into your curriculum?
  • How you you invite and include families into your nature program?

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