Esther McNairnay is a trim, well-spoken woman who is passionate about the places and routes that children visit and how the children are affected by them. This translates to the basic concepts of Human Geography and Childhood Development. She specifically refers to it as “The study of the organization of human activity and of people’s relationship with their environments.”
On the evening of March 14, she presented her first workshop about this unique subject to a group of educators at the Discovery Children’s Center in Winnipeg.
After a brief introduction, she opened with us visualizing our childhood homes. It helped us understand what she means when she talks about sense of place. She followed this with how children forge a sense of place.
She then took us on a metaphorical walk through her practice. After talking about how both destinations (places) and the journey (routes) are all important, especially in how these impact the sense of place.
A discussion on how people understand maps was very revealing. The workshop participants each made a map of Winnipeg, and shared it with each other. I did a birds-eye view with perimeter, the rivers and a few key roads. The person I switched with had made a small map of her neighborhood. The fact I get around the city a lot for my day job certainly revealed how much of the city I am used to seeing.
Esther then explained how the map we create is related to how we view Winnipeg, and our sense of place within it. This really helped us see how we each interpret our surroundings differently, and what memories we draw on to inform our model of our environment.
She then explained how if we want children to care for the planet, they need to feel connected to their natural environment–in other words–to have a sense of place outdoors. And in those places, they need to have a safe, secure place for creativity with loose material they can build with. This creativity helps them forge a bond with their environment as it helps them to feel control over their environment.
Part of the discussion was about how scale is important, and having walkable areas makes spaces more memorable. In the facility she works at, there are woods and forest for her and her children to walk through. She talked about the destinations, places with forts that have been built for over thirty years. These destinations are largely at the forefront of most children’s minds when they are out walking. She suggests that when kids are watching movies in a car, they are engaging in a ‘slow teleportation.’ This is where there is little to no connection in the journey itself to the destination, and that there is little connection to the places. It perpetuates the ‘perfect place myth,’ which can create undue expectation.
A very thought-provoking suggestion she makes is that skateboarding could be the urban equivalent. In these communities, she likens it to a modern conquering of the environment. That these urban children are doing much the same as what rural children are. They are looking to engage in a manner where they connect with their environment and play with it.
I found myself wondering if the word ‘conquering’ was the right word for what she’s trying to get across. I do think she has the right idea, and perhaps in many cases it is conquering the environment. However, I wonder if what might be needed in the mentoring of children is guiding towards the mastery of their environment. Where instead of ‘overcoming and taking control of’ perhaps there should be a guiding towards a deep knowledge and skillful relationship with the environment. This might imply that there is a ‘coming to balance with’ instead of an implied subjugation.
This seem to me what the objective is of much of the education centered around connecting children to nature. Through the lens of mastery, we can look at the environment as a place to not only help children connect to nature, but for us to create and locate things there for them that we carefully meditate on as to help them connect even deeper. An example to me would be an Earthship. A large amount of the material used in an Earthship is recycled, and could easily be provided as loose material. What if there were a site with an Earthship for kids to visit, and then find loose material to build their own low-carbon building? What else might they create out of the same material?
Her skateboarding suggestion takes me to my own past and interaction with the skateboarding community. I could definitely see the parallel that she’s drawing.
I grew up a rural, free-range, risky-play child. I come to these sort of workshops and seminars as an adult and feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be, among like-minded souls. I’m learning about things I want to learn about. And with my own journalistic focus on creating literature about local green efforts, I’m just as excited about education connecting children to nature as the ECE. I left Esther’s workshop feeling very hopeful, happy, and excited to be alive. Wonderful things are not only possible, but are happening.
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