Where does the water in our rain barrel go? Making meaning with the ecology of place

IMG_7040In this first week back at school I saw some kiddos new to school exploring the rain barrel and heard some returning kids sharing memories of rain barrel play from last year.  An interesting conversation ensued about where the water in our rain barrel should and does go. One child said that the water is for watering the garden because the rainwater is better garden food than hose water.  Another child pointing to the garden said, “but the garden is dried up!” (It’s true! The dry summer has all but some returning zinnias and our potatoes totally roasted! We’ll be ready to plant the winter garden before long, though.) A younger child entered the conversation, “But we ALWAYS dig canals from the rain barrel! Remember when we made the path all the way to the hill?! It went down!!”  A child new to school this year has listened and eyeing the full barrel says, “Maybe we can build it to the garden…”

As I am in the process of wrapping up Roots’ year long participation in the Intersections Project (a collaboration with Discovery Place science museum to better understanding science and literacy learning), this little snippet of conversation reminded me of the eco-literacies activated as children engage in authentic Make activities in our own school yard.  Sometimes when I am thinking of science learning, I do not go immediately to thinking about the emotional, embodied and metaphysical.  My engrained, go-to story is that science is technical and logical.   I am so glad the children remind me through their making and reflecting that science is much more fluid!

Of course, a lot can get in the way of this fluidity, including figuring out where to start science explorations.  IMG_5722Sometimes science learning (or any learning) starts with standards or topics that are created farther and farther away from children and children’s lives. When these goals from others come first, it can be harder for adults or children to make connections from learning to our own lives. A different way of going about science learning is to engage with the places we live or go to school and see what inspires us to create, play and ask questions. This is the basic idea of place-based education, to see how our immediate local environments can provide opportunities for learning.

IMG_4885At Roots in figuring out “where to start” we take cues from both an inviting playscape and the natural world.   We have a pretty thoughtful balance between offering beautiful, open ended materials and leaving lots of open space for play to develop with found natural objects.   Every week we celebrate making as a rituIMG_5182al, Tuesday is making and science day. I offer some kind of experience that gets kiddos acting as makers of their world.   These offered opportunities are just a small fraction of the making that happens every week. The most interesting and developed makes come directly from the kids engaging with the environment through open and unplanned play. And this is how interest in the rain barrel makes began.

IMG_4073When children entered into making and science learning around rain water, it didn’t start with a science standard or with a weather theme, it didn’t start with an offering from an adult.  We started with our place, where we spend hours everyday, sometimes entire schooldays: our play yard. We started with where the children are playing and what they are interested in doing. We started with the rain barrel.

In the first rains of the new school season the children begin to observe and IMG_4887interact with water in our yard.   They play in the puddles and after the rain has come they play with the water from the collection barrel. They begin making  canals, longer and longer trenches, with more thoughtful construction, with dams, with off shoots, using various tools. They test and retest and sometimes destroy (purposefully and not) their creations. They work on the canal make throughout the school year.  They sometimes run into the play yard the morning after a night of rain full of intention around making canals! It’s not a one shot activity. It’s slow, over time, again and again, iterated in many ways from August to June and then again with new friends and their fresh ideas.

The kids experience the fluid and messy process of inspiratiIMG_5394on, tinkering, planning, building, rebuilding, reflecting and starting again. They go on tangents, like making origami boats, they investigate problems like finding the best kind of tool (broom, shovel or stick) for particular tasks (digging a trench, moving a boat, shoring a dam) and they create their own keystone moments like “the day the canal was made all the way to the hill.”

I have observed that the children seem deeply in flow as they build IMG_4248canals.  It seems to hit the sweet spot of just enough challenge and
stimulation.  There is a sense of work and play intertwined in harmony.  There is a sense of a sort of easy going creativity where just adding a loose board as a bridge extends and deepens the play.   I spend a lot of time as a “feelings detective,” uncovering how kids feel so that I can support them in articulating and expressing.  The feelings I pick up on while witnessing canal making are joy, invigoration, facination, wonder, and content.

As children work on making canals as an iterative process through IMG_5271the seasons they deepen their connections. This sense of connection and understanding is part of eco-literacy, in which connection to the natural world is part of how we make meaning of our lives.  One could learn facts about or even skills in nature, but becoming eco-literate is engaging as an ecologist, having a deeper, more personal, and yes messier understanding of one’s own connection with nature.  Just as we make meaning from (rather than finding it implicit in) groups of symbols, we make our own meanings of the natural world.  And this is the primary work of ecology, to see and feel the natural world and our relationship with her as meaningful, not meaningless.

IMG_2804 Young children create meaning of their world through play. Play is a literate act as children (or adults!) construct, deconstruct and tinker with stories and ideas from their lives in both physical and fantasy play.  When children at Roots play with the rain barrel by making canals for days, they are making their own connection with rainwater, forging a relationship with nature that is the basis for stewardship.  As children physically engage by playing in nature they are making not only canals that engage them in physics and engineering learning, they are also making their own relationship with the natural world in an intangible, highly emotional way that is all about the meaning.

IMG_6964The beautiful thing about our way into this eco-learning through place-based thinking is that in this paradigm, learning can and should happen exactly wherever you are right now, you don’t have to be in the forest, maybe you have a gutter or a ditch or a single tree or a window or neighbor’s garden to visit rather than a rain barrel; wherever your local is that’s where you start.



One thought on “Where does the water in our rain barrel go? Making meaning with the ecology of place”

  1. Ah! This is so beautiful to read, and has me remembering my days at the Roots campus. Rainy days weren’t days to be sad about – they were the canal & boat making days! Play is how humans learn, especially smaller humans. And learning happens best when it is relevant to our lives. Your descriptions in this post highlight how that happens so organically through the rain barrel 🙂

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