“…the child’s environment cannot be seen as just a context for learning or a passive setting for activities; it is an integral part of learning and helps define their identity” (Zini in Gandini, 2012).

In my most recent graduate class, Child as Naturalist, I rekindled my own sense of wonder and connection to place.  This experience reminded me how important a child’s place is in the development of their identity.  Often we define ourselves according to the experiences and encounters we have in our living space (house, work, neighborhood, city, country).  When asked who we are, we respond, “I am a teacher” or “I am a mother” or “I am an outdoorsy person” or “I am an athlete.”  Each of these identifications grow from our experiences with place.  For instance, a woman whose place most often includes caring for her children identifies with being a mother.

So, are the places in which children live and learn important?  Yes.

While indoor spaces play integral parts in learning, after this graduate study, I now have a deeper appreciation for outdoor places/communities and their defining effect on our identity.  The premise of the course was “the environmental attachment theory…attachment to land is good for child and land” (Louv, 2005).  However, throughout the week-long intensive, I was challenged to find the natural world in cityscapes, along main streets, near school yards, and out in wildlife.  Natural environments are everywhere.  A healthy identity depends on us finding, experiencing, bringing in and going out into these environments.

A tree-learning experience modeled from Joseph Cornell’s (1998)Sharing Nature with Children deeply resonated with me.  In his book, Cornell (1998) outlines four parts that can be found in a dynamic learning experience: otter, crow, bear and dolphin.  Each part (identified with an animal name) illustrates an important piece of learning that brings deeper understanding.  Otter: playful, active.  Crow: observant, focused, curious.  Bear: fearless, direct experience.  Dolphin: reflective.  Our group focused on learning about trees as we practiced planning and experiencing learning through Cornell’s (1998) animal-metaphors.  During our “bear” activity, we wrote about or drew a picture of a tree that we remember from our past.  Having grown up in cityscapes most my life, I was surprised at how many trees I remember from previous homes.

It reminded me that even when a child is in a place that seems barren of natural life, somehow nature (and it’s life-giving force) finds a way to touch her identity…even when she does not know it’s impact.

As adults we can support children’s recognition of the place in which they live and learn, by stepping back and allowing them time to play with, observe, experience, and reflect on what is around them.  While at the same time, we can encourage children’s identification with their place by expressing our own sense of wonder and posing curious questions.  In an excerpt from The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson (1956) guides us to be a companion to children as their sense of place grows.

It is not about knowing the official names of plants or even finding plants in the city.  It is about experiencing with wonder, empathy, and curiosity the place in which we live and learn.  Because this place shapes our identity and that is worth discovering!


Carson, R. (1956). Excerpt from the sense of wonder. Northwest Earth Institute. Session 7/Exploring Nature.

Cornell, J. (1998). Sharing nature with children. Navada City, CA: DAWN Publications.

Gandini, L. (2012). Connecting through caring and learning spaces. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The reggio emilia experience in transformation (317-341). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

*see links to some of these references in my Inspiration: Literature & Film page

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