by Isabelle Eastham
Experience Learning is more than warm-weather, outdoor adventures in West Virginia’s wildest places. On Wednesday, February 28, we brought survival and sensory awareness into the classroom at Crellin Elementary School, in Garrett County Maryland.
Principal, Dana McCauly and 4th grade teacher, Linda Stephens, invited me to take their students on a unique adventure. The class had recently been studying nomadic hunter-gathering communities and the Shawnee Indian Tribes. The driving question on this particular morning was, “What does a human need to survive in the wilderness?” We discussed the Big Three: shelter, fire, and water, and took the opportunity to experiment with Tom Brown Jr.’s method of making a debris shelter. With full participation, the students swept their hemlock forest with speed and intention. There was no prompting to stay on task, no misuse of sticks and smiles on faces. Trial and error and natural consequences drove this lesson.
We began the afternoon with a classroom discussion about the five senses. I challenged the students to place their individual senses in a hierarchy of dependence in day-to-day life. The sense of sight won overwhelmingly. We talked about how in hunter-gathering communities all senses played an equal level of importance in survival and worked together like a dance.
As an instructor, sensory awareness has increasingly become the reason WHY I teach. It provides children an opportunity to quiet their minds, step away from the screens, breathe deeply and intentionally, all while learning to ground themselves to their present experience and environment. This lesson led us back to the forest where we sat in a circle on the soft, brown, pine needles. Without saying anything, I began to take of my shoes and socks and wiggle my toes into the ground. The children began to quickly look around confused as to what I was doing. I gave them permission to do the same. At this point, their teacher jumped on board and encouraged her students to then place their cheeks and ears to the cool ground. I raised to my feet and began to Fox Walk around them. The children joined. They were softly, slowly, mindfully walking around their forest, moving with their whole bodies, instinctually crouching by trees and under shrubs.
Multiple times during this visit, I stopped and simply observed the learning that was taking place around me, in fact, it really didn’t need me at all- this natural play and movement just need to be recalled and encouraged. Crellin is a public school where place-based, inquiry driven learning is a part of the curriculum. These are activities that support academic standards.
As a field instructor for Experience Learning, my wish is that every student could have the opportunity to come to Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Obviously, this can not be the case. However, Crellin Elementary left me hopeful for the public school system. Here is an example of an administrative staff taking it upon themselves to redefine the relationship a student has to formal education. At the end of the day, walking barefoot and a simple conversation that “dirt is not dirty” can solicit questions and have an impact on a child that can last a lifetime.
Isabelle Eastham is a Lead Instructor at Experience Learning. She grew up on a goat and beef cattle farm in Rappahannock, Virginia. After earning a Psychology degree from the University of Mary Washington she worked several years in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis with individuals on the autism spectrum. Before moving to West Virginia, she completed a solo, northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and followed that up by completing the Long Trail in Vermont. Her favorite activities to teach are stream studies, orienteering, and sensory awareness. In her free time, you can find Isabelle painting, knitting, hiking, reading, gardening and substitute teaching in local county school systems.