Nature’s Classroom: Teaching Perspective

Monday I discussed the importance of spending time outdoors with little ones. Today I wanted to focus on the lessons we can teach by spending time outside, not just for ourselves, but for our little ones as well.

I struggle with perspective. The more time I spend outside, the clearer my perspective is on a lot of things. Not just my life, but where my life fits in the world and those directly surrounding me. While there are plenty of other ways to gain perspective, I have found that spending time in the middle of the woods or on top of a mountain to be the quickest way to re-orient and re-prioritize my mindset.

Children also struggle with perspective. Plenty of adults do too, but with a child’s limited experience it is hard for them to understand any perspective but their own. Teaching children to understand different points of views helps with empathy and compassion. It is important for children to have these tools prior to encountering a negative experience with another human being, such as a bully or bad behavior.

To be clear: teaching empathy isn’t telling a child to condone bad behavior, but to understand why a person behaves a certain way. If a child can try to understand the behavior it helps them not take it personally. Many situations where a child is treated badly or bullied have little to do with the child themselves and more to do with what they represent: i.e. happy home life, parental attention, or just because they are there.

Yet the bullied child is told to brush it off and ignore the bad behavior which can lead them to believe that there’s something wrong with them and not with the person behaving badly. If the child is taught to see things from the bully’s perspective, they may have a chance to see that it has nothing to do with them but has everything to do with the unhealthy ways the bully manages their feelings.

It isn’t about making friends with the bully but giving the child the emotional tools to manage the bully internally when it happens. Obviously, if a child’s physical and emotional well-being is in danger more drastic measures need to be taken, but I am referring to the simple push-and-take behavior that occurs in a toddler’s life.

There are many other reasons why teaching a child about perspective will help them daily, bullying is just an easy example many of us have already experienced and want to figure out how to handle when a little one goes through it as well. But learning about perspective cannot be forced, it must be gradually introduced into the child’s daily life/mindset.

When I taught I found that my more successful teaching moments happened when I took the time to understand things from the student’s perspective and worked on their level rather than talking down to them. I could lecture students all day how to formulate a thesis statement or a paragraph, but it was only when I showed them how to do it in a more subtle way on a level they could understand that I found more success.

For kids, nature is a non-threatening and interesting way to understand the world around them and how they fit within it. Using nature as a classroom is an organic way to teach children that there is more to what they see in front of them and makes it easy to transfer those lessons into different scenarios.

Before getting to that point, it’s important to understand things from a toddler’s perspective. Life is rather difficult for toddlers, despite the fact that everything is still done for them: you learn about independence, yet you can’t be fully independent; you learn about objects and how you might want them, yet you can’t get everything you want when you want it; and finally, you are curious about everything, but you aren’t allowed to see or do everything you want when you want.

It’s hard.

It’s also very hard to see the larger world as a toddler. Everything is momentary, everything is what is in front of you. Anything hidden doesn’t exist even when object permanence is finally a thing.

That’s where spending time outdoors can help start the learning process that there’s more to life than what is in front of a toddler’s nose.

What we can Learn

Spending time outside teaches that we are relatively small in the larger picture. Children don’t really need help with this concept because they are always small compared to others. But stand next to a tall tree with a wide trunk and show them that you are also small compared to other living elements.

Seeing a parent or guardian look small like them can reassure the little one that they aren’t alone with feeling tiny or insignificant. 

It can be both frightening and reassuring all at the same time. I find that when I sit down outside, especially on top of a mountain after a hike and look at the view, I am in awe of my place in the world. I feel very tiny when I see big buildings off at a distance and though that, I feel insignificant.

That feeling of insignificance is powerful in this context. I find that it helps me realize that while my place may be small and my personal impact even smaller, I know what is truly important: my family, my health, and my friends. When I start to get caught up in a negative cycle, remembering that there’s only so much I can do to change things on a macro-level helps to refocus on what I can change on a micro-level. Through this thought-experiment, I am able to come up with solutions that I can work with that allows me to feel like I’ve accomplished something significant for those immediately around me.

I want to teach these concepts to Jai as well: by using the time we spend out in nature I can show him that there is so much more going on in the world than what happens in his room or right in front of him. Hopefully, he can transfer these experiences to other situations in his life as he gets older.

What we can Teach

It doesn’t all have to be about learning about our place in the world but learning about the world itself and how it changes without human interference (and how it does change with human interference).

When spending time with children outdoors, make sure to ask them the following questions (if applicable):

  • What do you think that is?
  • How do you think that got here?
  • Ask them to describe what they are looking at including age, size, colors, etc. Ask why that might be significant.
  • What place does it have in this ecosystem? What is the specific ecosystem?
  • How does this location play a bigger role in the world?
  • What can you do to help preserve this ecosystem? Why would that be important?

Here is a list of more questions you can ask your little ones while on a nature walk.

Teaching observation is another great way to broaden a child’s perspective on their world. Sitting down and creating a scavenger hunt will encourage exploration and looking closely at the world around them. As they find each object on the scavenger list, ask them to describe the object to you and turn it into a deeper learning experience.

Here are three sites that have already created printable nature scavenger hunts for little ones to get you started:

I also mentioned in my previous post about starting nature collections: rocks, leaves, twigs, whatever catches your child’s fancy. These are great ways to bring the outdoors in and helps keep them engaged to be on the hunt for something new each time they step outside. When they get home, help set them up with a place to display their items.

Make sure to take plenty of pictures for when the collection gets too big and you have to start disassembling it for space. Try to return the items in an appropriate location so someone else can appreciate them, which is another great learning experience for a little one. Ask them about who they think might encounter that specific object, how, and why. Listen to their responses and ask more leading questions about some future hypothetical.

It will get them to think about how their placement of the object may impact someone in the future.

Learn More

Not sure where to start? Check out local outdoor shops and nature preserves for classes. You don’t need to take a Zen meditation class to appreciate your place in the world, sometimes taking a few nature identification courses, or survival courses is enough to kickstart that perspective shift.

There are always classes available geared towards kids in these locations, so see if they offer one within your child’s age range. If they are too young, see about getting a carry pack and going on a nature walk with the group. Getting them used to the outdoors is a great step in the direction of understanding their place in the world.

What are some ways that you teach your little one’s about perspective? How has nature helped you understand life better? Leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography

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