The Ripple: Rivers and Experiential Learning

Biophilia: Love of Life

When I walked with my children along and in Stonehouse Brook, I let them play, for it was crucial that they engage the brook at their own pace and comfort level. My job was simply to ensure they didn’t get hurt—but I let them slip and fall in, so they would learn how not to do that. I let them wade a little too deep so they could feel the muscular strength of water flow, and allowed them to get carried away so they would learn how to recover their feet, balance and stance.

When my daughters (now 15 and 17) were little, their most magical place was Stonehouse Brook, a lively watercourse that tumbled down from pine and oak headlands. From the age they could walk by themselves until the era of afterschool sports, they were all mine and I used our time together to live halfway indoors and halfway outdoors. I, and my wife, did this because we were concerned that their cognitive development would be shunted if their senses and their consciousness were not stimulated and challenged. For this purpose, Stonehouse Brook was perfect; it was intimate and not overwhelming, and it was very alive.

Biophilia is a word that means love of life and the person who coined it, evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, did so because he noticed that we have an innate attraction to other living beings…

Revealed in such simple acts as appreciating a bouquet of flowers or a tropical fish, biophilia is hard-wired, but it needs to be nurtured. Nurturing it is a challenge, because our culture values and teaches much that opposes it. We all know the drawbacks of our economy, and the things we must think and do to participate in it, even if we don’t want to. At the same time, we realize that economies come and go, and that our human character is build upon more lasting and substantial foundations. Biophilia emerges from the same basis, and nurturing it is perhaps the most important thing we can do to ensure our children’s (and our own) capacities to perceive fully and think clearly, and to construct a healthy value system.

When I walked with my children along and in Stonehouse Brook, I let them play, for it was crucial that they engage the brook at their own pace and comfort level. My job was simply to ensure they didn’t get hurt—but I let them slip and fall in, so they would learn how not to do that. I let them wade a little too deep so they could feel the muscular strength of water flow, and allowed them to get carried away so they would learn how to recover their feet, balance and stance. In these, and many more, initiations, they learned the character—the fun and the danger—of flowing waters. They learned, perhaps more importantly, the capacities of their own minds and bodies; and they learned this not by bouncing balls, memorizing facts or taking tests (which certainly have their time and place). They learned about themselves from age 2 until 10 or so in a way that might be considered ancient: by testing themselves against the elements that actually constitute us. This self-testing allowed them to discover who they were as human beings: which is to say, as creatures born of the humus (The word human does indeed derive from humus.).

How often is this taught? And can it be actually taught, and learned, in classroom?

In my opinion, the answers are rarely and barely. Much of the problem of teaching biophilia, and what it is to be elementally human, is that such education has to be experiential. It has to be actual and felt, before it becomes abstract and known; needless to say, much of what passes as education takes the opposite trajectory. Discovering one’s own life, and its relation to other lives, is not simply a mental experience; it is a holistic one—which gets me back to Stonehouse Brook and to a greater point and urging.

When my daughters played along and in the brook, they found that the elements are attached to life. For example, when they picked up a submerged rock there was stuff on it, wriggling or growing, and they were fascinated—and curious. They started asking questions. What began as play became an inquiry, and the simplest easy questions led to more complicated and profound ones. Wanting to know the answers myself, I began to do research. Together we learned; and what was so beautiful was that since all our questions were rooted in what we had actually perceived, here and now, on the local level, our answers revealed the secrets of our own biome, or “home of life.” So, not only did my daughters learn about themselves (by testing themselves with/against the elements); they also learned about their place in their own ecological system or, to put it another way, mandala of life.

You have a brook near you (find where it comes from and where it goes). It will welcome your play and inquiries. As little as it is, it connects to rivers, oceans, the sky and to life, as tiny as a water bug and as big as your biome. Here is a site that you can use to inform yourself about river ecology and terminology that includes online games that will reinforce your experiential learning: kidworldcitizen.org.

The leaves are down, so now is the time to discover the geomorphic character of your brook: how its pools, rapids and boggy spots sit in the land. Soon enough, it will freeze and its character will change. And before we know it, the leaves will return and the quiet and empty places will be buzzing and brimming with life. This transformation, yet consistency, of character is one of the valuable lessons your brook will teach you and your kids, when you give it the chance to.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credit: (cc) Eric Brumble]

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