What can we learn from nature?
Ruud Kleinpaste proposes a utopian classroom where learning is living – and vice versa.
in the course of my work (or perhaps hobby!) in environmental education, I have numerous chats with kids about plants and bugs, and stuff that bite, sting and scare the living daylights out of a lot of New Zealanders. I also work with teachers to give them confidence in teaching outside. If you use the environment (parks, forests, wetlands and yes, gardens and school grounds) as a context for education, then you have nature as your teacher.
There is a modern term for this kind of stuff: enquiry learning.
We often forget that the human race has always learned from nature; she tells us all the secrets and reveals the planet’s operating system.
Kids always ask me, “What’s your favourite bug, Bugman?”
The answer is always, “The one with the best stories.”
It’s all about the story; it’s all about what we can learn from all these geniuses and successful lifeforms.
So if I were to design an outdoor classroom or a garden, what would I plant? Well, I asked Jo, my darling editor, if I could fill a whole copy of the NZ Gardener on this topic, but she refused. So here’s a summary (with curriculum notes!) of some of the things I’d include in the ultimate teaching garden.
Get some flax (Phormium). It is used for weaving (craft, art, history, culture, social studies), but some types are better than others (so we learn taxonomy, physics, science). It grows well in wet areas, such as swamp margins (ecology, niches, adaptation, soil types). The flowers are full of nectar (luring pollinators: medicinal science, reproduction) causing literally an air traffic control nightmare of multiple landing rates per minute (pollinator species, birds, insects, numeracy, competition, observations at different times of the
In Ruud’s ultimate teaching garden, bugs, plants and all the natural world cover the subjects you’d need to learn at school.
day, statistics). When the flax plants set seeds, you can cut those open and count them in their thousands (algebra, statistics) and the question arises why there aren’t more flax seedlings under a parent plant (ecology, niches)? Why are there notches in the leaf margin? Who makes those? And isn’t that an unfortunate bother when you are trying to harvest long leaf-blades with long fibres for weaving? And who makes those awful “windows” in the leaf’s disc? What are these critters? What do they look like? How did Maori used to deal with these critters that damaged this taonga?
To speed things up I need to minimise my story-telling, so here’s a few gems:
Whitey-wood (Melicytus) is a fabulous food plant for tree weta.
Pseudopanax shows you juvenile and adult leaves with stories to match and research.
Honesty seeds are absolutely perfect for art and design; they can be coloured and used as translucent objects.
Stachys leaves are hairy (why?) and now that we have the fabulous wool carder bee (an exotic interloper from Europe), you can see how this insect uses the hairs to create the softest nests for its young and how it defends its prized plants from any other insect that comes close or flies into its airspace. A nasturtium or a lotus leaf has the ability to repel water; it’s hydrophobic and causes water to bead off its surface in quicksilver droplets. When you research how that works and put the term biomimicry into the mix, you suddenly realise that some clever scientists have found a way to treat your shower door glass in such a way, that you’ll never, ever have to clean it again! Create a pond and observe the mosquito larvae, the backswimmers and pond skaters, water boatman and damselflies; you simply no longer need David Attenborough’s Life on Earth on the tellie. It’s all, right here, in your own garden or schoolground. But my favourite story is about the putaputawetˉaˉ ( Carpodetus). Start with te reo and you soon realise it’s a “plant with many weta holes”. This leads to why these holes are there and who makes them (puriri moth caterpillars). You get through the lifecycle of New Zealand’s largest and shortest-lived moth, when you suddenly realise that our bush is an absolutely magical place, where everything is connected. Every species has an impact on its neighbours. There is no waste; everything is a resource. Everybody works collaboratively, using only the sun’s current energy and using only what they need. Nothing more. The kind of place I’d like to live!
Male Hemideina crassidens.