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Nature, Aesthetics and Early Education

Dr. Huan Chen

Early Education International Association (London, UK)

Date Published: 04/01/2021

Rousseau pointed out that aesthetics is an important symbol of perfect humanity. In aesthetic psychology, the combination of aesthetic feeling and aesthetic perception is collectively called aesthetic perception. The cultivation of children's aesthetic perception is a necessary condition for artistic appreciation and artistic creation activities; it is the basis for cultivating rich aesthetic imagination, thorough aesthetic understanding and active aesthetic creativity, and an important means to accumulate rich inner emotions.

But how to cultivate children's aesthetic perception? Understanding the importance of returning to nature is a key emphasis. Through nature, we can cultivate children's sound body, sensitive perception, rich imagination and meticulous understanding.

In the past six months, I have been hiking in the forest every weekend. Although the trees are withered in autumn and winter in England, I always stay until dark before returning home. I am able to witness strange patterns fluctuating through the bark, muddy roads, moss displaying a variety of patterns and shapes, and hear the rustles and rhymes as I step through then fallen leaves , experiencing purities of life so beautiful and so rich. The time immersed in nature seems to make me temporarily forget that I am in a foreign country, and I can stand by the pond for a long time like I did when I was a child. The plants and trees around me can calm my mind without words. If I meet a big tree, I will stop and stare for a moment, and feel its aura; the kind of aura that is comfortable and determined, calm and relaxed after a long time. For me, the forest is an indispensable spiritual supply and source of inspiration every week. It is like a close friend, a wise man, a mentor, and a homeland, where I look for the mood of play, embrace the attitude of the moment and remain firm in the face of the unknown.

My fascination with nature is related to my childhood experience growing up in the southwestern countryside of my motherland. At that time, I didn't have to go to kindergarten. I spent the whole day catching crickets, picking wild flowers and looking for shells in the countryside. Later, naturally nature evolved from a play partner to a life partner. Even though childhood is long gone, nature has always been by my side. From adolescence to the beginning of life, whenever I felt anxious and lost, I would seek the last healing from nature. This kind of personal experience made me deeply touched when I first came into contact with nature education. My instinct tells me that it is not about the development of children, but about beauty, about spirituality, and about the period of childhood itself.

1. Nature Education and Aesthetic Enlightenment

Although nature education is relatively marginalized in the world of education, the research on this topic in English academic circles is documented much earlier. Within my translation work of "Kindergarten Outdoor Creative Play and Learning" (English original name: Nature and Young Children) the process made me think systematically about the educational significance of nature for the first time. At that time, I was puzzled by a phrase in the book for a long time: "learn with nature". The author of the book, Dr. Ruth Wilson, emphasized that nature education does not allow children to learn about nature, but emphasizes "learning in nature" and "learning with nature". How does nature learn? What do children learn with nature? In response to these questions, Dr. Wilson smiled and replied: “When you run with the strong wind, tread on the water with raindrops, and shout at the waves, you are learning with nature.” At that moment, I suddenly understood the true meaning of nature education. It is to remind educators and children to use their bodies to perceive, perceive the vitality of nature, and experience being a part of nature.

The artistic creations by tourists in Saint Nectan's Glen, perfectly explain "learning with nature"

(Chen Huan, taken on October 30, 2020)

Thinking with the body and realizing the state of harmony and unity of body and spirit is Kant's core understanding of aesthetics. Running with the strong wind, treading on the water with raindrops, shouting towards the waves, even lying on the grass looking at the blue sky, dreaming within a daze... Within all these moments, even if children may not be able to express their inner thoughts in words, the synchronized actions of the body and nature will allow them to subconsciously experience the harmony and joy - Kant explains "the harmony between man and nature", to experience the true meaning of beauty.

In addition, I have discovered how learning with nature is not to achieve any goal. The joy of treading water lies in treading water itself. These completely spontaneous natural play activities that have no specific purpose, do not involve interests, will bring children into the world of beauty; with such feelings of being immersed in one thing, to reach the state of selflessness. Take a moment and recall your childhood, whether you played with mud and wild flowers on a few rocks all afternoon, whether you got up early to observe frost in winter, or walked through every grove in the village to pass the time. You are so full of joy, whether it is basking hot or freezing upon your hands, it will not affect your interest in the slightest. This fascinating and happy experience is your first aesthetic experience. After all, the essence of beauty, first of all, makes people feel happy for no reason!

This unhurried, organic moment of learning with nature is the child's first aesthetic experience and aesthetic enlightenment.

2. Rhythm, Empathy and Imagination

In addition to experiencing the beauty of learning with nature, nature education can also lay the foundation for children's aesthetic ability in many aspects.

Naturally, the beauty of rhythm will be planted in children's hearts. As day and night alternate, spring blossoms and autumn fruits. The universe has many embedded rhythms and life cycles. Follow the basic rule of rising up from the sun and sleeping at sunset with the children. I am grateful for the sun in the morning and look forward to the night, watching the sky slowly clear after the wind and rain, celebrating the gradual emergence of new buds amongst the dead leaves. These experiences are the most original life experience and the most powerful aesthetic enlightenment. Children will gradually realize that nature has great beauty, beauty in balance, beauty in homeopathy, and beauty in time. In the natural rhythmic cycle, every process has value and every process is precious. The plant before the epiphany blooms is beautiful, the tree after the fruit has fallen is also beautiful, and even death heralds new life when it fades away. Everything is beautiful at times. With this understanding, children can not only see the beauty of the world in the present, but also create a beautiful world in the future. Beauty is not a result for them, but the process itself.

Children in the British Stone Hen kindergarten are “playing” with herbs. They plant and nurture the seeds in spring, make herb tea and breads in summer, harvest and air-dry their herbs in autumn, and finally use them to make gifts for parents in winter - experiencing and nurturing the complete life cycle.

(Laura Brothwell, taken in December 2019)

Nature can teach children one of the most important elements of aesthetic ability: empathy. When they hold up a wet and trembling chick, see a sapling swaying in the wind and rain, and nurture young seedlings that produces an abundance of strawberries, they will gradually come out of their own world and realize that they are a greater life. Part of one world. They will begin to accept that everything around them does not exist just for them, beginning to understand the feelings of other creatures, and begin to care, love, and empathize. This ability to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of another life is prerequisite for children to understand the works of others in the process of life appreciation, which is an important part of aesthetic ability.

Nature also provides children with a world of perception and imagination. Children can best explain Kant's definition of "aesthetic pleasure" in the book "A Critique of Judgment", that is, the state of free and harmonious play among human abilities. A bunch of iris brings children the multi-sensory stimulation of sight, smell, touch and even hearing. These stimuli coordinated with each other are united, and jointly outline the image of iris in the children's brain. The delicate balance of the senses makes children naturally want to touch, smell, and taste. Perhaps if you add a flow of water, some ice cubes, some biological glitter, a few books, a few fairies or animal models, an epic narrative will unfold within the children’s mind almost immediately, and resonate across body and language. Perception and imagination always go hand in hand in children's natural play, and together leads children into a free spirit world that has no boundaries, no right or wrong, fully accepting and full of mystery and magic.

3. Cultivating children's aesthetic perception in nature

Aesthetics is not a skill nor a technique, and nature education that lays the foundation of children's aesthetic ability, should not be a discipline either.

It should fill and illuminate every inch of land under the sky like the morning light, and penetrate every nerve of early education. To cultivate children's aesthetic perception in nature is actually to cultivate children's aesthetic perception in early education. What it needs, is not a new understanding of nature, but a new understanding of early education.

First of all, we must break the time structure of kindergarten and return the freedom of choice and play to the children. In disciplined time schedules and pre-determined plans, children become marionettes within arranged activities, one after another. They don't have time to think, dream, or talk. Everything must follow the arrangements of the teacher and the schedule. The busy and conforming environment makes them unable to feel at ease. If they can't feel at ease, they can't see themselves, and if they can't see themselves, they can't perceive the existence of beauty. When all the activities become insignificant, the mind cannot be nourished from it. So let the children immerse themselves in the adventure of playing with mud, making herbal tea, observing ants, setting up tents and exploring pine leaves! Do nothing with them on a sunny autumn afternoon, just lie under the tree and watch the autumn leaves fall! Let them gallop and stroll in the field of time, instead of looking forward and backward in the box of time.

No child can refuse the magic of the mud kitchen, often playing until forgetting time

(Liu Ting, taken on June 13, 2020)

Second, provide children with a natural and beautiful environment and integrate aesthetic education into every place they can visit. I especially like the words of out co-founder and friend Laura Brothwell: “Let the indoor environment become an extension of the outdoor environment, find the right balance.” When planning your space recall how the natural colors around you can make you feel calm and peaceful, reflect on landscapes when you are in the mountains and forests and on the grasslands. Children also need to focus in a peaceful environment, rather than being overwhelmed in an over-stimulating environment. It's time to change your perception of the classroom! Children do not need cartoon characters on the wall to remind them of the expected rules, nor do they need complicated theme decorations to show the excitement of learning. Why not try to replace the colorful plastic products and paper products with natural colors and natural materials, carefully arrange an area to display local natural objects, and put fresh flowers on the dining table every day? The same goes for the outdoor environment. Nature surrounds us all, as spring blossoms and autumn fruits, flowers bloom and leaves fall. Beside the vibrant natural environment, is there anything else that can provide children with an aesthetic experience that nourishes the soul?

Furthermore, model care and gratitude to nature with children to create a sense of place in kindergarten. "Sense of place" refers to the sense of spiritual connection with a physical place. When I was young, the bamboo forest near my home gave me a strong sense of place. I observed new bamboo shoots unearthed after the rain and looked for bamboo insects lying on tender bamboo joints. If I never had the opportunity to be immersed in such play and adventures, it would always be "a piece of bamboo forest" instead of "the bamboo forest" for me. Therefore, the sense of place is the link between children and nature, and the interaction is the "thread" that weave this link. Children need to interact with nature, take care of a tree sapling, nurture and support life of a duckling, perceive the changes of the seasons, and be grateful for the magic that each change brings. In this process, children not only perceive and appreciate beauty, but also learn to care for and create beauty for themselves, and eventually become a warm and wholesome person.

Finally, let nature "thread a needle" for children's learning and development across various fields. Whether it is the development of large movements and fine movements, or reading and mathematics, all be realized in the process of children playing, discovering and experimenting with natural materials. Teachers only need some creative thoughts to integrate the skills that children need to learn in various fields into an environment full of natural beauty, allowing children to achieve academic progress in cognition, physically and mentally without being aware of it. This can convey a very important message for children: nature and beauty are not independent of knowledge and skill learning, and are not a pastime after the "required" work. Aesthetics is about how we live in the present , and what we want to become now.

Children in the British Stone Hen kindergarten are sat observing their landscapes, absorbed in the present moment.

(Laura Brothwell, taken in June 2019)

Mandarin version of this article will be published on Guang Ming Daily Platform.

About the author of this article: Chen Huan, PhD in preschool education from Northeast University, co-founder of Early Education International Association. During the Ph.D. study period, she had exchange visits at University College London and published many academic papers in Mandarin and English. The public account "Talking about Early Childhood Education" has page views of more than 80,000. It is committed to spreading the play-based and nature-based early childcare education concept for 0-6 years old, and building a bridge of communication for universal childcare professionals.

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