Learning Landscapes: Empowering Children in Learning Critical Life Skills

Thinking Tools for Community Experiential Education by Design

Warning: You are moving into another dimension – a dimension of place, a dimension of time, and a dimension of space. You’re moving into a landscape of both science and art, of things and ideas. The story you are about to read is true. You’re now crossing over into the Learning Landscapes zone…

Setting: Dad is quietly folding laundry, Antonio (4-years-old) is playing games by himself in the living room, and Lucia (2.5-years-old) is playing with her toy doll and another stuffed animal on the floor in the master bedroom near dad. 

“Lucia, want to play a game?” says Antonio.

“No, I’m playing with my animals and doll.” responds Lucia.

Antonio – “Want to play tag?”

Lucia – “No thank you. I’m playing with my doll.”

Antonio – “Hide-and-seek?”

Lucia – “Nope, I only want to play with my doll.”

Antonio grabs her toy doll and runs out of the room enticing Lucia to chase him to get her doll back. Lucia refuses to chase him, but instead pleads with dad to get her doll back for her.

Dad yells across the house to where Antonio ran while still folding laundry, saying “Antonio that is not being respectful of Lucia. Please bring her doll back.”

No response.

After several attempts to be heard and get a response from across the house, dad gets impatient (it had probably been about 3 or 4 minutes) and, pausing from the laundry folding, he walks to the other end of the house to find Antonio and have a discussion with him about his actions.

As he steps out of the master bedroom, Antonio runs up holding a piece of paper that he had hastily scribbled something on. When asked what he was doing he stated, “Since I want to play a game and Lucia only wants to play with her doll, I created a “new” game that we both can play. I hid her doll somewhere in the house and drew a treasure map that will lead her to find her doll. Then, she can find her doll and we can both play and not be bored.”

Antonio walks up to his sister, gives her the map, and explains that she could follow it and find her doll. He even helps her “read” the map and walks along with her as she follows the clues.

Dad goes back to folding laundry, but can hear them talking and walking around the house. When Lucia finally finds her doll, she asks to play again and both the kids go into Antonio’s bedroom to find another item to hide (Lucia did not what to part with her doll again) and make a new map.

This real life experience speaks to the need to trust our children, provide the space and support to understand the “why” behind their words and actions, and allow time for an event to fully unfold, which often does not follow our adult-determined timeline. We are, of course, talking about experiencing the world through our children’s eyes while deeply entrenched in the zone of play.

Observe and interact is the first of 12 permaculture principles that we will explore as to how they can integrate into community-based learning. In permaculture practiced in the physical landscape, these ideas are called ‘principles’ because they are believed to provide fundamental truths (or natural laws observed in ecosystems around the world) that if used can: 1) inform our beliefs, behaviors, and system of design; 2) align our values and beliefs with that of the world around us; 3) provide the foundation for greater humanity to make decisions, take actions, and use the surplus in our lives to better care for people and the earth. However, like all tools, people can use them ethically to restore and regenerate our lives and that of the world, or not. It isn’t the tool, but the perspective and goal of the person who uses it.

When it comes to helping our children integrate permaculture into the “learning” landscape, rather than thinking of these as principles it is more useful, appropriate, and empowering to consider these to be thinking tools. These can be skillfully (and playfully) applied, tested, and integrated to help us learn ‘how to’ ethically cultivate natural relationships and design community infused learning and life. As opposed to a linear list of things to do to help solve the problems in your personal, learning, community, and world landscapes, our children can learn to pattern these tools in order to mindfully use them to meet their needs within their culture, place, and time.

Our children, families, and communities together can ethically use the thinking tools to pattern culturally relevant truths. This approach empowers both self and community while still providing a common framework from which we are all united and works to care for people and the earth.

One of the most powerful and positive consequences of helping children become designers who are ethically and skillfully prepared to use these thinking tools is that they come to see that this framework applies to many domains, education (and culture or community) being just one.

Using this framework can be self- and community-empowering when natural relationships are cultivated and enriched through shared values. As Dr. David Blumenkrantz from The Center for the Advancement of Youth, Family, & Community Services, Inc. would say, “It takes a whole child to raise a village.” Integrating permaculture into community-based education takes learning, growth, and development from the traditionally passive role of knowledge or skill acquisition into the realm of regeneration. Learning and development is no longer solely an individual endeavor, but one that is embraced, influenced by, and integrated into community. This mindful state of being where the values of caring for self, others, and the earth form the basis of learning and life is shared by all.

The first of the thinking tools to consider is the skill of being able to observe and mindfully interact. Like a spider that spins a strong, interconnected web, we (and our children) learn about ourselves and the world through a mindful, integrated education of the senses. Observation gets us to think, analyze, compare, contrast, synthesize, evaluate, sympathize, and see things for not only what they are, but from a variety of perspectives about what they could be. This principle is grounded in a cyclical process that involves observing, imagining, creating, playing, sharing, reflecting, and taking action before again returning to observing.

Submitted Image: Jen MendezObservations are the start to really understanding ourselves, others, and the world. This thinking can help us turn what might be otherwise seen as a problem into a solution. For example, look at the observations shared with me by a mother of her two boys.

She now has more information about how to mindfully interact with both her children. In permaculture, we might say that she is now better prepared to “work with nature” rather than against it.

Had, in the story in the beginning, my husband rushed to the aid of our daughter, scolded Antonio for being disrespectful, and by sheer force took the doll back to “solve” this problem, this magical, natural moment of self-regulation and mutual understanding would have been missed. Antonio was making the problem (boredom) into a solution in a way that actually was caring for both himself and his sister, when viewed through his perspective. Taking the time to observe, really observe what was happening without accusations or assumptions (as much as possible), before interacting (which ended up being little to no direct interaction in this case) was an incredible opportunity for all to navigate the learning landscape.

That’s the funny thing about life. We can all be in the same place at the same time and we will all have a different understanding of what is happening based on our frame of reference. You have probably heard the proverb “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but another way to think of this is, “No two persons ever read the same book” (Edmund Wilson).

This diversity of perspective can be an incredible opportunity if seen as an asset to our learning landscapes and lives. Admittedly, it can be hard to do this in the fast paced life that many of us lead, but ultimately this is a consciousness of choice. Family often provides the first opportunity to experience a network of relationships that challenge us and our children’s understanding of our unique selves and our responsibilities within the world. The principle of observe and interact is a very powerful tool that helps us slow down, more fully understand what is happening, and then make better decisions about how (or if) to interact and engage in this experience.

The following is an activity to help you identify elements in the learning landscape that you and your children can observe and interact with more purposefully. Draw a four column chart on a piece of paper and write the following labels at the top of each column: Seedlings; Elements to Nurture; Garden Plot; Ecosystem. Take two or three minutes to brainstorm for each column, so you should spend about 10 minutes on this activity. Here is what you do:

  • Seedlings: Write down the name(s) of all the learners that are part of the typical learning landscape. This would anyone you are going to help educate like your child/children, but it should probably also include people like a spouse, extended family members, or maybe even yourself.
  • Elements to Nurture: Brainstorm all the ways each of those learners are unique. Think about what they already know, like, dislike, and how they like to learn. Do they like to watch (visual), listen (auditory), or do (kinesthetic)?
  • Garden Plot: Think of all the places the learner(s) can go or usually go on in typical week. This is important because you need to start seeing all the learning opportunities that are already available to you in your community, not just a school classroom or a homeschooling classroom in the basement. Do you live in an apartment building with an elevator? A driveway where children can safely play? Yard or park nearby? Balcony or sunny window sill? Bathtub? Kitchen with cooking utensils and appliances? Garage? Unfinished part of a basement? You get the idea.
  • Ecosystem: In the last column write down all the other people, animals, things, and events that have significant impact on the learner(s) in any normal week. These are potential educators in the learning landscape that you may be overlooking. Perhaps this includes extended family, school teachers/principals, extracurricular activity coaches, a religious community, neighbors, pets, wildlife, county fair, or even elements in the environment like a pond or field of wild flowers. Don’t worry about capturing and detailing everything. The point is to step back and look at the potential opportunities within the learning landscape. Realize and appreciate all of the elements that you and the learner(s) can use, value, and integrate as the “designers” in the learning landscape.

Now what? What if you had your spouse or your child’s teacher do this activity? How would that enrich your understanding of the learning landscape? Even better, what if your children were given the opportunity to do this very same activity? How would your chart compare to theirs? Really observe not only their answers, but their body language, tone of voice, and even the “empty spaces” where there was a void because as the German saying goes, “Silence is a fence around wisdom.”

The thinking tool of observe and interact doesn’t always mean doing. On the contrary, it helps the learner resist the urge to jump right in and take action until the greater natural patterns are understood. He or she can then make wise decisions about how to respond. Sometimes lack of action is the most mindful, ethical way to interact.

Think about where, when, and how you and your children might apply this simple and yet powerful thinking tool of observe and interact in order to more ethically design and live in your physical landscape, as well as enrich the learning landscape. The family unit and the relationships within can be the core foundation that helps children connect with a greater community later in life. A community thrives when the younger generations embrace and commit themselves to living the shared, renewed, and sometimes refined values of the community based on the collaborative discussions and experiences.

How does this happen? Though observation and careful interaction integrated into community-based educational design. The family unit can and should be integral in this process especially for young children. Understanding, using, and modeling mindful observation within our family relationships is the foundation to helping children develop the values and characteristics that can later, during adolescence and young adulthood, be collaboratively and purposefully integrated into a greater community.

By integrating the thinking tools (permaculture principles), children’s passions, and community values and resources, anyone of any age can design a personalized, holistic education that is more than just “academically rigorous.” The thinking tools give not only the children, but those who love them, a flexible patterned structure to understand and help them acquire critical life skills. How this patterned structure is filled in and exactly what form it takes is in the hands of each child, family, and community, but with this framework children explore how to learn, how to find what they love, and how to make that central to who they are, what they do, and what they can do to care for themselves, others, and the earth.


Jen MendezJen Mendez

Jen is a wife, mother of two joyous children, experiential education mentor, and founder of PERMIE KIDs. She has a M. Ed. in International Education and has worked with children in the U.S. and overseas from early childhood through the primary years, as well as parent-educators. She integrates an ethical, design science methodology with her love for education to help others learn to design a customized education with their children that honors themselves, others, and the earth.

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