Learning Landscapes: Use and Value the Marginal

Learning Landscapes: Use the Edges and Value the Marginal

Do you and your children use the edges and value the marginal in the learning landscape?

Say what? Most people want to pull children away from the “edges” and I’m suggesting we hangout, play in and even elongate the edges in our and our children’s learning landscapes? Yes, I am!

An edge is simply where two or more things meet. Just as a natural landscape, the learning landscape has many edges. In the learning landscape an edge could be child and mentor, child and information, new thinking and opportunity to act, new challenges and frustration, experiences and reflection and so much more. This interface, like where a grass field meets the forest, is potentially the most interesting, productive, diverse and valuable part of a natural system. Take a look at this picture of a turtle…

What “edges” can you find in this picture? Wonder why these things have formed an edge? Is there a positive, neutral or negative interaction happening?

We humans are natural systems (inside and out) and part of natural systems within systems. Nature is not just something to learn about and care for. We are it.

People and the learning landscape are like this turtle. This turtle is in relation with all the other plants, animals and things in its environment just as our children are always in relation within their learning landscapes. We are who we have been, who we are and who we will become because all is in relation.

Meaningful, lasting learning does not come in separate bits and chunks, but emerges in collaboration with all our relations. The question is whether we are mindful enough to recognize and use emergent design with and in our children’s learning landscapes. In this emergent design there is, as Dr. David Blumenkrantz calls it, an “Initiatory Constellation” which includes the individual, family, community, ancestors, spirit, nature and Universe. It is in a dance of reciprocity attuned to the “Initiatory Constellation” that helps our children, families, communities and the world learn, live and thrive. Talk about “edges” – wow!

It is on the edges we find the most potential for diversity and abundance. Think about it, can we walk within a forest fairly easily? Yes. Can we walk in an open field easily? Yes. What happens when we try to walk from the open field into the forest? We have to push our way through by stepping over flowers, root plants, sun-loving herbaceous bushes, blackberry brambles and even small under-canopy trees before we step onto the shady but easily navigated leafy bedding on the forest floor. Edges are where the most potential for abundance lies and are often marginalized in our physical landscapes. Let us not neglect their potential in the learning landscape.

Elongating the Edges

Using the edges and valuing the marginal does not necessarily mean connecting with more edges. More, but not in relation, often leads to chaos rather than whole system design. Instead, we need to seek out edges and elongate the ones of greatest value.

Think of balancing a ball on your fingertip. There is an edge where the ball and your finger meet, but it is short and none of the other edges touch anything else. It does not take much before the ball falls and the edge is lost. On the other hand, think of a bee’s honeycomb. There are six-sided (edged) shapes that meet with others on all sides to form a strong, functional, and amazingly beautiful design. Elongated edges allow us to explore, engage in, value, relate and integrate learning and life.

Edges in the learning landscape can include people, places, things, ideas, processes, procedures, systems, and more. Think of a young child coloring in an object drawn on paper. Young children will just scribble any and everywhere, inside and outside the lines. An older child will usually start to try to “color in the lines” and get frustrated when it falls outside the edges and doesn’t look as aesthetically pleasing as they wanted.

If our children learn to slowly and thoughtfully attend to the edges, coloring oh so carefully just on the inside lines of their object, coloring the rest of the inside happens naturally, quickly and yet neatly. Helping our children become aware of, use and value the edges helps them create the picture in reality that they pictured in their mind. This is the difference between deeply engaging to learn a math concept that can then be applied in other novel ways in life (edges that enrich the productivity of the journey) versus learning the math concept because we are focused on passing the next math test (reaching a destination).

Gardeners often marginalize the edges as well and then curse the hours spent tending to (read: weeding) the unwanted plants that are growing along the edges of their beloved plants and garden beds. In nature something will grow in an open space. Plan for, plant and tend to the usually neglected edges because if you don’t something will grow there and it may not be beneficial.

If we plan and make use of the edge space in our garden we can truly value what is typically marginalized. We end up planting more diverse garden beds because we start to see the potential of the “edges” when two or more plants are planted in close proximity, much like planting basil around tomato plants to help ward off unwanted insects. Our children’s learning landscapes can be designed and enriched using this same permaculture principle.

There are all sorts of “edges” in the learning landscape, but for now let’s further explore just one – Nature.

Use and Value the Nature Edge

Educational design needs to be more than “whole child.” This approach to education uses and values the edges within, but it perpetuates the notion that education is solely about, for and done by the individual.

We as parents, educators, communities and lifelong learners need to advocate for whole systems educational design. Our children deserve a learning landscape that not only takes and learns from self, family, community, ancestors, spirit, nature and Universe, but also ignites an intrinsic desire to reciprocate, extend and add to these “edges.” Natural relationships that nourish life should be the goal.

Children not only deserve, but need experiences that help them realize and appreciate their connection and interdependence to more than themselves. Think of those “difficult” teenage years. People often identify teenage youth as being more interested in thrill seeking and friends then family. These are wild calls of aching hearts trying to find who they are in relation to and within their community and this greater world.

When there is no community to initiate and welcome in our children, they forge their own paths that are usually risky, unhealthy or even dangerous. Our children need help navigating from the “me” to the “we.” They need from the earliest ages on to be part of the process of identifying, using, valuing and elongating the healthy edges in their lives.

Community-oriented education by design that helps children connect with and learn to love their place and the greater natural environment is a great place to begin. It is an edge that can transform what it means to learn, educate and be educated. In fact, maybe we should think about co-designing “edge-ucation.” Language is consciousness!

Using the natural environment is tangible and allows us to model and mentor children in learning about, understanding and valuing the ethics and thinking tools that may otherwise seem abstract. The nature edge is not separate from us, but as Obi-Wan Kenobi might say, it “surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” It feeds our life-force and gives us the ethical know how to transform the future.

The more we can use and value diversity of connections between that which seems dissimilar the more meaningful and enriching the learning landscape can become. Talk to a naturalist, environmental educator or anyone pursuing an environmental passion and in most cases you will find an interesting causal pattern emerge that includes: 1) being given the trust, space and time to spend hours outdoors in a special place and 2) being in relation with another (usually an adult) who modeled, taught and mentored care, respect and love for nature.

These two edges ignite deep, meaningful love and connection beginning with experience (action) through which knowledge emerges. This is a paradigm shift. Instead of influencing knowledge and thinking in hopes of transforming behavior, it is in action that the intrinsic thirst and quest for knowledge emerges feeding a repeating pattern.

Our children deserve an approach to designing education that honors children’s inherent fascination and love for nature as well as their “whole self” development that includes cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual competence. These are all “edges” that exist in our children’s learning landscapes. Nature is the (marginalized) edge that can weave the disparate together. Herein lies the potential of using the nature edge.

As David Sobel writes in his book Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators nature becomes a place of “initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin” (pg. 12). Far too often we try to push knowledge with the assumption that loving and caring behaviors will naturally follow, but the truth and human nature is more complicated than this. Through deep, meaningful love and connection knowledge emerges. Is this edge used and valued in your children’s edge-ucation?

Don’t think you are on the right track just because you are on a well-beaten path.

Learners make connections, much like snapping together LEGOs, that link the edges of their own questions, educational subjects, skills, ways of learning, previous knowledge and personal interests to pattern a sturdy, integrated structure (if well designed). Through these experiences and connections that elongate the edges in learning, natural relationships and life, children also learn to respect the inherent dignity and worth of all.

Using the edges and valuing the marginal is a thinking tool that empowers children and helps them understand that their voices (often on the edge and marginalized in education) deserve the same. No longer are the edges the tip of their finger, but deep, meaningful natural relationships that inspire justice, equity and compassion.


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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