Learning Landscapes: Adapting to Change Through Collective Creativity

Use Creativity and Adapt to Change

We are in the midst of change as spring has sprung. Many people are adapting to this change in the natural landscape by spending more time outside, watching the bees emerge to begin pollinating trees and plants, or perhaps planning or even beginning to plant spring crops. Experienced gardeners often reflect over last spring’s results in order to creatively adjust their plans for this year.

Shouldn’t we do something similar in the learning landscape or even in our personal and social landscapes? With this in mind, how can we use the framework of permaculture, a whole systems thinking framework, to work with our children to consciously and creatively make regenerative learning landscapes that reflect the inherent balance, stability and harmony of nature? How can we use this to help us work with our children to use creativity and adapt to change? 

“The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of human soul.” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf

The ability to use creativity and adapt to change is not only about forming original ideas. It is also about constructing, deconstructing, designing and imagining known objects, actions, ideas, concepts or methods, or parts and pieces of these things. We want to be able to skillfully and resourcefully re-arrange and integrate what is already there in innovative ways. To do this, we need to take informed, calculated risks, experience successes and failures, learn from those experiences and re-imagine and re-design some more.

Much like when Aristotle said, “Wisdom begins in wonder,” so too does creativity grow out of curiosity. Natural curiosity allowed to not only emerge but flourish lays the fertile foundation for understanding, imagining and actively designing alternatives to challenges we experience. Children tend to naturally seek to be the first to use creativity and adapt to change. They are natural solutions-based thinkers as expressed through observations, questions, exploration and investigation. This requires a fertile foundation and supportive environment that honors divergent, transformative thinking.

Vision is not seeing things as they are,
but as they will be.

 The only thing constant in this world is change. Our children, families, communities and even nature are ever changing, but it does not have to be chaotic change. Rather, through the framework of permaculture we can mindfully cultivate and collaborate to create the change we imagine is possible. With this in mind I ask: What is it that we want to grow this year?

One idea to help plant the seeds of change for what can be grown, not only in “my garden” or “your garden” but our collaborative, interconnected community garden is to co-create a painting of what everyone in the community hopes to grow this year in their “garden.” Take that literally, figuratively or philosophically, but the results of collaborative creativity will allow for tremendous opportunity for reflection, conversation and illumination about the challenges and opportunities that will shape the community throughout this year.

An activity like this allows for ideas to emerge and for people to make connections and seek the support they will need into the future. Of course, the process and the results will vary if doing this with smaller groups like as a family, classroom or learning cooperative, PTO or school board, versus as a larger community like a whole school, church or city government. However, use and value diversity because it often inspires divergent and transformative thinking.

“What you appreciate – appreciates.”
– Lynne Twist

Children and adults alike can partake in this activity. Younger children are likely to understand the prompt to be literal and include annual or perennial plants, bushes and/or trees. Many think about what they or their parents plant, be it in pots or in a big kitchen garden. Those who have a garden at school often will reflect back to planting, tending to or eating their favorite thing. Some children who have done this activity painted their favorite tree that they like to climb. Others painted worms, birds and butterflies that are drawn to the garden. One child even thought to include a self-portrait because, “I will grow myself this year!”

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Youth and young adults may think more about the social garden and paint things that represent their strong sense of loyalty to friends, groups and teams. They may also want to grow in certain experiences, activities, ways of and/or areas of learning that they feel great passion for. Having done this with intergenerational communities, I have always been amazed by the passion for making the world a more just, equitable and compassionate place that is evident in symbols of endangered animals, peace signs and/or simply love.

Adults through the middle years of life are often drawn to painting symbols that reflect family and/or professional goals. At a local event where we did this activity one woman with two young children asked what she might paint to represent patience. In some communities, people of this age may also be small business owners who are likely to bring an economic element into the painting and discussions.

Elders, on the other hand, often paint about their values, beliefs and the continuation of a community that they feel deeply connected to. People and relationships take center stage for many as they hope to worry less and love more. This often isn’t the big issues like one might think of like mending a bond broken years ago, but instead being mindful and present with the small, minute-to-minute and day-to-day interactions that make up a relationship.

Inspiration grows and education nourishes life.

What is so fun about an activity like this is not the end product, but the process. When doing this with a community that includes younger children, I like to start with the question, “Do we really ever start with an empty canvass when we plant a garden?” The answer is no, but it is the collaborative discussion around this question that deepens the conversation. To be in relation, to use creativity and adapt to change in ways that nourishes life through compassion, equity and justice, we need to be in conversation.

In our kitchen garden we fool ourselves when we use a blank piece of paper or even a grid pad to design our garden. If we think by tilling up a new area we are going to plant it untouched, we might want to spend some more time in relation with Mother Earth before we design a garden as we alone envision.

No man is an island. In our personal, professional and life gardens in general we are never alone. All is in relation. We never really achieve our goals, face our challenges or grow in isolation. The young mother who asked how to paint patience is a wonderful example. It was in her relations with her children that this challenge presented itself in a new and important way.

Once the discussion leads to an understanding that we start with and grow in relation to ourselves, others and the earth I ask for a volunteer to put a rather large, random splotch of paint on the canvass to represent our ancestors and all that has come before us that allows us to be where we are right here and now. This breaks the ice and then we take turns adding to the portrait.

At first people will be careful not to paint over someone else’s work, but soon this becomes inevitable. The layering of the painting is symbolic of the complexity of the community and what lies ahead. Rather than see this as an activity with the end goal of creating a product that can be talked about and then displayed, think of this as a process-based learning opportunity.

“You can’t solve a problem on the same level on which it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.” – Albert Einstein

 For best results, allow this activity to continue for multiple days and for reflection to occur (and pictures taken) as the painting evolves. For those willing, recording the words that accompany the painted symbols along with the name and even basic contact information for people is useful. This can inspire people to reach out and talk to others with similar things being cultivated and/or when people see someone else that they can help. Share pictures of the process and marvel at how through creativity the picture painted naturally adapts to change.

As we welcome and honor a new season, let us embody the creativity, adaptability and complex beauty as does the painting. What shall we grow in the garden?


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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