Learning Landscapes: How Adventures Connect Us to Place & Stewardship

Adventurous, Fantastical Possibilities

Welcoming adventure into the learning landscape means we need to be willing to say, “I don’t know what is going to happen” when we first begin. This is a significant change of consciousness from one in which educators take the lead, identify the objectives and craft lessons to get children to the desired end goal. Sometimes it is useful to step off the beaten path and even the road less followed in order to get lost in the forest for a while. As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Learning and life is enriched when we periodically go on an adventure. Real adventure ignites a thirst for exploration and stimulates curiosity that can drive learning much deeper because the direction and the end goal is co-created in conjunction with the learner and the emerging elements in the environment. Questions provoke real communication and a deepening of relations. Adventure, one of the seven childhood and nature design principles for educators created by David Sobel, can help us take steps to leading a more ethically-aligned life. 

“Soon we came to a tall fence with a gap at the bottom we had to go under. A little while after that we came to another culvert, smaller than the first one, but still big enough that I could go through it without ducking. This culvert didn’t go under any road. Soon after that we came to a very muddy part of the Connecticut River. THIS IS WHERE THE STREAM WENT TO.”

The Stream, Maria McCormick, printed in Childhood and Nature by David Sobel (p. 23)

The educator and the class of students who undertook this adventure could have very easily looked up online, used maps or asked someone knowledgeable in the town about where the stream went, but how would that have helped the children learn more about themselves, build community or feel connected to this part of the river that meandered through their place? Virtual adventure through maps, research guides and even Google Earth takes a distance second to kinesthetic and experiential education that touches our minds, bodies, hearts and souls.

Adventure provides opportunities to use what we know and encounter experiences that help us continue to transition in our learning and life. By inviting adventure into our learning landscapes we have to be willing to admit that we don’t know everything. We don’t know what will happen when we open ourselves up to going on an adventure. Permaculture, like adventure, is not a curriculum or a step-by-step guide. It is a lifelong journey to nourishing life.

Permaculture as a framework in the learning landscape is a slow process with a certain elegance to it, which I’ve come to appreciate. It is not art or science, but both and more. We can “garden” both literally and figuratively with a perpetual willingness to be surprised. When children’s learning landscapes use the edges of imagination and adventure in supportive social and emotional communities, our children can see (and help us see) the world anew. We need all kinds of minds.

Imaginative, play-based learning is a form of adventure. Play-based education is experiencing a resurgence in education as we realize the crucial connection between play and child development. However, this way of learning is quickly phased out of the learning landscape following infancy and the earliest years of childhood. Adventure, imagination and play is also often seen as separate from or even unhelpful for education.

It is through play, adventure and experimentation that children come to make sense of and understand what they have encountered. This creates excitement and a sense of being on a quest with unknown challenges and obstacles to face. These are the foundations of a balanced, regenerative and harmonized learning landscape.

Play is more than just a way to exercise our body. It connects and feeds us holistically. Dr. David Blumenkrantz from the Center for Youth & Community beautifully and poetically expresses this idea by referring to play as a form of “secular spirituality.” It is an organic and primal way that our children connect beyond the “me” to the “we.” Through laughter, joy, love and a sense of interplay we feel the interdependence with the greater natural world of which we humans are a part of. This connection is a form of secular spirituality.

What’s Missing?

Environmental education is springing up as the “in” thing to include in a child’s education, but there is little discussion about how our children develop in this area. As caring adults who feel passionate about the environment we may feel compelled to help children save the world. However, to paraphrase and expand sentiments expressed by David Sobel, children need to learn to love, play in and connect with Mother Earth before we ask them to save her.

Adventure develops connection with our selves, places and communities that is more than cognitive. Adventures help us find our heart place. I love nature and I think it needs to be integrated as a foundational element of the learning landscape because nature is essential to the healthy and holistic development of our children. However, we must temper our fears as adults leading children to develop and value the scientific know how without first developing connection to the ethical roots of knowing how to use this growing understanding.

The roots of environmental stewardship and activism are not, as we might imagine, in reality-based scientific knowledge alone. Instead the roots must come from the active learning of play, imagination and adventure. Rather than look for the best garden curriculum or environmental program, seek adventure. David Sobel asserts, “Environmental education needs to be kinesthetic, in the body. Children should stalk, balance, jump and scamper through the natural world. Activities with a physical challenge component speak directly to children via the mind/body link” (Children and Nature Design Principles, p. 21).

Ask yourself (and better yet, ask the children) what opportunities are there for children to just be in the natural world joyfully, playfully and respectfully as modeled by a compassionate, creative and adventurous adult? Welcoming in adventure through kinesthetic exploration propels children into deeper questions and learning. However, to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” of incorporating adventure into the learning landscape we, the adult educational mentors, need to be adventurous in attitude and spirit.

Connection, love and empathy between children and the natural world should be our main goals, especially for young children or those who have never had the chance to playfully and adventurously be in nature. From here our children deserve a learning landscape that encourages exploration of the local in order to better understand themselves, their community and make connections to people, animals and places globally and throughout time. Local and place-based learning grows overtime as our children come to more deeply understand how all is in relation.

With adventure, imagination and play as the roots in childhood, our youth will initiate social action and be in search of truth and meaning. So, instead of trying to motivate our children through fear, (i.e. mankind is destroying our planet with pollution and excessive consumption of non-renewable resources), we need to provide and connect children with their possible sources of strength. This begins not simply in the cognitive understanding of environmental world issues making headlines today, but in adventurous wonderings within the beauty of nature flourishing right now in our place and time. Foster connection and love with not just in the natural world, but also with and among all our natural relationships because, to paraphrase David Sobel: Children need to learn to love and connect with Mother Earth before we ask them to save her.


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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