Adventures in Tree Land

Adventures in Tree Land

A Tale of Natural Learning, or the Possibility Thereof

“Look Daddy,” my three-year-old daughter Percy shouts, “lions!”

We’re in a small glade of trees about forty feet square in a highly trafficked corner of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The dark soil and shade stand in stark contrast to the day’s bright sunshine. Percy calls this “Tree Land,” and we’ve been coming every Saturday for several weeks. Today we’ve been here for over an hour and I cannot coax my eccentric progeny into leaving.

“Nice,” I say. “But I thought they were tigers.”

“They’re tigers and lions,” she explains. They’re actually squat, leafy shrubs.

“Daddy really needs to get to work,” I tell her. Daddy is, in fact, on deadline for the article that you, dear reader, are currently perusing.

“But Daddy,” she says. “Can we make a house for the lions?” We are equipped for such a mission. We have a plastic shovel and bucket, not to mention my formidable engineering prowess. I check my watch and sigh. On the periphery of Tree Land another father-daughter team paces, as if waiting their turn to enter. We do not invite them to join us. Like her socially anxious old man, Percy is anti-human. But she’s very much pro-lion. In fact, she is more pro-lion than I would have imagined, which turns out to be central to an epiphany I’ve had regarding my neighborhood, my daughter, and the hardwired connection we all have to a disappearing biosphere.

This is the story of that epiphany.

My wife and I are raising our two girls in Park Slope, Brooklyn—a toddler-centric culture oft-parodied by essayists, novelists, and the city’s sneering twenty-somethings. And for good reason. The neighborhood’s sidewalks are clogged with double-strollers (ours included), baby boutiques outnumber adult clothing retailers … even the bars suffer a 6 p.m. influx of parents with enormous-eyed newborns strapped to their chests. Meanwhile, Prospect Park—the borough’s great green heart—contains more playgrounds than any reasonable human being could expect to encounter in a lifetime. Joining their children on the sliding-and-climbing phantasmagoria is a part of every overprotective Park Slope parent’s daily regimen.

But When Learning Comes Naturally, a new film made in collaboration with the Child Development Institute (CDI) at Sarah Lawrence, suggests that the best thing we Park Slope parents can do for our children is escort them into the actual park, into the acres of standing forest that most of us merely skirt en route to the next jungle-gym oasis. Natural play spaces represent the unstructured, the unregimented, and the unprocessed; they are the counterweight to the test-taking, performance-based mentality that has emptied so many of our schools of magic and meaning.

It’s the film that has led us, albeit indirectly, to Tree Land. And although Percy is a little young for a direct application of the film’s principles (it focuses mostly on innovative elementary and middle schools), she’s obviously enchanted by the dirty-kneed pursuit of creepy-crawlies. In the film, CDI Director Rachel Grob talks about the “joy in the eyes” of children finding slugs. Tree Land has yet to reveal its slugs to us, but other Brooklyn fauna abounds.

On our first visit, a scandalously red cardinal landed not five feet away, and Percy stared in awe. Bright goldfinches flittered through branches. We turned over a fallen log and a pack of armadillo-bugs scattered. “I don’t like that, Daddy,” Percy said, holding on to me. But a moment later she was leaning in closer, one finger extended. “It’s just a little bit scary,” she said, smiling. Every weird bug we’ve uncovered since has set off the same cycle of reactions: revulsion, then curiosity, and then, yes, joy.

Twenty minutes in a playground sandbox and Percy’s bored and demanding sugar. But in Tree Land she’s lost in the moment and impossible to lure away—even when Daddy has a deadline. According to Grob, this isn’t all that unusual. Life engages children in direct proportion to its unpredictability. Put a Disney doll in front of a child, she says, and the child will put that doll through its culturally established behaviors (ah, the price of fame, Little Mermaid). But let a child explore a situation not bankrupted by preconceptions, and imagination erupts. There’s no rush to the next toy. It’s like watching an addict break the chains.

Ralph Waldo Emerson—a hero of mine from my college days—once implored all of us disgruntled humans to “adopt the pace of nature,” whose “secret is patience.” In the context of iPhones and internet cafes, Emerson’s words can feel laughably dusty. And yet here in Tree Land, removed from all the hullabaloo, they seem strangely apt.

When Learning Comes Naturally is the fourth film in the Learning Child Series, and is geared toward teachers, administrators, parents, and anyone interested in children (i.e., teachers, administrators, and parents). It showcases four schools—two of them in urban settings—that have incorporated outdoor learning into their curricula. Through teacher testimonials, the validation of cognitive development experts, and the ridiculously adorable firsthand accounts of young children, the film argues persuasively in favor of nature-based education.

The idea that students will learn more in a real-world context is intuitively obvious, but it exists in opposition to No Child Left Behind’s veneration of school standards and rigorous teach-to-the-test practices. Educators are not generally encouraged to incorporate slugs into their lesson plans. They don’t generally accompany their students down to a river to net, examine, and release little silver fish (as does a class in the film). Schools are under a lot of pressure from parents and state authorities to boost performance, and their most common strategy is to narrow the range of teaching to the dimensions of the tests.

But When Learning Comes Naturally is out to appeal to the results-first crowd, not to alienate them. Hands-in-the-dirt learning isn’t only more dynamic; it’s also more effective. Involving students in the process of learning, and providing meditative time to absorb their experience, results in greater understanding and, by extension, higher scores. At one of the schools featured in the film, children puzzled by a spatial-math lesson in the classroom see the light (literally) when mapping the dimensions of a soon-to-be-planted class garden. At another school, a science unit on microbes is brought to life by a hands-on, sketchbooks-out investigation of rotting pumpkins.

What’s most remarkable about the film is the zeal with which children engage these natural surroundings. Roger Hart, professor of psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center and a member of CDI’s professional advisory board, asserts that an early bond with nature—and more specifically, with a single place that one can return to throughout childhood—creates “ a love of discovery,” along with a scaffolding for learning, an increased capacity to absorb and process information. “If you have affection for learning,” Hart says, “all the rest will follow.”

This, too, seems so obvious as to hardly bear mentioning, until you consider that play is disappearing even from kindergarten. In fact, here in Park Slope it’s not uncommon for kindergarteners to have a good deal of homework, making unstructured time harder to come by both during and after school. And when children do have a bit of leisure time, they do what any model 21st century citizen does: face a digital display and press buttons. According to Grob, the average child spends less than an hour a week in unstructured, outdoor play. The “pace of nature” has been replaced by the pace of PlayStation, and the connection Percy’s been making with Tree Land grows rarer with each generation. We all spend a lot of time in front of glowing screens. What do we gain? Is it making us happier, all this information spread butter-thin across the surface of our brains? Is this how we want our kids to know the world?

So post-film screening, I decided to escort Percy out into the wilds of Brooklyn and see what would happen. I had the perfect place in mind, a wooded trail threading through the park’s interior that I’ve often gone running on. But on the way to this destination, we passed through Tree Land. “Let’s look for lions,” Percy said. It was that simple. I didn’t have to bring her to the experience. She found it herself, corroborating Rachel Grob’s insistence that “it’s a lot easier than people think to provide children with this outlet.” All I did was take a walk, with intent.

A month later and we’re both invested in this little rectangle of trees. We’ve watched the leaves go from green to gold and scatter across the ground. We’ve pushed them into piles to expose the wet soil and dig for worms. We’ve counted bugs and laughed at hyperactive squirrels. But mostly, we’ve played. And this play, along with Percy’s innate attraction to the woods, hints at the real justification for natural learning.

Children who don’t know nature are not likely to care about it. As our world becomes increasingly populated, as greenhouse gases continue to choke the atmosphere, as species race to extinction at rates not seen since the Jurassic… well, it’s hard to feel sanguine about the future. And I’ll be honest—I’m pretty cynical where this stuff is concerned. We’ve outgrown sustainable rates of consumption, and this machine doesn’t appear to go in reverse. But looking at Percy, seeing the joy in her eyes and hearing her guileless laughter ring out across Tree Land, it suddenly seems as if our presence here is a kind of grassroots environmental advocacy. Percy is herself a tool for change, a vessel for optimism.

And so here’s the epiphany I promised at the outset. If I can make room for wonder (a word that I personally can’t even write without cringing) in my little girl’s mind, if she can see the sublime in nature and recognize herself as part of something larger, maybe she’ll also see her old man’s cynicism as short-sighted and untrue. Maybe she’ll be what we all want our children to be: smarter, happier, and more secure than we ourselves are.

Percy and I haven’t gotten very far on our lion-house. We keep unearthing armadillo-bugs, which my little girl gently prods into activity. I have to fight my own obsessive-compulsiveness to keep from insisting that we build this damned lion house already. Thirty more minutes have passed and we’ve got a good walk ahead of us and Percy notices me again checking my watch, because Percy notices everything.

“Five more minutes, Daddy,” she says unprompted.

“Okay, Percy, five more minutes.”

Ten more minutes,” she says. She looks up at me coyly. We pause for a moment. Dappled sunlight breaks across her face. We hear cars rattling wildly down Eastern Parkway, a hundred yards away. I think about all the invisible technology traveling through the air, satellite and wireless signals, radio and television waves, science I’ll never understand washing the world in information. Everyone I know is unhappy. But I’d do anything for my little girl not to be.

“Okay, Percy, ten more minutes,” I say.

“No, fifteen more minutes,” she replies. I raise an eyebrow. She stands very still. Then together, we crack up laughing.

Since writing this article, David Hollander has moved his family to the Hudson Valley, where Percy has all the natural learning she can handle. Hollander is a member of the Sarah Lawrence writing faculty and a regular contributor to this magazine.