#4 – Once Upon a Playground
An interview with Emily Reid of Glasgow, Scotland’s Ecodrama theatre company to explore how imagination can bridge the gap for city school lacking access to nature. The ‘Out To Play’ draws upon the talents of drama artists to engage school children in their environments and get them reconnecting with nature. In today’s episode, you heard Roll Jordan Roll by the Joy Drops.
I call today’s episode Once Upon a Playground. Not only is it a quote from the program which today’s guest will be speaking to us about, but it beautifully encompasses the ideas in today’s show; namely that imagination is a powerful source of inspiration and that it can serve purposes far beyond those we commonly attribute to it. This may seem tangential for a moment, but please try to follow my train of thought. In a 2012 study entitled ‘The city snuffs out nature’: young people’s conceptions of and relationship with nature by Pam Pointon from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, it was noted that not every student experiences ‘the countryside’ the same way. Of course, this may sound like common sense, but not everyone feels the same way about raw nature; or as stated in the study ‘disgust in walking through fields of cowpats and fear of sheep presented barriers to enjoyment of the countryside’. There was a notable difference in students from visible minorities, who recall being stared at and ‘feeling out of place’, which made them uncomfortable. My nature may not feel and look the same as your nature since our interpretations will be affected by our past experiences. The study really aimed to categorize the way students felt about nature through written responses. Students were asked how they understood the terms ‘nature’ and ‘environment’, and how it was important to them, if at all. 387 students took part in the study and the results, to me, shone a light on yet another disconnect in dire need of attention. To my chagrin, more than half of the students felt a utilitarian relationship with nature. Somewhat redeeming was that many students, in spite of this utilitarian relationship, also felt strong emotional connections with nature. The vast majority of students wrote about biotic or living components of nature in their responses, while very little mentioned the abiotic (non-living components like rocks, water & soil). Unfortunately, as was observed in the study, this also meant that responses recognizing the interrelationships of the biotic and abiotic were very rare. The rarity of these observations is a noteworthy point to reflect on, because the biotic: plants, our food, etc, grows in the abiotic. Minerals, vitamins and nutrients, the abiotic, are essential to human life, the biotic. Ecosystems are by definition an interrelationship of biotic and abiotic! Everywhere you look, the biotic and the abiotic are inseparable. The very foundation of nature is an interrelationship and interdependency between the biotic and abiotic, yet our teaching has found a way to separate them. This suggests to me that the focus of our education can become so myopic at times that we lose sight of the bigger picture: we can’t see the forest for the trees. We fail to see how things connect, how everything is relative to something else. In fact, relativity, Einstein’s scientific masterpiece, was founded on this very idea! The quote in the title of the aforementioned study demonstrates this myopic vision we often suffer from exquisitely: the city snuffs out nature; implying that city and nature are mutually exclusive. But this doesn’t have to be the case! Many city parks have greater biodiversity than large monoculture swaths of countryside! Many ingenious animals are finding ways of inhabiting urban landscapes with tremendous success, notably raccoons and New York’s Central Park coyotes. City and nature can coexist… even if they don’t always. But back to relativity, I recently read through a 1929 interview with Albert Einstein, by The Saturday Evening Post, yes the same Saturday Evening Post that is so well known for it’s Norman Rockwell covers; and in this interview, George Sylvester Viereck asks Einstein at one point, simultaneously puzzled and in awe of how Einstein draws some of his conclusions or inspirations:
Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?
To which Einstein replied:
I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
Many quotes are often misattributed to Einstein, but this one is real; I’ll post a link in the episode notes in case any of you are wanting to see the microfilm scans of the 1929 publication. It’s actually a fun read.
I love the way Einstein talks about imagination encircling the world. Great thinkers don’t let themselves be bound by rules. The best musicians make their instruments do things nobody has heard before. Imagination is the key to solving the worlds problems as much as it is what allows us to write a poem. I think that, as educators, we have a tendency at times to get stuck within the confines of our classroom. We fall prey to the idea that the city has snuffed out nature as we get overwhelmed with things to do and learning outcomes to cover. With the little energy we have left, we resort to taking the most efficient way to teach something, for which I don’t blame you. I am guilty of it too. We end up confined to our classrooms and concrete, city schoolyards. We take the easy way out, but few things in life worth doing, are easy. My guest today works with a theatre company which runs inner city school programs in Glasgow, Scotland, where they turn their own concrete schoolyards into imaginary forests, rich in real and mythical biodiversity. Drawing upon the talents of drama artists, Ecodrama helps students who may feel disconnected from nature, and teachers who may feel that nature is too far away; find a new connection, both personal and educational, with the very same nature that can seem so elusive and distant from core area schools.
Find out more at https://disconnect.pinecast.co