“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” ― Rachel Carson
When one thinks of the woods, it might conjure up images of dark dense forests, the Big Bad Wolf lurking fearfully or other sinister fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel or Into the Woods. For others, the woods provokes visions of transcendental forest bathing and quotes from Thoreau or Emerson — solitude, a meditative thru-hike or a Walk in the Woods. As a child, the woods were a place I could use my imagination, climb trees, design imaginary floor plans in open spaces between towering trees or assemble makeshift forts from found materials in the garage — a place where I could envision my future, dream and wonder.
With the partnership from many outside experts in design, architecture and building including Dina Sorensen, Senior Associate of DLR Group, along with our Discovery Elementary staff, we began to plan our second annual design challenge for 125–5th graders. We knew we wanted students to envision a ‘forest classroom’ with an opportunity to transform a wooded area adjacent to the school playfield — into a place for students and teachers to use for ‘expeditionary’ learning. The woods became a place-based focus with Nature as an inspiration for this design thinking challenge.
We would create a place to learn in the Discovery Woods.
“By any name, environment-based (or place-based) education can surely be one of the antidotes to nature deficit disorder. The basic idea is to use the surrounding community, including nature, as the preferred classroom.” (Louv, 2008)
Once we located a few possible sites, obtained approval from our administrators and facilities office, cleaned the space with our students and community, we began with the first phase of the design thinking process.
Students began using empathy through research.
The 5th graders first researched the natural space. They observed, collected, identified, and analyzed their living and nonliving findings from nature. Installing a night camera in the space allowed them to examine the natural life including deer, fox and raccoons. They began to conceive ways to design while protecting the natural inhabitants and species in this space.
The research continued as they began to explore Cradle to Cradle methodologies and how designers use biomimicry and sustainable measures when creating new products. They would formulate the specs of their design — with what it would be made, how many it would seat, how it would be used, and how it could be repurposed later. The next phase of research would help them to discover ways their design would evolve while leaving a net-positive impact on their environment.
The final phase of research was risk-taking in nature with our mind and body. Students learned that our working memory, focus and attention are activated in nature. An outdoor learning space was important for our students. They practiced creating ephemeral seat designs and playing with natural materials. They identified perceived natural dangers in the woods including ticks, animals and poison ivy. They learned to trust one another through physical risk-taking games such as trust falls.
“As the nature-deficit grows, another emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. For example, new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.” (Louv, 2008)
The community was invited to attend a video skype presentation with Nancy Wells, Professor and Environmental Psychology at Cornell University on “Children and Nature: How access to nature benefits human health and well-being.” Community support and involvement was key to the success of this event and to encourage the possibilities for future design challenges.
“By bolstering children’s attention resources, green spaces may enable children to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life stress.” writes Nancy Wells (Louv, 2008)
Deep empathy and research enabled students to define their ideas and visualize their designs.
The fifth graders applied their understanding and collaboratively illustrated imaginative designs for their outdoor classroom spaces. Industrial Designer, Architect David Stubbs, founder of Culture-Shift, taught students that “Failure was not a word.” They rapid prototyped using card stock, maker materials and 3D printed Tinkercad drawings to transform their 2D iterations into 3D possibilities. Sometimes multiple times — living out David’s notion of failure. They composed persuasive pitches to their classmates and critiqued solutions to possible design problems.
Through the rousing of Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop and teachers, the 5th graders evaluated their designs and began to create and build using tools and materials that took risk-taking to another level. Synthesizing the designs of multiple creations inspired by biomimicry, they painted, sawed and drilled their dream outdoor classroom. This new space utilized the needs and wants that the students and teachers defined — a place that floats inspired by nature, allows students to feel separate but together, nurtured in a protected space that allows natural light to shine through and will hold an entire class. The final days and late evenings of creation, built more than a structure to sit upon, but a community, as parents, students and staff worked together to complete the space.
Utilizing personalized learning, the students were leaders of their own expedition. A documentary team photographed, edited and produced a visual story of the design challenge process. A graphic design team created promotional posters of the challenge so that other students would be informed of this venture. Another design team collaborated with the help of Iconograph design staff to create wayfinding signs and graphics to entice teachers and students to use the new outdoor learning space and to educate them about the natural inhabitants and species there. The student’s claimed their territory by naming it “Nature’s Hideout”.
“(David Sobel)…as an expert on nature’s role in education, suggests that nature’s life-instruction provides a mysterious and probably irreplaceable quality. He believes that the kinesthetic original experience of risk-taking in the natural world is closer to the natural organic way we’ve learned for millenia, and that other experiences don’t reach as deeply.” (Louv, 2008)
“I designed my seat after a raindrop” says Charlie. “My seat will feed the animals in the woods” adds Mary Francis. “Our seat represents a bud opening up to reveal a flower” responds another student. Students contemplated their biomimicry inspired designs — what was the biggest challenge they faced, and how would they improve upon them. They learned that unfinished work was just as valuable as completed works — they “learned by doing” through the entire design thinking process. Bridgett Luther, Founder of Good Causes Corporation, and Michelle Amt, Director of Sustainability at VMDO, both formerly from Cradle to Cradle, along with Dina Sorensen facilitated the culminating reflection asking us to think about the materials we use when designing and how to create using a circular economy.
“What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?” “Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (McDonough and Braungart, 2002)
Through a community of design and sustainability expert partners, parents, students and faculty the Discovery Design Challenge fostered a hunger to tinker and make, an admiration for nature’s engineering, a longing to make a net-positive impact in our school, and a sense of wonder. “I am a designer!” the Discovery 5th graders cheered.
1. Louv, Richard. (2008) Last Child in the Woods — Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; Chapel Hill, North Carolina (page 201).
2. Louv, Richard. (2008) Last Child in the Woods — Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; Chapel Hill, North Carolina (page 41).
3. Louv, Richard. (2008) Last Child in the Woods — Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; Chapel Hill, North Carolina (page 105).
4. Louv, Richard. (2008) Last Child in the Woods — Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; Chapel Hill, North Carolina (page 184).
5. McDonough, William and Braungart, Michael (2002) Cradle to Cradle; North Point Press, New York; (page 15–16).
Maria Cuzzocrea Burke
Visual Art Teacher
Discovery Elementary School
Arlington Public Schools
Maria teaches Art at Discovery Elementary in Arlington Public Schools, where she has also served as a Mentor and Lead Art Teacher. She is the mother of an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and an active member and presenter at the Virginia Art Education Association and National Art Education Association conferences.