Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.
— Chinese Proverb

Teaching through nature

Running River School’s curriculum connects children with the natural world. We weave environmental/earth education into all curriculum, returning over and over to our interdependence with the natural world. We hike once a week (the K-1 class hikes twice), visiting Boulder County Open Spaces and Mountain Parks as well as the high mountains. We always begin with EXPERIENCE. The children explore, ask questions, make observations, and play. We also play nature games that awaken the senses and enhance observations of the environment, from the visible phenomena to invisible qualities (such as the strength of trees or the calm of a pond). In the classroom, we discuss our observations, using them as guideposts that deepen our understanding and connection to nature. We are then able to move between nature – with all its diversity, complexity, mystery and wonder – and the classroom.

Other types of learning take place being in wild places. We observe the centering and calming quality that comes from being in nature; a vital ingredient for the healthy development of the whole child. We spend contemplative time in nature doing silent walks, art, journaling, quiet-time and what we call impressions work. This is the work of learning to receive the qualities housed in different forms, or impressions, of nature.

The Village Phenomenon

Hiking takes place one to two times a week. On each hike, we find time for open play. This is where we discover the village phenomenon. The younger children often play/act hunting, gathering, building, cooking, nesting and protecting. For hours, children play with no input from the adults. Little shelters with cooking areas, utensils, food, bedrooms, clothing, animals, babies, and hunting weapons magically appear. Older children tend to explore, find challenges, create more complex games, or just hang-out talking. On some hikes we find all the children immersed in the village play. It is through play – exploring and manipulating the environment, that children merge with nature, coming back to what has been appropriately named “having a sense of place.” In their words: “This is the earth, my home; I am part of it, it is part of me.” This deep and personal connection forges an indivisible feeling of responsibility for nature’s safety and health.


Experiantial & meaningful learning

Nothing is fully learned without experience. Running River immerses children in a personally meaningful, experiential approach to education. Our goal is that children leave Running River with the skills to use their hands to work and live, their hearts to reflect and contemplate, and their minds to organize, analyze, solve and communicate. To accomplish this, starting in second grade, we use project based learning to integrate and apply academics. Students learn from and with others; acquire new information and test it out; are allowed to make mistakes; and persevere with an in-depth, multi-faceted process that uses both imagination and intellect.

In both collaborative thematic units and personal topics, each child designs, with a teacher, a project that attempts to answer an essential question that the student has chosen to research. Project goals include every academic area. The student works closely with their teacher and where possible, a mentor from the chosen project area. At the end of each project period the students present their completed work, demonstrating what they have learned and how they have learned it.

This process provides an in-depth, tangible experience that can be applied to all learning endeavors. Children become personally responsible for acquiring knowedge, more confident to meet challenges, and competent to learn with depth and breadth. In the end, this kind of learning is a model of how all discoveries are made and problems solved. This is the true joy of learning.


The development of qualities

What are the highest possible human qualities and how are they developed? These are questions the staff at Running River asks as individuals and as teachers. We want children to be nourished by their own inner qualities, not just by their actions. Qualities stay with us as we change in life and are clearly manifested in all our actions.

Nature is a great teacher of qualities. For children to feel solid in who they are, they need qualities such as patience, receptivity, sensitivity, objectivity, stamina, joy, strength, gratitude and more. Since every aspect of nature is the expression of a universal quality or force, spending time in nature is one way we help children identify, develop and become attuned to qualities. We know that these qualities can take a lifetime to take root and flourish. By working together to develop these qualities, and focusing on them in our curriculum, we hope to give children a strong sense of what qualities are.

For example, when learning about overcoming obstacles we might spend time studying how rivers move around rocks. We can give children projects that develop qualities. Patience is required in raising rabbits, baking bread and making a book. Our theater productions help children develop confidence, fluidity and presence. Our councils teach attentive listening, opening to the input of others, taking responsibility for actions, waiting for inner answers, and respectful expression of feelings and ideas. These are just a few examples of the essential role qualities play in the development of our children.


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