Saturday, September 29, 2018

Reconnecting Urban Chinese Children to the Natural World

Lego-mania in China
Just last week, one of our new kindergarten moms asked for some help with her child. He's always throwing things around the house, she said. In times like these I have found it is always best to pry further with a question--you never know what you can learn about the families we are blessed to work with. When was the last time you played catch outside?, I asked. Her reply was a strange mix of innocent charm and severe disconnect from what children truly need. She said, they rarely spent time outside together and never playing catch. This was no surprise. Originateve has been in China for over 4 years now, spearheading regenerative practice in preschool education. Outdoor playtime for urban Chinese families is about as rare as authentic Chinese food in the Appalachian backwoods of eastern Tennessee. Be not mistaken though, Chinese parents care tremendously for the well-being of their kids. But misinformation often leads to over and unbalanced stimulation. A short visit to any Chinese mall on any given Saturday morning, will reveal the epidemic. Every other store is an after school program of sorts shouldering for the position to be the next short-lived top-selling educational gimmick.

Ryan's ball pool
Before I could get a reply back to the mom I was chatting with, she sent me a picture of the ball pool they have for for their clearly kinesthetically blessed child at home. The trend in China real estate is to move out of the country village homes with ample space for the children to play and into small living spacers in tall apartment building complexes. This ball pool may have once been a fun infant nook to roll around in, but as I fondly suggested it was hight time to do away with the toys of infancy and find a local park where he could strengthen his pitching arm while fine-tuning his eye-hand coordination playing catch with mom or pops.

This is by no means a malady relinquished to the People's Republic alone. We live in a day and age, where more and more so, we are locked indoors, our feet seldom touch the earth, our skin is rarely warmed by the sun and our eyes seldom look up into a glowing starry night. Reconnecting children to the natural world is at the heart of Originateve's holistic and regenerative curriculum at Master Tree Kindergarten in Shishi, China.
MT Rooftop Garden

At the end of last summer, we kickstarted our rooftop garden during our celebration of the full moon of Litha. 5 beautiful garden beds are now growing more than 20 different species of vegetables. All of which are carefully tended by the joint efforts of children and staff. Last week alone we introduced 1000 worms into 2 of our composting beds to accelerate our process of soil regeneration. These small squiggly workers are happily eating up the greens from our kindergarten kitchen waste while producing the rich soil that is steadily replacing the nutrient depleted landfill currently in our rooftop garden beds.

Down on the first floor of the school, next to our first MT garden that continues to thrive, we have added 5 new hens to our brood. Children are now excitingly feeding them each morning. The luckiest among them have found our very first MT laid eggs! A gradually growing awareness of the livelihood, care and cycles of chicken-raising is taking place in our children. 

Rabbit hutch is ready
Not far from our children-built chicken coop is our rabbit hutch that continues to draw out the curiosity and fondness of our little ones. Last week, 2 new bunnies joined our colony. Within their little gated home, on a daily basis, our kids are able to learn by observing their cave digging habits. During their morning feeding time, children develop a gentleness to enchant them into accepting a stock of grass from their hands to nibble on. 

This fall semester, we also started our weekly visits to the Faery Garden located in the B-section of the apartment complex across the street from our school. These little class trips by foot allow our children to become aware of the safety precautions necessary when walking as a group without mom and dad around. this segment of our weekly activities seeks to bring children closer into relationship with a beautiful natural garden not too far from our school. Here, children are encouraged to explore and discover more about themselves and the world we live in. It is not uncommon to see children building small homes from sticks, bringing various leaves and flowers for us teachers to praise their discovery and of course, the bravest in the bunch even engage some fun tinkering with an insect or two.

One of our core values at Master Tree Kindergarten is for all of our children to grow up not only with an awareness of the magic and beauty of our planet Earth but also of the dire responsibility we have to be her caretakers. We strongly believe that this is achieved by allowing our children to engage the natural world on a routine basis, rather than on rare occasions. Howard Gardner, father of the multiple intelligence theory, strongly agrees with our vision,“children [need] to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious...[rather] so that they will be positioned to make it a better place”. Master Tree kindergarten and Originateve China are committed to fostering the naturalist intelligence of all our children. The kids take to it all with ease. The greatest challenge will forever be the parents. Are they ready to remember the outside play of their childhoods growing up in the village?

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children's memories, the adventures we've had together in nature will always exist.”
― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Building homes for Faeries

Monday, September 17, 2018

Stimulating Brains through Stories in Shishi...

Our first full fall semester is well on its way here in Shishi, China. One of the most exciting changes we are undergoing, during this spin of the wheel, is the empowerment of our Chinese team to guide our community in the cultural regenerative efforts by bringing back to life the dusty bones of the ancestral stories and songs seldom told, far less sung.

Three times a week our kindergarten gathers for Kric? Krac! (the name Originateve International has adopted from our Haitian Creole bards to honor the our gatherings around the globe for storytelling and song with children ages 0-12). On Mondays, we celebrate a wide breadth of folklore from a good number of English tunes gathered from every corner of the world where the Anglo-saxons long since carried their lore. Molly Malone, from the capital of Dublin, cries out among us trying to make a sale, just like "her father and mother before", on some fresh, a-live, seafood. The infamous jolly swagman from the land down under reaffirms the rebellious nature we each carry within by swearing to all that seeks to squelch our innocence that "you'll never catch me alive!" On Wednesdays, however, our songs, now, ring out in Chinese. Excitingly, our children are empowered in their bilingual curriculum of enriched literacy and lore to call upon both the eye-less and rumpless tigers of the east, as well as calling upon the memory of the great hunter Houyi and his beloved Chang'e who now longs for him from the moon where she ascending, long ago, into her immortality.

These two lovers are the legendary goddess and hero of the beloved chinese myth of the Jade Rabbit. This story in particular is remembered each year around the western celebrated time of Mabon. As teacher: Peng Xue Ting brought the story back to life for the children of our kindergarten, I looked out at a sea of children clearly entranced by the language and imagery of her story and the rhythm and beat of my drum. I was instantly reminded of the posit Sir Joseph Chilton Pearce made in his influential essay on "Imagination and Play",

"Let's look at storytelling. The child responds to storytelling very early, even before they can talk. The word comes in as a vibration: sensory input. And that challenges the whole brain, not just to create an image in keeping with each word, but to create moving imagery, fluid imagery that follows the flow of the words. It sets up an inner-world scenario, a whole inner-world scene in which the scene is constantly shifting according to the shifting of the words themselves.

This has been found to be a major challenge of the brain. The job is so enormous that the child goes into total entrainment. That is, all of the energy moves into this visual process of the inner world. The child goes catatonic: body movement ceases, the jaw drops, eyes get great big and wide. They are literally not in this world. Their eyes are wide open, but they are not looking at anything outwardly. They are looking at the marvelous world forming within them."

Pearce goes onto explain, in a much more technical language, that it is in these magical instances that the child's brain is being completely reconfigured.

"...the telling of the story challenges the brain into entirely new routing every time. Each new story necessitates the forming of new neural connections between all the fields involved in imagery; a reworking of the sensory maps of the brain involving the establishment of new fields and connections between them. The brain has to continually expand its neural connections. And it’s the neural connections that count, not simply the number of neurons...And since each new story demands a complete new, re-routing of the neural patterns themselves, the brain has to continually expand—operations, auditory, visual, sensory fields, and all the rest of it—with each one."

Awareness, alone, of what Pearce is articulating here on the affect of storytelling on the brain of our children is catatonic in and of itself. As I drummed along, I too, drifted into that place where we must all frequent often. There I was acutely aware of that faith that is required of all of us involved in the "medicine-work" of childrearing. We cannot always know what sort of neural connections are taking place in the brains of the little ones entrusted to us. Nonetheless, we can trust the reason that stems from our research and experience that something magical is at work.

What am I left with, when the story comes to its end? The satisfaction that, as up and coming bards in this southern nook of our planet we are doing what we can to bring story back to life, fully aware of the neuro-benefits for the children but also a keen sense of a fair bit more yet to be given language to.