Play Can Save the Planet – Part Three

Bamboo play space

So far, we’ve covered giving children a direct experience with an ecosystem at preschool in Part One. In Part Two, we looked at how bringing animals into the classroom can expand on that understanding. Here, we will discuss how Vygotsky’s notion of instructional scaffolding can be the basis of seeing the whole school as a sustainable planet-friendly environment.

Over my 50+ years of creating play systems, I’ve used nearly every material imaginable from hay bails to stainless steel. This experience has allowed me to explore the limits of durability and cost. Lately, most playgrounds are on the outer edge of this spectrum with durability that far outlasts their play value as society changes and cost that are astronomical.

In early childhood setting, this balance of cost/durability has led to a proliferation of all plastic systems which are cheap and all but indestructible. Lately, we have come to understand better that the very durability of plastic has resulted in ubiquitous pollution that will last thousands of years. As we come to better understand the consequences of our bargain for high durability and low cost, we will need to seek better alternatives.

An alternative material option we have recently been exploring is bamboo. Here the cost factor of materials is competitive without the damage to the environment of petroleum-based plastic. The durability factor is good enough, by that I mean that it is comparable to other wood species that are not chemically treated or exotic and therefore not sustainable. Bamboo has a long life indoors and five years outdoors when natural weathering begins to take its toll. This means that it is an environmentally balanced material that does not trade the health of the planet for unnecessary indestructibility. Since our discussion so far has been about exposing children to natural systems, how can we use bamboo in this scenario?

Since young children develop at different rates and have different learning styles, it is essential to present information in many different ways. Lev Vygotsky is often seen as the leading advocate of the notion of scaffolding, which in simplest terms means creating an environment that presents information in ways in which children can best relate to the material. I like to add the idea of a real scaffold which allows us to start at the bottom and climb up. Let’s look at how these ideas can be modeled in an early childhood center.

bamboo in water

Let’s start with the notion that bamboo is a plant. We show this with a simple pot of Lucky Bamboo, preferably set up so children can see the plant’s roots. Outdoors bamboo can quickly be grown in pots, and children can harvest the stems periodically. Kids can also play with bamboo either as classroom toys or as construction materials outdoors. Finally, bamboo can be used for playhouses and climbers. There are children’s books about bamboo and its role in the development of Asian cultures. Children can paint with bamboo brushes. And on and on.

bamboo toy

This whole scaffolding process may seem like overkill but remember each child is encountering the bamboo one at a time during their play and so it is encountered in a very natural way where the child can feel the irregularities of its shape as well as the strength and weight of the material. Now that you have a sense of the power of scaffolding let’s take this to the next level.

Full and comprehensive understanding comes not so much from learning discrete information but from being immersed in complex systems. How would an early childhood education environment look if it became a real natural ecosystem? First, nothing would need to be subtracted. Well, except those things that are not sustainable such as all of the plastic! That alone will be transformative as plastic cups are replaced with glass and the play structure is removed. The outdoors will be the most changed as gardens are established, compost systems, and a water feature installed. Loose part play collections that use natural elements will be acquired and presented to children in ways that allow creative discovery.

The educational result of this transformation is that children will develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of natural processes and an emotional attachment to them … just as humans have for millions of years. Far too many children today have none of this vital connection. As we become increasingly urbanized and densely packed, we cannot assume that kids will get this grounding in nature when they are not as school as their home environment is likely to be as sterile as are most of today’s schools.

Schools that wrap children in a green environment help them to adopt earth-friendly behaviors. Early environmental awareness increases resilience and will allow children to better cope with the psychological impact of climate change.  What’s good for the planet is good for children and vice versa.




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