Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Experiential Learning

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A good friend of mine is the head of the Outdoor Education program at Queen’s University here in Kingston.  She has taken my gardening workshops and really believes that growing food should be part of Outdoor Education.  She recently asked me to write a small article for a newsletter, which I have exerpted below:

A century ago, almost everyone knew how to grow something, growing food and harvesting and storing it were very much part of day to day life and therefore part of a person’s education. Often the academic year was arranged around the growing season, to allow children to help with the work on the farm. Food was relatively simple, unprocessed and unpackaged. But food production has become big business and today fewer and fewer people are actually involved in the whole process. This has led to several generations of people who have very little understanding of their relationship to food or to the land that grows it. I also believe it has led to a host of very poor environmental decisions that are beginning to have real consequences.

Understanding nature is an experiential kind of learning. The interconnectedness of all that is our environment cannot be learned from a book. One can read about the need to act mindfully, but it is often only when one has actually spilled that night’s dinner into the campfire that a person begins to really understand what it means to be careful and thoughtful in their actions.

Growing food is also a very important form of experiential learning. Gardening, and the thinking that happens when one is engaged in it, is an invaluable experience. It is by putting our hands into the soil and by experiencing the whole season, that one really begins to understand the processes that are at work. It is through the satisfaction of growing and eating something that one comes to value the earth. And it is through being faced with choices, that one begins to understand their implications.

As an organic market gardener, one of my first real lessons in thinking something through came when I was faced with an outbreak of cucumber beetles. These tiny beetles are very fast and hard to catch, and they can easily destroy young cucumber plants. I remember going to the local farm co-op store and looking at the remedies – this was before they had organic insecticides. I read the labels, looked at the price (very high), and actually bought a container of something and brought it home. Then I went out into the garden and as I worked I thought about the chemical, about the whole physical action of putting it on my cucumber plants, and then finally about harvesting those cucumbers and feeding them to my family. I realized that the chemical insecticide was just not an option. I think we lost most of that cucumber crop, but there were lots of other things to eat, and the next year we paid far more attention to the growing conditions for cucumbers. Nature makes us wait and I firmly believe that it is this process of waiting that causes us to think and to look for environmentally responsible alternatives. The quick fix does not allow for this process to ever occur.

Growing one’s own food also brings up many questions concerning value. Science, technology, and industry have replaced so much of what was once an inherent part of human existence with artificial alternatives. Why would anyone grow a head of lettuce when it can be bought for 60 cents at the grocery store? Having grown my own food for 25 years now, I would ask why anyone would want to forego the experience of harvesting and eating something they have grown themselves for something that has no connection to their own life. Taste and quality are definitely superior, but more than that, it is the satisfaction and the richness that gardening brings to my life that cannot be replaced. In harvesting my own food year after year, I feel the sun, the wind, the soil. I also feel deeply grateful for all that the earth has provided. Somewhere along the way I made a big shift from thinking that I grew my own food to realizing that I cared for this miracle that is the soil and in doing so, was blessed with abundance. For me, this is a way of knowing and of being in the world that has to be felt and experienced through thoughtful work in order to be understood. I also believe that it is the foundation for the kind of earth centered philosophy that we need so badly if we are to preserve this planet for future generations.