Recognizing, Reflecting, Contemplating: How students are engaging with beauty in nature through Out of Eden Learn

This post was co-authored by Susie Blair, Michelle Nguyen, and Shari Tishman

One of Out of Eden Learn’s core learning goals is to encourage young people to slow down to observe the world carefully and to listen attentively to others. If you are an educator who uses our curriculum, you may have found that students tend to appreciate this dimension of Out of Eden Learn, especially after they have experienced the curriculum activities that ask them to take walks in their neighborhood and document the everyday. Students’ enthusiasm for ‘slow’ has been quite striking to us, and several months ago we decided to do some research to try to understand exactly what qualities of ‘slow’ students especially appreciated. We did this by analyzing data from various sources, including student surveys and student work posted on the platform, and we wrote up an overview of our findings in a two-part blog post in September of 2016 (Part 1 and Part 2). Broadly, we learned that students point to a variety of themes when they reflect on the value of slow. One of these themes we chose to call “philosophical well-being,” which refers to when students make some sort of philosophical, “deeper” connection as a result of slowing down. For example, one kind of philosophical connection students often make has to do with the role of nature in their lives.  Another has to do with the role of beauty. Thus, these two themes became subcategories.

By refining our coding scheme and further analyzing our data, we noticed that there was quite a bit of—though not total—overlap between the “Nature” and “Beauty” categories. It appears that when students slow down to observe the world carefully, they are often drawn to noticing the beauty that can be found in nature. This seems to be the case for both students in urban as well as rural environments: Out of Eden Learn students find beauty in nature in settings as diverse as a dramatic sunset, a bird nesting in a window box, or a cluster of weeds poking through a crack in the sidewalk.

As shown in the diagram below, young people have much to say about beauty in nature, and their comments often fall along a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, students express that they find the beauty of nature captivating; they notice details, and experience the delight of noticing. Mid-way along the spectrum, students take their observations beyond recognition and reflect on how their perception of beauty in nature shapes their outlook on life: As the student quoted in the diagram says: “It makes me stop, take a step back, and appreciate the simple things in life.” At the other end of the spectrum, students move from an appreciation of the beauty of nature’s small details to a contemplation of large universal themes.  

beautydiagram 10.5.17.png

The function of ‘slow’ in Out of Eden Learn activities is to provide a space for students to make their own observations and connections. No one point on the spectrum is better than any other; the spectrum simply illustrates a range of ways students become attuned to the beauty of the natural world. That they become attuned isn’t a surprise: Humankind has been finding meaning and beauty in the natural world for millennia. However, it can be easy to dismiss students’ experience in this realm as simple or unsophisticated. But as their ideas show, there is much nuance that they can bring to the experience. A question that remains for us is whether the slow experiences in the Out of Eden Learn curriculum encourage students to notice beauty and nature more broadly in their everyday lives. We hope so, but we can’t know for sure. It’s question we would love to explore through further research.

One comment

  1. […] to students’ interest in the natural environment and their relationship to it, as described in this recent post, which built on our research into what young people do when invited to engage in slow looking. The […]

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