A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a big pile of mulch with one of my students just watching the clouds go by. Without any prompting, she turned to me and said, “I’m a dirty robot.” Admittedly, I had a little trouble imagining what a “dirty robot” might be. But as I sat on the mulch and considered her statement and the ear-to-ear grin that immediately followed it, I realized that she hadn’t used the word “dirty” to describe the relative state of cleanliness of her imaginary robot persona, but instead as a sort of synonym for “awesome” or “exciting.”
As an individual who has fought tooth and nail to preserve a tidy and organized living environment for most of his life, teaching students in a totally natural environment has been a learning experience for me as much as it has for my students. A part of me understands my students who stare at the huge expanses of muck surrounding the gardens with visible apprehension, seemingly uncertain as to whether it might swallow them up if they were to venture into it. But another part of me want to join in with the students blowing bubbles in the horribly filthy water, using the mud as face paint à la Braveheart, and penguin sliding in muck.
Giving up multicolored plastic, traditional art materials, digital media, and a roof has been an exercise in letting go. A Japanese friend of mind used to say “a crowded space is a crowded mind” in reference to the importance of keeping his material belongings to a minimum, but his expression rings true for a Reggio classroom in a natural environment. Multicolored plastic, traditional art materials, digital media, and a roof have been replaced with mud, wood, local flora and fauna, and the sky (in all of its dynamic and temperamental glory). Instead of protecting a hermetically sealed, static learning environment, my co-teacher and I have discovered that constant and organic change can function as an extremely effective context for children to investigate the world around them.
As Aristotle said, “Nature does nothing without purpose or uselessly.” Dirt, mud, mulch, rain, grass, bugs, and soil are real and unavoidable byproducts of how the world changes from moment to moment. Encouraging students to interact with them isn’t just for the purpose of understanding the materials themselves. It is also to help students understand seasons, weather, and ecology by proxy. Their exposure to a naturally dynamic learning environment helps them convert abstract concepts of meteorology, geology, biology, and anthropology into lived experience, and contextualize themselves within the constantly shifting framework of our world.
Using the word “dirty” to describe the learning environment or the students working within it has gone from being a swear word to a word of immeasurable praise. Dirtiness isn’t an obstacle; it is an indicator of how dedicated a child has been to their investigation that day. After all, how can a child truly understand hydrodynamics without getting drenched? How can they comprehend the anatomy of a worm without letting one traverse their bare skin? How can they ever know the signs, sights, smells, and flavors of a rainstorm without having ever been caught in one?
In other words, let them get out there and get messy. Should the mood take you, bring a change of clothes to work and get messy with them.
After all, every diamond is formed under the dirt.