Reggio educators often talk about defining learning in terms of a journey instead of assessing it based on the achievement of a predetermined goal. And while it sounds like a noble pursuit, process-focused teaching methods can sometimes cause tremendous discomfort for teachers (myself included). Determining the efficacy of our teaching methods without a determinant start and finish can sometimes feel impossible. Having a specific period of time for a course of study makes teachers feel comfortable. It makes each day predictable and regular. It makes planning and assembly of materials more reasonable. A set start and finish to every lesson creates a framework in which teachers can finally construct and manage their time, which is often regarded as the great adversary of teachers everywhere.
But that neatness, however digestible, is ultimately artificial. Outside the classroom, the world rarely functions in such a linear manner. Nature doesn’t move in a straight line from one fixed point to another. Spending prolonged periods of time in nature can help students hone in on an entirely different concept of time. Given the opportunity to observe each of the seasons over the course of a year, they gradually begin to develop an understanding that most things they see and interact with from day to day move in a circle, not a line. Unless humans impose them, very few organic objects have a perceivable start or end.
In other words, cycles are the pervasive structure of everything from plants and animals to weather to the very ground our students walk on.
As teachers, one of the greatest lessons we can impart on our students is the understanding that what we feel and perceive from one moment to the next is rarely the full picture. The death of a flower tends to evoke feelings of sadness in some students, often because of the fondness they felt towards its petals or its vibrant color. While it is the flowers end, it is also simultaneously a beginning; as the petals drop and the flower’s seed pod opens, a whole new generation of flowers is brought into the world. Last year, our class found a hawk that had struck a window and broken its neck. Although it was difficult for the students to see such a majestic bird laid low, many of them understood that it its body had become an incredible feast for countless insects and decomposers. Even fire, the great destroyer of all things natural, elicits the release of carbon and reintroduces nutrients into the soil. It levels the playing field, giving plants who had never had enough sunlight to grow their proverbial day in the sun.
So far, our students have studied the lifecycles of sunflowers, frogs and toads, a variety of mammals (including humans), moths and butterflies, and trees. On their own, they have diagrammed, compared, contrasted, and hypothesized about the lifecycles of the organisms they interact with on a daily basis. For children, a cyclic understanding of time can also grow to transcend interacting with the natural world. Gradually, it can grow to encompass elements of their lives that are more abstract and less tangible. It can influence not just what they see and touch, but also what they feel and how they interact with their environment and peers.
In our society, death and sex are highly contested. Both subjects create feeling of discomfort for adults for obvious reasons. They are far and away two of the most difficult things to talk about with children because, without lived experience to contextualize them, they are too abstract to make sense of. Some adults, including myself, tend to err on the side of “sugarcoating” these discussions. Some avoid them altogether by redirecting the conversation to happier or more lighthearted topics. But both can be organically explored through the lens of lifecycles; instead of viewing sex as inappropriate or death as tragic, they both just become brief points in the cycle that is an organism’s existence.
Cycles can also help students to understand exclusively human constructs, such as art and complex written language. Despite not being literally alive, both have “lifecycles” of their own. When students draw they observe their world and produce an image, but we often turn a blind eye to the fact that their artistry also influences the manner in which they see the object they depicted. The sun is a classic example. When asked what color the sun is, students in the United States consistently reply that it is either yellow or orange, which is how they depict it in their artwork. When I taught in Japan, every student uncompromisingly agreed that red was the color of the sun, and they drew it accordingly. Scientifically speaking, the light the sun emits is seen as white by the naked eye. But this fact has significantly less influence on students’ drawing than the archetypal images of the sun in their requisite cultures.
Cycles can even function as a tool by which students can gain greater social-emotional competency and practice self-regulation. In the heat of the moment, emotions can feel static, but anger and sadness always pass with time. Like the seasons and the lifecycles of living things, our emotions flow seamlessly into one another. With that understanding, students who can recognize the onset of specific emotions that trouble them or invite behaviors they know are not acceptable (such as hitting, yelling, or engaging in destructive acts) can find a place to weather the proverbial storm. While it seems simple, the knowledge that negative emotions are temporary can make an enormous difference to students that often find themselves in difficult social situations. Non-linear understandings of friendship can also be very powerful for young minds. Instead of viewing a peer as transitioning from “my friend” to “not my friend” based on something they did, our students understand that all friends move through cycles of “wanting to play with you” and “not wanting to play with you right now.”
As much as we may resist it, people are a part of nature. While it may help us feel grounded, the idea that time moves from where we are at this moment directly into the future is hard to digest in the great outdoors. Our world makes it all to obvious that it is constantly in transition, and it provides us with regular and not-so-subtle hints that we should be following suit. From the color of the leaves to the movements of the weather, nature is full of reminders that the end of something great is almost always the beginning of something fresh and fantastic. Our job is to help students understand that if something seems like it is static, we probably just haven’t been watching it for long enough.