How Much Earth Does a Child Need in Her Education?

“The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs. Becoming better in some respects requires becoming worse in others, which in part explains why life consists of a diversity of forms rather than one all-purpose species… Factual knowledge of one’s physical and social environment is useful for many purposes… However, it appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive behavior. At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better. In addition, the effectiveness of some symbolic systems evidently requires believing that they are factually correct. Constructing a symbolic system designed to motivate action is a substantially different cognitive task than gaining accurate factual knowledge of one’s physical and social environment. Somehow the human mind must do both…” David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral

“Imagination is supported as a ‘phase’ in a child’s ‘development’ rather than being appreciated as a fundamental intelligence.” Shaun McNiff in the foreword to Edith Cobb’s The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood


I was talking with a friend the other day about school. Both of our children attend an outdoor school, where the focus is as much about the texture of dirt on the skin as it is about letters or numbers. My friend had also returned to school to get his masters degree and we were using big phrases to wrap our minds around the subject of academic inquiry. The problem, we seemed to be saying, was that knowledge had taken over the classroom, from kindergarten to university. In his case, he lamented the reminders from professors that his papers would have to refer to the data or be judged meaningless. I mentioned my review of the Common Core State Standards as I prepared for first grade. There’s nothing wrong with the data, we agreed, but both of us sensed that something was missing.

In his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv makes a similar point. Many parents sense that something is lacking in their children’s education, in other words their childhood. Like Louv, my friend and I suspect that missing element to be the earth, but it’s hard to prove that one way or another. Academic studies don’t address it. We know a lot about class size, demographics and homework, but until recently no one has tried to answer how much earth a child needs in her education.


I spent the last few days trying to finish this essay, then got stuck. I wrote dozens of paragraphs and deleted dozens of others, but I couldn’t seem to land anywhere. I grew increasingly frustrated and eventually stepped outside for a long walk. About an hour from home, the storm clouds that had been swirling around me finally broke and I began to get wet. I picked up my feet in the hope of making it home before long. Then I stopped.

Dropping the tension in my shoulders, I took a deep breath, filling my belly into the wet garment of my shirt. Why do I hide from this? Who is fleeing what? I stood still, listening to the multicolored earth. The rain grew heavy and the mesa swelled with rosy-brown swirls. Water dripped through my hair, down my face, soaking my shirt and pants to the skin. Underwear was wet. Butt. Feet and socks. This is what cold feels like. This is my thirty-eight year old body feeling cold. I’m magnificent, aren’t I? Half a mile back, the mountain goats, whom I had recently seen with their excitable new kids, were standing in the same rain. This rain. This storm. This mesa. This life. Warm blood filled my cold skin belly with heat from the inside, in and out. Back and forth. Tiny organisms, having never seen the light of day, traveled those currents. Inside. Me.

When I got home, I narrowed in on something I had chased around on paper for the better part of a day – I don’t believe in education. I believe in life.