In the Early Years sector in Ontario, educators have a wonderful framework that guides their work, called How Does Learning Happen (HDLH). Many years of research have gone into this, and the result is a deeply reflective framework that sets up opportunities for engaging with children, families, communities and the environment.
A notable “aim is to strive to establish and maintain reciprocal relationships among educators and families,” (HDLH, 2014, p. 25) throughout HDLH, but I would challenge educators to extend this reciprocity toward the more-than-human world that makes up the ‘third teacher’ - the environment. This aligns well with finding ways to live in treaty relationships with Indigenous people, as kinship with the natural world is an important part of Indigenous worldviews. HDLH does recognize that,
Through opportunities to engage with and make contributions to the world around them, children develop a sense of belonging and connectedness to their local community, the natural environment, and the larger universe of living things. Supporting children’s connections to the natural world is an important area of focus. Opportunities to experience nature every day and to care for and interact with the natural world enhance children’s connections to the world around them (HDLH, 2014, p. 25).
Since developing a sense of belonging with the natural environment is mentioned in this way, it makes sense to extend the idea of reciprocal relationships toward the natural world as well as to the human relationships. “Opportunities to engage with people, places, and the natural world in the local environment help children, families, educators, and communities build connections, learn and discover, and make contributions to the world around them. It fosters a sense of belonging to the local community, the natural environment, and the larger universe of living things” (p. 19). Meaningfully viewing the land as the ‘third teacher’ (or as I heard Michelle Leonhardi refer to it as the ‘first teacher’), (Leonhardi, conversation, 2019) provides educators support in helping children to notice the many living and non-living elements that impact children, and to start to consider how their actions impact these more-than-human beings.
HDLH specifically mentions outdoor learning as being a place where children can connect and interact with the natural world, bringing out a sense of wonder and joy, and promoting mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing (HDLH, 2014, 21). It recognizes that outdoor play inspires “investigation with bodies, senses, and minds improve children’s physical health and emotional well-being and enhance their capabilities for self-regulation, creative problem solving, and communication,” (HDLH, 2014, p. 36) but I would include here the social and ecological elements of learning on the land, using these opportunities to benefit children’s growth and development while also understanding how land-based learning can also be a way of deepening of a reciprocal relationship with the more-than-human world. There is no reason why children can’t benefit from nature without having children also benefit the land. The anthropocene is a result of us emphasizing human’s gains from the environment without considering how we are giving back, and early years is a perfect place to shift this focus so that we are always considering our impacts of our learning and development on other humans as well as the more-than-human world. This speaks again to our commitment to live as treaty partners on this land, and the corresponding responsibilities.