- About Us
- Visit Us
- Support Us
Guest post by Tenaya Schnare
I am standing with a group of eight second-graders on a trail at the edge of the farm. We can still hear the goats bleating into the crisp fall air, but this spot on the path marks the transition from farm—the sound of tractors heaving bucket loads of animal bedding, chickens strutting and scratching in their yard, the earthy, sweet smell of goats—into the wilderness. I crouch down at eye level and in a soft, almost sing-song voice tell the children that we are going to do something called a caterpillar walk.
The children line up behind me, some fidgeting with backpacks or water bottles, a few tucking fallen acorns into sweatshirt pockets. Each places his or her hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them. I have asked them to close their eyes and be silent for the next little while, to pay attention to their senses: the spicy aroma of bay leaves crushed underfoot, the chatter of birds in the oak trees, the abrupt warmth of sunlight onto skin as we pass under an opening in the canopy. I lead the line of unseeing, hushed kids down the trail. We move slowly, awkwardly, like a disjointed train veering to the left and then the right. This seemingly haphazard trajectory adds an element of play to each child’s experience in this moment, without vision, darkness, but full of sense.
This nine-headed caterpillar slithers into the wide open forest place we call the cathedral, named for both the feeling of fullness it gives you as you enter as well as the shape of the canopy above us. I come to a halt and hear the footsteps behind me stop. I ask the kids to let go of the pair of shoulders in front of them and open their eyes. Whoooaaaa’s and awesome’s reach up towards the tops of the trees as the kids spy lime green moss crawling over felled logs, a clear-pebbled creek rushing past, exposed tree roots—mangled and magical—reaching out of the creek bank and forest floor. Others are distracted, excited to be able to use his or her eyes again, and are wandering along the edge of the creek kicking rocks or running after one other.
I ask, “What did you notice?” The kids tell me about the awkward sensation of moving as a group, the screeching of the Stellar’s Jay, or how they noticed the gurgling of the creek all of a sudden. Then I ask another question, one that is telling of how little young people or any people for that matter are asked to interpret the world through their senses other than sight: “Was that difficult?” There is a chorus of yeses. I tell them that it is difficult for me too. I often will ask kids how they feel after the caterpillar walk. Some will tell me they feel peaceful; one child told me without prompt how the forest gave him the most amazing feeling inside of himself while gesturing to his heart. Others tell me they feel restless, ready for the next running game.
Both of these feelings point to a tension inside of many of us, but in particular in children educated in the public school system, who spend most of the day inside a classroom memorizing facts and learning about systems that they do not sense, feel or even understand their own connection to. It is difficult to use our senses to consciously observe the world around us. Traditional educational settings provide us with little practice and support and assign little to no value to feeling or sensing.
Sensory-based learning is an integral piece of the Environmental Education that we do at Hidden Villa. It helps children, youth and even adults make connections: connections that are visceral, connections that are emotionally felt. This type of connection redefines body, sense and emotion as essential tools for observing and communing with larger systems—ecological, agricultural and social. It nurtures a love for and awe of systems that are larger than the self from the inside out. The self, then, is not alienated from the surrounding structures, but rather deeply connected to and embedded within them. The full person, not just cognitive skills or reading comprehension, is validated in itself and as a piece of something greater.
By taking part in this type of education, we take ownership of our own observations, senses and feelings and utilize them as tools in our interpretations of the world. When we not only understand but also feel how connected we are to the natural world, the people around us, and the food we eat, we act with compassion, empathy and awareness.In her own words, Tenaya hails "from a small town in western Massachusetts that boasts a larger population of black bears than people....well maybe not quite, but it's pretty darn close." Tenaya is a celebrated veteran of two Summer Camp sessions where she worked as part of a tireless staff and seems to have enjoyed her time at Hidden Villa; she joined us as a full-time residential intern in September. Some of her youth development experience includes teaching English and art in Guatemalan schools and developing workshops on communication, self esteem, and conflict resolution for children.