Georgia Hinton's Story
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
2021 Winner of Natural Curiosity's Dr. David Suzuki Award for Excellence in Pre-Service Environmental Education
I have been fortunate to experience a variety of interesting and challenging practicum placements
while completing the MT program at OISE. Teaching about planting and ecosystems in a diagnostic kindergarten classroom was certainly the most memorable. As a new educator invested in research about special education and environmental education, I noticed how studies that looked at the benefits of ESE largely focus on neuro-typical children as study participants. Working one-on-one with 6 students all diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder allowed for me to investigate an inquiry of mine: how are students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) positively affected when they are exposed to nature-based and Land-based education
Through my research and the professional connections I made while working at Kâpapâmahchakwêw Wandering Spirit School, I have learned that Land-based learning is traditionally grounded in Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy. In the classroom, Land-based learning offers opportunities to learn about and connect with nature, to cultivate reciprocal relationships with the Land and community, and engenders an ethic of stewardship and sustainability (Datta, 2018). Working from this approach, I have a responsibility as a white queer settler educator to speak about my positionality and identity categories that give me privilege. I care a lot about my students and the Land on which we learn from. I take an eco and social justice approach in my teaching because I believe in answering the educational Calls to Action put forth by the TRC (2015). I teach from the belief that every student can learn given that they receive the right tools and supports. I also believe in developing community and responding to environmental problems with positive action.
As OISE’s Community Learning Garden resource assistant, I have learned that educational
gardening is an innovative approach to teach students about nature. The approach aids to develop
student awareness about their personal connection and responsibility to the Land. Students with ASD can also benefit. Studies have revealed that exposure to nature can nurture students’ sensory-motor development, provides emotional support, and increases social interaction (Li et al., 2019, p. 73). Inspired by this research, I developed one single inquiry-based lesson plan that taught students how to plant a seed. This lesson could be extended, accommodated, or modified to fit the unique learning needs, engagement, and growth of each student. I tracked student development and behaviours by keeping a journal log with my observations to note positive changes to student learning.
I knew that transitions were tough for these students and wanted to consider how I would care for their emotional wellbeing while introducing a new activity. I set up the planting centre with access to materials so that students would engage in supervised sensory play on their terms. Students could make inquiries about the feeling of the soil, the size and smoothness of the seeds, the wetness of the water, and the effects of the Sun. Using word and picture cards, students were guided through a sequencing of steps that gave them a framework for learning. I scaffolded their learning by modeling the steps first, having them repeat, and guided their exploration.
By the end of my practicum placement, I observed that the activity allowed students to engage in
sensory play, exposed them to nature, peaked their inquiries, and supported their understanding of themselves as contributing members of their classroom community. Students practiced scooping soil, squeezing the water spray bottle, and hand-picking seeds- all activities that were challenging but abundant in learning opportunity. As a re-direction tool, the lesson also created the conditions for students to learn to self-regulate. When students were frustrated, the planting center became a place to teach students to engage in learning processes that calmed them down. The planting centre also created a space of belonging where there was increased social interaction between the students and staff. In learning how to take care of a living thing, students demonstrated care, love, and empathy. This extended into caring for themselves, their peers, and the class environment.
These students taught me about the power behind teaching from the heart. Through planting,
students were able to connect with nature in indoor environments and develop reciprocal relationships with the plants and community through watering schedules and journaling activities. The relationships they made with their plants and each other was just the beginning in developing their understanding and appreciation of Land and place. There is so much more work to be done here, I and I hope to investigate these questions in my future practice.