Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm offers birth –3rd grade education and Farm and Forest Summer Camp based on the Waldorf philosophy on a working farm in Essex, NY.
The Role of Discomfort
Child “Gregg, my boot has something poking me!”
Gregg ” Let’s ask it to stop.”
Child “ Noooo, there is something in my boot I need to get it out.”
Discomfort is uncomfortable. Discomfort is avoided. Discomfort happens. Operating in an outdoor setting creates a number of challenges with discomfort. In all my years guiding children outside for a few hours or many days discomfort has been one of most powerful learning experiences. Typically, older children will share the hardships first. ‘It rained for days’ or, ‘the bugs were so bad’- these sorts of experiences set the bar till a greater hardship occurs. It may be part of an old survival mechanism educating a child on what to avoid in the future, or to recognize it before it happens again. These are often the strongest memories of an experience.
Discomfort in an outdoor kindergarten may be as simple as a pokey in the boot or more serious like a cold water clothes soaking. While humans are extremely bright and have huge capacities to figure things out, they can also be slow to learn. If it interferes with their desires they will often disregard sound advice. A classic young child approach. At this point discomfort becomes a very powerful teacher.
An example of this on one outpost excursion we came across a low wet area with a small standing puddle. This is very enticing to a young child. So it becomes just another fun romp in a puddle. Puddle equals fun. But it’s a boggy puddle, this means “bottomless”. It’s a puddle surrounded by moss-covered mud, this means icy cold water in early spring. This means a transformation from smiles to tears. Ah discomfort. Even the teacher learns here, hand numb from cold water, digging out boot, not good. Crying children not good. This was an important exercise that will affect future decisions. I won’t go this way in a spring thaw, they will likely think twice about entering a boggy puddle.
Cold and wet are the real challenges. One can prepare only so much for the risks inherent with going out and about. We were fortunate this winter to be able to venture and stay out all morning each Friday except one. In preparation for the cold, I assess gear. Do they have enough warm layers? I then may amend the activity. Instead of just a cooking fire we also build a warming fire. I also won’t tell a formal story that would require them to sit still, a guarantee drop in body temperature. My final preparation is to the children directly.
Gregg “what is the fastest way to get cold?”
Children “Get Wet.”
So a stream ban is in effect, nobody but nobody goes in or near the stream.
Still it’s hard to Kindergarten proof the outdoors and someone may wind up finding some wet ice puddle to slosh in or grab at with mittens. 4-6 pairs of extra mittens are essential gear as are changes of clothes especially socks.
In a twist, we use the dangerous cold water and boil the water for warming jars to warm hands and even feet and bellies. The hot water is placed in plastic Nalgenes to be shared during snack or when warming feels necessary. This activity is especially popular- even just the knowledge of the presence of warming jars can be soothing reassurance against the cold. It becomes like a treasured companion and they will often incorporate the jars into their play.
How is this part of education, how are they learning? One of the children has family in a much warmer part of the country and has decided that instead of a warming jar, he intends to make cooling jars to help with the heat. He is not the inventor of the concept, but, then again, he is. He’s never seen or heard of a cooling jar. It seems simple enough but this connection is essential to problem solving. This avenue of thinking is important to the problems on both individual and grand scales. These connections made in the brain at six will serve them in life when they will have to solve more challenging issues in the future.
How do I prevent discomfort? How do I adapt? Making oneself comfortable is a true catalyst for innovation. Discomfort fortifies the constitution as they explore their own tolerances. Is it really that bad? How far can I go? Was I being bothered by something? So they experience it, decide how bad it was and tolerate it or remedy it. It reminds me of a favorite Buckminster fuller quote, “an experiment can never fail, it is impossible to learn less.” We will experiment our whole lives pushing our discomfort tolerances and trying to reduce discomfort. It’s good to start young.
Child: “There is something in my boot I need to get out.”
Gregg: “Let’s make it to the outpost, then we will check it out.”
By Gregg VanDeusen