August 13, 2015

[Embodied Learning]


To play is to learn. Children first come to know their bodies and the world through active, physical play. While structure and control in a play environment may lower some risks, they can also limit children’s opportunity for creativity and, consequently, for learning. Determining the right blend of these sometimes contradictory forces is an essential but difficult task, especially since opinions vary on what the “right blend” is. In her eponymous documentary film, Erin Davis has created a brief portrait of The Land: an “adventure playground” in Wales. NPR correspondent Eric Westervelt, who has also reported on Berkeley CA’s Adventure Playground, recently interviewed the filmmaker about the value of adventure [#1] and this daring approach to play. In Wales, at least, it seems that trusting children to shape their play environments meaningfully reinforces creative skills and facilitates the development of maturity. What other unexpected play environments might help teach children about imagination, responsibility, their own bodies, and the world around them in a hands-on way? Learn more about “playwork,” the low-barrier framework that supports adventure-style play.


We never stop learning about, and with, our bodies. And this lifelong process can  often inspire us to learn through making, often in collaboration with others. The Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments), founded by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, was a five-year experimental arts education program that concluded in 2014. In this interdisciplinary marathon of embodied experimentation, the body was explicitly identified as an investigative tool for experimenting with space [#2]. Eliasson summarized the program’s fundamental approach in this way: “To make a sculpture, to walk in slow motion, to choreograph movement or to design a building is to shape reality. It means gradually giving ideas and values a body, giving them space – letting them space. It is a process of embodiment.” How might we better embrace the body as a tool for inquiry, both in strictly educational settings and across design practice? For guidance on embodied experimentation from the Institut, see this list of instructions for different “walks.”


An endless source of opportunities for embodied exploration is the natural world, which has inspired many to reconsider nature as a classroom [#3]. Sometimes called “forest kindergartens,” radical place-based alternatives to the traditional desk-bound model for early education are emerging. Students in these programs spend every school day outside, in direct contact with the natural environment. In addition to this immersion, forest kindergartens are defined by emergent curricula and inquiry-based teaching methods. A recent report by Katrina Schwartz on the Berkeley Forest School, one of the US’s first forest schools, concludes that there is tangible value in facilitating an ongoing relationship between young children and the natural world. Closer to home, the organization Brooklyn Forest has been providing New York’s children with multi-sensory “forest classrooms” since 2011, both in Prospect Park and Central Park. Learn more about child-led flow learning, specifically in the context of outdoor teaching, in this feature by the Natural Start Alliance.


Humans think with their whole bodies. There is intelligence in our fingers, in our legs, in our noses. In this way, all learning is a sensuous experience. In his 2009 book, The Thinking Hand, Juhani Pallasmaa observes that there is a forgotten truth about the connection between mind and body, much to the detriment of the way we learn and make. To demonstrate the incredible potential of the human body as a knowing entity, Pallasmaa surveys “the multiple essences of the hand, its biological evolution and its role in the shaping of culture, highlighting how the hand-tool union and eye-hand-mind fusion are essential for dexterity and how ultimately the body and the senses play a crucial role in memory and creative work.” Pallasmaa’s earlier work, including The Eyes of the Skin, is also worth revisiting in this context, as it provides an elegant argument for architecture that is made with, and for, the intelligent and sensing body [#4]. How might we design spaces, educational and otherwise, that more deeply support learning for all bodies through all senses? For more of Pallasmaa’s humanistic insight, watch his lecture at Art of Research 2014.

photos by Flickr user Teddy Cross, The Institut für Raumexperimente, the USFWS Fish and Aquatic Conservation, and Flickr user Steven Leonti.