This month we offer the following scholarly reflection from Carol Rowan and Jeffrey Wood: Land-Based Education.

This reflection explores the land as teacher, and how indigenous children may be engaged with it through hands-on outdoor practices as land-based pedagogy. As these scholars indicate, “cutting off indigenous children from the land puts those children at risk of disconnection from their identity, culture and language – leading to further colonization. In light of these things, we consider time spent on the land as an essential part of daily teaching practice”. As always, we invite you to think with us on this topic and engage in conversation/share your thoughts/stay with the trouble on Twitter via #ECEpossibilities. Tweet to us using the hashtag #ECEpossibilities to join in the conversation!


Land-based education is essential in the education of young indigenous children, especially given the legacy of colonialism. In thinking about relations from indigenous perspectives we include the land, water, ice and sky along with our wider human and nonhuman kin. This then means that the land is one of our relations and we are always in relation to the land (regardless of if we recognize this). Within this perspective, language comes from the land, culture comes from language and identity comes from culture (Wood, in press; Corbiere, 2014). Therefore, cutting off indigenous children from the land puts those children at risk of disconnection from their identity, culture and language – leading to further colonization. In light of these things, we consider time spent on the land as an essential part of daily teaching practice.

Inuit children walking along the shoreline
Inuit children walking along the shoreline – photo credit Rowan, 2014

Land-situated pedagogies provide access to indigenous ways of knowing and being. Relations with land enable children to conceive of themselves in relationship to particular places and environments. Inside a school or daycare, children become separated from the land in contrast to land-oriented pedagogical relations which enable access to indigenous languages and local knowledge holders and systems. Early childhood education connected with land position children to engage complexly in local worlds, thereby situating children’s learning in a particular place, providing meaningful context for furthering intricate understandings and building memories.

The land complexifies our multidimensional relations and brings us into relation with our nonhuman kin. Inuk scholar Jackie Price is clear about the relationship with land and colonialism in stating, “I argue Inuit must look back to Inuit knowledge systems in order to
imagine a time where Inuit are able to rise above the colonial chaos. Inuit must remember the lessons that come from interacting with the land” (Price, 2008, p. 129). This sentiment is widely shared by indigenous people. In order to think deeply about the implications of the land on our pedagogical understandings we want to share an example:

In recent years, in the Inuit community of Inukjuak, there have been increasing concerns with diminishing relations between children and land. As Betsy*, an educator, explained, “I don’t think they go out often, as they used to, before” (Rowan, 2011, p. 106). To address this concern the educators, administration and community started thinking about ways in which child-care children could spend time on the land. They started thinking with Nunangat, which is an Inuktitut term including land, water and ice, as one way of positioning pedagogy to engage with land. The local child care centre hired an Elder/Educator to work as a cultural advisor, and found funds to pay hunters and other local cultural advisors to support the work.

The image below pictures three children out on a willow collecting excursion. The idea to collect willows was proposed by the Elder/Educator (Rowan, 2017) in order to make an avalaqiat, a sleeping mat crafted from willow branches. On this particular day the snow was falling and the wind was blowing, but the Elder/Educator affirmed that this was a perfect opportunity to collect willows, because the wind would blow the snow off the branches. This thinking about wind and snow made clear the power of “silaq pijuuqpaat”, an Inuktitut concept which means the environment chooses. In other words, it is the land and sky, the environment, “silaq”, which determines what can be done outside on any given day.

Travelling out to the tundra, the children and educators found the willows exposed, as the elder had suggested. The children sunk into the snow and were blown by the wind. Educators fastened coats tightly, and the children paraded through the snow in search of the willows. When they found the willows, the Elder taught the children how to read the willow bush and choose appropriate branches to harvest. The children tugged on the branches and pulled them from the plant. The Educators learned from the Elder how to cut the branches with an ulu – an all-purpose, half-moon shaped woman’s knife – and how to collect the willow based on Inuit harvesting practices. During the regular Monday night Educator meeting, the Elder taught the Educators how to make an avalaqiat. The following day this knowledge and these practices, and technical correct Inuktitut language, were shared with children in the centre as they began to weave the willow mat, a process which took several days to complete.

This rich cultural experience spread throughout the community, resulting in a mat making workshop two years later in response to demand from community members wanting to make their own mats. It was as powerful an experience for the Educators as it was for the children. This helped the Educators to better understand Nunangat and the possibility of the land as a teacher. For the Educators this was a new experience as well, an act of reclamation of both skills and language as they had been in school when their parents harvested willows. This simple outing suggested by the Elder and by the land reconnected an entire community with traditional knowledge and skills that otherwise may have been lost.

Inuit children collecting willow branches
Inuit children collecting willow branches – photo credit Rowan, 2014

As can be seen in the example related above, the land commands what is possible and speaks to us. Being on the land enables children to reconnect to their indigenous culture and identity. It also allows adults to learn alongside the children, transforming our understanding of the children and ourselves. Land-based education is not only about going out on the land but about bringing the land into the classroom. This example demonstrates that land-based education does not need to be hard – it requires being responsive to the children and the land: “[I]f we do not create a generation of people attached to the land and committed to living out our culturally inherent ways of coming to know, we risk losing what it means to be Nishnaabeg within our own thought systems” (Simpson, 2014, p. 13). Spending time on the land is not really optional; the question is how we will embrace seeing the land as a teacher and incorporate it into our daily teaching practice.


*Note: this is a pseudonym

References

Corbiere, A. (2014). First Nation Revival Program Framework for Curriculum Development.

Price, J. (2008). Living Inuit governance in Nunavut. In L. Simpson (Ed.), Lighting the eighth
fire: The liberation, resurgence and protection of Indigenous nations
. Arbeiter Ring
Publishing.

Rowan, M.C. (2011). Exploring the possibilities of learning stories as a meaningful approach
to early childhood education in Nunavik
. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of
Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia. https://dspace.library.uvic.ca:8443/bitstream/
handle/1828/3483/Rowan_Marycaroline_2011-1.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y)

Rowan, M.C. (2017). Thinking with land/working with Elders: Accessing Indigenous
knowledges in early childhood education through outdoor experiences. In T. Waller, E.
Arlemalm-Hagser, E. Sandester, L. Lee-Hammond, K. Leikes, S. Wyver (Eds.), The
Sage handbook of outdoor play and learning
(pp. 395 – 412). Sage Publications.

Simpson, L.B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious
transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 1 -25.

Wood, J. (accepted). The importance of the land, language, culture, identity and learning in
relation for indigenous children. In Stagg Peterson, S. (Ed) Roles of place and play in
young children’s oral and written language
. UToronto Press.