By Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Vasa
Special to The Message
Children possess an innate, natural response to nature that is part of being human. This connection has the power to foster healing and create deep joy amid life’s many challenges. At St. Vincent Early Learning Center, the children and staff celebrate this mystery by an intentional focus on learning how the spiritual and physical are uniquely intertwined. The result: children who thrive in a natural learning environment!
Sponsored by the Daughters of Charity, the center is under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul, a person who understood the beauty and rhythm of nature from his experience as a peasant farmer in rural France. St. Vincent is widely recognized for his genius of providing services for the abandoned country people of his day; but in addition, the charity he provided was always grounded in the belief that his ministry should sustain the body, mind and spirit of each person. Natural learning environments do this in a creative and beautiful way.
Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset writes: “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” Children have a natural curiosity about who they are and who they seek to become. Similarly, when they explore a natural landscape – whether it be a rock or a flower, or a flowing water fountain – they touch something very real and meaningful. Religious author Kathleen Norris, in her book “Dakota,” refers to this same idea as being in tune with our “spiritual geography.” What we encounter externally through the sensory channels affects each person in deep and mysterious ways; and each individual’s behaviors and choices reflect that internal landscape.
Children are challenged by exploring nature in collaboration with other learners, both children and adults. “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ encyclical focused on the care of the earth as our “common home,” reminds us not only of the practical concerns of harming planet earth but also of our responsibility as citizens of this “garden” to reverence it in such a way that it continues to be a beautiful home for many generations to come. Playing and learning in natural spaces, such as the Nature Explorer Classroom at St. Vincent Early Learning Center, offer unique perspectives for children to make the connection between nature and the choices we make as human beings gifted with free will. God entrusts these sacred spaces to us, and it’s up to us to pass on this legacy to our children.
The abundance and bountiful variety that natural settings provide magically tell the story first told in Genesis: what God has made is very good. This means every plant and tree, every ocean and stream, my very self, as well as our global neighbors around the world also express that same dignity and value. In this era of division, racial hatred and violence, nature has a way of reminding us that God’s Divine Providence, a favorite theme of St. Vincent de Paul, is still with us, guiding and protecting our journey, and urging us to collaborate with each other in the same way that all of nature is connected to us and to the divine. Young children inherently know this. Nature is a powerful teacher; some lessons include the following: life is good; change happens; death is a part of life; and our actions make a difference.
At St. Vincent Early Learning Center, we are blessed to accompany children who are encountering the transformative power of their natural surroundings each day. Young children are teachers as well as learners. It is surely our joy to participate in the daily journey of infants, toddlers and preschoolers envisioning their own unique spiritual grounding for the future. As St. Vincent would frequently exclaim to the Daughters of Charity, “Blessed be God!”
Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Vasa serves as Director of Mission Integration at St. Vincent Early Learning Center in Evansville.