5.1 A river ‘place’ – human connections to rivers
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Curriculum Alignment

8,14,18,19, 25

Years K-6: English, Science & Technology, HSIE, Creative Arts
Years 7-10: English, Geography, Science, Visual Arts  
Years 11-12: Earth and Environmental Sciences, English, Geography, Visual Arts

SOSE, Science, Geography

Futures, Interdependence, Thinking

Science, Thinking Processes, Geography

Students express a connection to and increased value of an area of a nearby river, stream or wetland

1 hour

Materials required
Blank personal journals (enough for all class members)
Pens, crayons, texta pens, water colours

Based on “Connectedness to Nature: Comparing rural and urban youths’ relationships with nature.” by Michael Jonathan Klassen, 2010
“Places shape human history—both collectively and individually...children growing up in an inner city tend to differ in some ways from children growing up in a rural community.” These differences are often reflected in what the children fear, like, or dislike, as well as in the types of skills they develop through their own set of experiences. One child, for example, may be able to recognise the different types of creatures living in a creek (e.g., yabbies, tadpoles, etc.), while another child may be able to read street signs and bus schedules at an early age. Thus, it’s not hard to understand that “just as we shape our environments, they shape us”.

Some environments foster a ‘sense of place’ in young children; others don’t. The term ‘place’ when used in the context of a ‘sense of ‘place’ doesn’t mean simply a geographic location. ‘Place’ in this context refers to location plus many other factors that give that location its unique character.

A serene river place’ on the Murray River at Tooleybuc, NSW.  Photograph: Bill Phillips

Qualities or factors of an environment that contribute to a ‘sense of place’ experience include opportunities for seclusion and quiet, opportunities for exploring, and opportunities to effect change. Other factors contributing to a ‘sense of place’ experience include complexity, diversity, opportunities for immersion or immediate encounters with the natural world, and opportunities for the experience of magical or memorable moments.

‘Place’ experiences contribute significantly to children’s cognitive development and their understandings of the world around them.

The motivation to interact with the environment exists in all children as an intrinsic property of life, but the quality of such interactions is dependent upon the possibilities for engagement that the environment provides. In addition to supporting learning about the natural world, ‘sense of place’ experiences also impact on the child’s developing sense of self. Children’s connection to physical environments communicate important messages to them about who they are and what they may aspire to be.

Such messages impact strongly on how children perceive themselves as learners and explorers. This, of course, also affects self-esteem, feelings of competence, and sense of connectedness. Knowledge of a place - where you are and where you come from - is intertwined with knowledge of who you are. Landscape, in other words, shapes mindscape.

Activities that promote ‘sense of place’ introduce students to environments rich in sensory stimulation, where they have many opportunities for feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling, and seeing. Direct exposure to a variety of plants, to sun and shade, to water, sand and soil, to wildlife and weather changes immerses children in the world of nature and tend to foster a rich ‘sense of place’ experience. Such experiences foster a sense of wonder and enhance one’s aesthetic appreciation of the environment.

Aboriginal grinding grooves formed from sharpening axes and spears. Terramungamine Reserve on the Macquarie River near Dubbo. Photograph: Bill Phillips

Places shape the stories of our lives. These stories become ongoing ‘ecological conversations’, that is, expressions of the dialogue between ourselves and the environment.
The development of healthy environmental awareness and concern starts with feeling a response to nature. Such a response comes primarily by way of first hand positive experiences in the outdoors, especially in environments fostering a ‘sense of place’ experience.

Nature provides some of our most comforting experiences, in part because of the way it provides ‘difference-within-sameness’, or variety within a framework of predictability.

Research indicates that many children seek out places where they can spend sometime alone and that they enjoy intimate, enclosed, and hidden places as well as exciting and dangerous places. When available, nestlike refuges or structures are often used by children seeking places for seclusion and quiet. For some children, such refuges become important places of attachment or security in times of trouble. Children also use such places to act out dramas or stories, including stories of animal life. By acting out the story of a bear hibernating in the winter or a bird nesting her young, children can develop feelings of intimacy, caring and connection to the natural world and for other living creatures. Such ‘pretend play’ episodes can also lead to questions about animal life and foster closer observations of native animals and how they live.

To heighten awareness of a setting and to increase attachment to it, a process of ‘certification’ might be used. Certification involves spotlighting a particular place and presenting it in some way to the public. Presentations of a ‘place’ can be made by way of video filming, photographing, painting, drawing, descriptive writing etc. Such a presentation ‘certifies’ the importance of a particular place and results in a person feeling that the place is special and legitimate.
Enjoying a paddle on the River Murray. Photograph: Bill Phillips
Enjoying a paddle on the River Murray. Photograph: Bill Phillips

Sense of place

Lesson plan
1. At the nearby river, stream or wetland sit students down together on a grassy area and pass around samples of journals, including art, scientific and personal examples. 

2. Emphasise that journals are unique and personal works. They may be primarily text, drawings, paintings, scrapbooks, even written with musical notation, or any combination which pleases the creator. Journals are NOT a place where spelling, sentence structure or mistakes matter at all. Rather, journals are about capturing thoughts, ideas, moods or scientific observations. 

3. Finally, empower and protect students by reassuring them that journals are always as private and personal or public and open as the creator determines, and that they will NOT be forced to share anything they do not wish to.

4. Explain that journal writing is an important way to experience and discover more about natural places, as well as a place for creative expression.

5. Ask students to discuss times when they have been alone in nature (especially when near a waterway), what they saw, felt or thought.

6. Explain that they will be making their own journals.

7. Clearly outline that there will be only two rules for the following activity: 

>first, students must pick a spot far enough away from other students that they cannot talk to one another, as journaling is a private and individual activity
>second, that once they find an appropriate stop, they must settle down and remain there. Good observations of animals and plants generally only happen when you get settled and observe closely and with great stillness.

Seen all over the Murray-Darling Basin, a rope to swing and dive into the river. Take care if trying this. Photograph: Bill Phillips
Seen all over the Murray-Darling Basin, a rope to swing and dive into the river. Take care if trying this. Photograph: Bill Phillips

8. Inform students that if they have questions or concerns during the activity they only have to raise their hand and someone will come to them to assist.

9. Pass out blank journals, calling attention to various activities and approaches they may take, as well as inviting students to use blank pages if they have their own ideas about how and what they may want to explore during the activity.

10. Disperse students with the proviso that they not go so far as to be out of the teacher’s view.

11. Travel around to students to answer questions and help focus students.

Keep in mind that
minimal intrusion on the
students is best for
the success of the activities

12. The teacher can be a very effective role model by working on their own journal during this time, and managing students as much as possible with hand signals and whispers.

River places’ can be where you relax with family and friends.  House boating on the River Murray, SA. Photograph: Bill Phillips
River places’ can be where you relax with family and friends. House boating on the River Murray, SA. Photograph: Bill Phillips

13. After twenty to thirty minutes, call the students back, assemble them again in a sitting circle and invite them to share their, thoughts, ideas and if they wish, artwork with the group.

Encourage the students to take on a special spot along a waterway near their own homes or in a nature reserve or park. 
Suggest they return regularly working through various activities in their journals, or beginning a blank journal of their own. 

Secondary pathway
Have students do a nature journal of at least 20 entries. Encourage them to draw and identify plants and animals they discover, and identify their role in the habitats in which they are found.