Issue 10/23

Nature – Community – Meaning

Tomáš Zdražil

Health is an essential asset for all of us. Unfortunately, it is by no means a matter of course, especially in childhood and adolescence. We regularly hear about this in our own surroundings and the media, at the latest since the coronavirus period. The health crisis appears to be part of the current civilisational crisis. This is also the conclusion reached by two leading German sociologists, Andreas Reckwitz and Hartmut Rosa, in their book Die Krise der Spätmoderne (The Crisis of Late Modernity), in which they analyse the health or psychological crisis of the individual alongside the societal democratic and economic crisis and the planetary environmental crisis.

The last few years have clearly confirmed that school is not only a place of learning, experience and community, but also a place of protection and health. This is why school education is crucial for the mental and physical health of children and young people.

Closeness to nature

Being close to nature is a basic human need. Where it can be enjoyed, health arises. In contrast, alienation from nature makes us ill. In some lessons, nature is an important and beautiful topic. The fairy tales feature trees or animals, while biology ranges from the study of humans and animals in year 4 to mineralogy on the one hand and human physiology and anatomy in years 7 and 8 on the other. But there is also the other part, which is perhaps even more effective, namely wherever we have direct experiences with nature: in the forest, on a farm or in the school garden.

More and more teachers are coming to the conclusion that at least part of school time should be spent outside rather than in the school building: in the sunlight, in the fresh air, doing practical work, always on the move. There are an increasing number of school and kindergarten initiatives that integrate and embed children's learning processes in an agricultural or practical setting. Nutrition is equally important: meals are taken together and parties are celebrated where everyone eats together. School trips are organised, which can also take the form of cookery courses, and there is a school kitchen. Does the school kitchen use produce from the school garden? Can pupils be involved in it? Are cookery lessons offered with a teaching kitchen in the school? The way we feed ourselves also determines whether we are close to nature or alienated from it. Without our healthy lifestyle, nature cannot become healthy and without the health of nature, we ourselves cannot become healthy.

Communal experiences

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies of all, investigated the question of what in life determines whether a person is healthy and happy. To this end, the data of 724 men was collected and analysed over a period of 75 years. The most important result of the study is that happiness and health are not a consequence of wealth and fortune, nor of prestige and fame, nor of performance and hard work. It is the quality of our social relationships – with friends, with family members, within communities.

The researchers were able to predict who would lead a long and healthy life as early as midlife: the men who were most satisfied with their relationships at the age of 50 were the healthiest at the age of 80! The quality of social relationships in adult life is largely determined by social experiences in childhood and adolescence. Positive social contacts make a person happy, keep them healthy, improve their quality of life and prolong their life. They have a stress-reducing effect, calm the physiology and even out mood swings. They reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression and dementia. Negative social experiences, conflicts, isolation and loneliness, on the other hand, have a toxic effect.

In contrast to many other areas of work, care, parenting, learning and teaching are fully embedded in interpersonal relationships. External structures and forms are brought to life by people working together proactively. The human connection between parents and the school, in which they are involved on a voluntary basis at all levels, is particularly intensive at independent schools. From participating in school bodies to celebrating the annual festivals together – parents are involved in school life everywhere. This creates a special social climate for the pupils. At Waldorf schools, the otherwise early specialisation of teachers in the material of the subjects shifts towards an intensive human connection with and orientation towards a class community with which intensive learning in a life context takes place over many years. This is the role of the class teacher.

Experiencing meaningfulness

The "most human of human needs" – according to Viktor Frankl – is the need for meaning in life, the search for meaning. For Frankl, meaningful experiences that stimulate a notion or a sense or even a knowledge of life's purpose have "an eminently psychotherapeutic and psycho-hygienic value". How do we make our lessons meaningful?

On the one hand, it is possible to experience a sense of purpose through experiences in nature and positive social relationships. On the other hand, the connection that pupils experience between their learning and work and the needs and challenges of the environment plays an important role. For younger pupils, it is about activating the senses and a directly practised connection with the world through outdoor play, movement and joyful creation. The question of meaning arises acutely in adolescence and is directly linked to the currently frequently diagnosed lack of perspective, lack of drive, exhaustion and depression among young people.

It is a problem when in my experience I don't write an English essay or a maths assignment for my teacher, classmates or others, but only for myself. In this way, we only learn for ourselves and this does not immediately open up the meaningfulness and appreciation of our own actions and the responsibility for others or our own life's task.

Young people need moments in every upper school lesson that inspire, that convey joy and hope. Is it possible to create new subjects in which connections emerge in a multi-perspective and interdisciplinary way, guided by educational teams? In particular, subjects such as globalisation, sustainability or human and planetary health, which combine different areas of expertise and disciplines, could fulfil this principle. Also projects in which the pupils take on responsibility, not as a duty or imposed, but freely chosen.

Threefold relationship skills

Humanity today is confronted with three major health challenges on a global scale: with alienation from nature, loneliness and loss of meaning. These three challenges are related to the threefold nature of the human constitution – body, soul and spirit – and the associated human needs that are either fulfilled or neglected. The fulfilment of these needs is at the same time like nourishment for people, not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually. Ignoring these needs results in an extreme burden of disease, and the health costs of this are almost impossible to quantify. At the same time, the life of a person consists of cultivating the three fundamental relationships: with nature and its creatures, with the human environment and the community, and with the higher whole, the meaning. Nature, community and meaning are the three fundamental needs of the modern human being that are not being adequately satisfied. In this way, a health problem also becomes a major educational challenge. Schools can help solve the triple health emergency of global humanity.


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