This Sunday, on the 8th of May, I had the opportunity to experience a very refreshing workshop called "Workshop for educators: Building an Earth Oven" conducted by Regina Kruse Ozcelik, the educational coordinator of the Small Hands Academy in Rumelihisari. This workshop was one I was very interested in the moment I heard about it: it was a workshop on how to build an oven only with a mixture of earth, water and straw; and supposedly it would teach the participants a whole range of real-life lessons from maths to ecology, from history to team work or even sustainability. Designed as a nature workshop that would show educators how to involve numerous elements of the natural environment in children’s curriculum, it is aimed at allowing children and adults alike to learn through first-hand experience. I knew from Regina’s presentation at the beginning of the day that the activity contained many learning moments as well as teaching opportunities; but nothing could have prepared me to the surprising day I had and the things I learn.
Firstly, even establishing a group dynamics was a very different experience then from how it would be in a day-to-day activity. We were constructing an oven and we had to carefully think about each step we were taking, be quick and take all of our team members’ actions into consideration. In this individualistic society that we live in where “team work” is one of the crucial qualities that is wanted in a person yet not much found, it was quite interesting to watch and learn who would assume the role of the leader, who would take more responsibility for the physical duties or who would just stay in the background and follow the others. Even when deciding where to build the oven, I realised that it was an opportunity for analytical thinking, nearly diplomatic discussions and planning. In the group, the person who had an idea on where to build the oven had to explain to the rest why he/she thought that way and if there was an objection or a better idea, there needed to be civil discussions where both parties demonstrated why their idea was a more suitable one.
I think the concept of “taking into consideration others thoughts, ideas and even the way a certain environment is constructed” is one that not many kids are experiencing these days. Many elements of daily life including learning, playing, socialising, imagining or constructing are or can be in an electronic environment and nobody nearly ever has to think if the ground is level enough to build an oven on or if the land will slide when it rains. Consideration of and for nature is often something we might lack when we are not so in touch with nature anymore and neither are our children. With this activity, we as a group had to think about all those options before even beginning to get our hands dirty. Someone in my group even suggested testing the land by pouring water over it, to see if it slides. What a great idea!
After all the thinking, imagining and testing, it was time to start the “real work”. We had a manual in our hands, of building an oven out of earth, which none of us had previous experience in. We had Regina’s subtle guidance at our backs that was not giving us any easy answers but instead making us find a solution ourselves, which we all know none of us are used to thanks to “Google search”. Even though our group’s oven was initially an easier version of the other group’s oven, because we chose a spot further away from the resources, we had to solve quite a lot of bumps along the way. We saw the consequences of our choice, which I think is a very important lesson that should be learnt from a very young age. Regina did not warn us or cut off our idea, we chose a distant spot so we had to find a way to a)carry heavy material, b)get them to the other side across the fence- which we had chosen as a “natural protection” for the oven-, c)find out how to keep the material sticky under the sunny spot we were at.
So by thinking about all these so called problems, we had to think about a)the weight of different material: earth, water, straw; how their weight changed when they were mixed together, how they were a lot easier to carry when they were made into small balls, etc. b)team work: two people stood on opposite sides of the fence, one person grabbed the material and passed it on to the other, while another group member was taking that transferred material and continuing working, which can all be related to efficiency, division of labour as well as maintaining a group harmony, c)quick problem solving: we decided that we either had to act quick at building the oven, wet the material when it dried, cover it with a plastic cover to protect it from the sun or make enough material so it did not have time to dry –we tested all of these options and used the most suitable option at different times.
Apart from technical head-scratchers, there were moments where we had to decide which tasks to do on our own- carrying water, sticking the mixture on the dome- but do it in coordination with the group (so if someone was already bringing the water bucket, there was no need for another group member to do it as well), tasks that could only be accomplished with the entire group –carrying the whole of the material to our spot, mixing the material with our feet (while another group member was adding on earth/water/straw to make it just the way we needed) or even tasks where one person had to decide if he/she needed the help of another group member to make it easier, better or maybe faster- such as breaking bricks while one was holding the nail the other would hold the hammer. It was a variation of social situations a person could find oneself in and not know what to do. I strongly believe the importance of experiencing as many social situations as possible so that kids know how to behave when they are put in a group, when they need to ask for help from another peer, when they need to be a part of a group but have individual tasks, hence having a group responsibility but also being accountable of their own work.
I could have never imagined the layers of social, analytical, ecological, historical information I would learn and the experience I would gain by just constructing an oven out of an earth mixture as a group. I even learnt never to go out without a sunscreen because I got sunburnt. I learnt how people used to cook when there was no electricity and the concept of time back then when cooking bread took nearly 2-3 hours or even more. I learnt to be patient when working with a group, that not everybody could or should agree with me but we should listen to each other and come to a common conclusion where we are both happy. But most of all, I learnt that learning is not only acquired in a class room and that it even might be more internalised through a first-hand experience. I believe that children will remember more when they can say “Remember how sticky earth was after we mixed it with water” or they will be more experimental, more analytical when they think “So when we forgot to put the straws in the mixture, the oven fell apart, wonder why is that?”. I truly think that whether we are 4, 24 or 64, we all have a lot to learn and gain from making an earth oven and connecting with nature. This Sunday, I personally saw what can happen when nature is integrated into learning. I slipped, I fell, I discussed my opinions in a group, I learnt and what is most beautiful is that after a day of all that, I, alongside my wonderful group, built an oven that we can actually cook a pizza in. Oh what a joy!
I hope that more and more children, and maybe more adults, will have a multi-layered, fun and productive experience like this one, filled with all the elements of nature we might tend to forget. I hope that the norm stops being “learning more with technology” but becomes “more learning with nature”. This Sunday, the people I met and our workshop leader showed me that it actually can be.