Mental Farming 2: Tuning Into Your Environment

In my previous article, Mental Farming – Ideas for Improving Education Approaches (1) I examined a few ways in which children’s education and permaculture are linked. Some of these are surprising, such as the Immersion English camp organised by the Spanish government during which the children are exposed to an organic garden and learn about different tree types, seemingly almost as a kind of side effect from the main aim of the camp; to learn English (1). In this article I shall explore some more ways in which we can educate holistically, and some ideas about how place makes a significant difference to what kind of approach will function well.

Named Educational Approaches

There are a number of alternative education systems which have been formally named and are being practised all over the world. For example, the ‘forest schools’ style of teaching was first popularised in Australia at the beginning of the 20th century and formalised by H.L Russell in Wisconsin in 1927 (2) – though presumably people have been learning from forests since before this time as well. Now forest schools are an integral part of the curriculum for many schools in Wisconsin (3); however, the place where forest school learning has become most popular is probably Denmark, where an estimated 10 percent of all preschools, or more than 500 schools, are “nestled in forests or other natural settings” (4).

In the plains of Northern Italy is the city of Reggio Emilia, which has given its name to a whole educational approach (see for example 5) which, among other concepts, can be seen as being closely linked to permaculture in that it places the learner within their environment and which recognises the environment as a teacher in its own right (see for example 6). As such, design is an integral part of teaching at a Reggio or Reggio-inspired school, and what effect the different spaces will have on the students’ (and teachers’) learning is always considered (7).

Design in Education

For example, schools are designed with ‘horizontality’ to encourage equal treatment beginning at a fundamental level (7). Corridors are discouraged as being “spaces which have been used traditionally as a method of order and control” (7). All schools have an ‘atelier’ or workshop where children are encouraged to experiment and explore their own ideas, and many are arranged around a central ‘piazza’ designed to encourage openness and building of relationships (7).

Details such as this can be applied to any design, not only a school; when placing each element within the design and considering their function, as well as the impact they may have on the development of those who will use the space, whether they are children or not.

Lucy Gabzdyl in the ‘comments’ section of Mental Farming (1) also pointed out some of the similarities between Steiner schools and permaculture approaches, such as giving the children a holistic perspective of wood and where it comes from – “before learning to work with wood they started with cutting down a tree” (1). It is clear from this that the Steiner philosophy includes at least some holistic perspectives which can fit with permaculture ideas; however, since much of Steiner’s theories also include phenomena which cannot be directly perceived with the human senses (see for example 8) I will not focus on Steiner education here as this article is about applying ideas and techniques directly through our own actions, whatever the faith or beliefs behind such actions.


Escape to the Forest….

Forest school learning is becoming more and more popular around the world. In Italy, my current country of residence, there is a lot of interest in the benefits of a natural environment as part of education. In Rome last year there was an international conference on forest education (9) and October 2015 saw the third edition of the international ‘Outdoor Education’ conference in Bologna (10).

There are many schools which follow the Reggio approach or are inspired by it; though it is difficult to know exactly how many since the approach is not so much a method as a lens through which to look at education and so there is no formal recognition of a ‘Reggio school’ (11). Another very interesting phenomenon is that of the ‘forest asylums’ (‘asili nel bosco’) (see for example 12). These are schools based totally inside the forest, where educational activities go on for adults as well as children (12).

The fact that such places represent a haven away from the hectic and possibly ecologically destructive nature of city life is suggested in the very name ‘asylum’. The idea of the forest schools seems to be that children can come there to escape from something; exemplified again in the Danish word for forest schools, udflytterbørnehave – “relocation or moving out from the city kindergarten” (4).

Such ideas of escape and sanctuary are important, especially if the parents feel lost. Indeed, they can very easily be translated outwards to encompass many aspects of society and not only education. For example, we can use a similar idea to the ‘forest asylums’ to create havens for those experiencing mental crises or whose mental pathways are leading them to places which ‘conventional’ society is ill-equipped to deal with, as explored in my article ‘Kosmicare: Cosmic Care at Festivals Helping to Create Positive Societal Change’ (13).

…Oh wait, we’re already here

However, it is not necessarily beneficial to assume that everyone needs to escape from something. Whilst researching the ‘forest asylums’ in Italy I found a map of forest schools in the country (14). All of the schools are concentrated in the North of the country, with nothing South of the capital, Rome (14). Why could this be?

One possibility could be that the North of the country is in general more ‘developed’; i.e. the cities are larger , there is more infrastructure and better access to communications (see for example 15) and as a result, perhaps communities are more disconnected, both from the land and from each other. The forest asylums make sense as a response to this.

However, in the South, a strong community feeling remains – at least here in Salento, where such events as San Giuseppe’s feast are quite common, where the entire community joins together to create a sumptuous offering of food for the Saints as well as eating lots and lots of food together (ref me?). Agriculture here is still practised by a large proportion of the population (see for example 17), and although ‘conventional’ farming methods can be seen in many places, there appears to be a general desire for high-quality local food, with little chemical input and a comparatively low influence from international agro-chemical corporations (see for example 17).

Attempting to bring the idea of an ‘asylum’ or a ‘relocation from the city’ into this atmosphere would perhaps be misplaced. Though indubitably much connection to the land is being lost here as well as in the North – as evidenced by the numerous abandoned country properties and absence of young people in the Southern regions – enough still remains that rather than trying to reintroduce it, it would be more appropriate to kindle what connection is already here. This involves observing as well as interacting – finding out how the local people are responding to the environment, and, if appropriate, assisting in finding ways which can help to create more ecological and holistic-minded responses to this environment.

Practical Steps

What can we learn from the Italian example? To me it seems clear that there are so many different ways in which humans are interacting with their environment, and it is important to be aware of the current trend in the very location in which you are in order to best affect positive change or impact. Some practical ways to do this could be to consider what is the local culture of your area and if you wish to introduce a permaculture perspective (or whatever you are most interested in) through this culture. In this way we can have the most impact; as we can work together with what people are already into. In the Reggio Emilia approach, for example, though design of the space in which the children will be is as important as what you do with them there along with this that space should also fit in with whatever is surrounding it through “osmosis with the surrounding aesthetics and culture” (7).

Mental Farming 2 Tuning Into Your Environment 02

Here in Salento there is no desire to escape from the city; if anything, there is a desire to escape to the city as young people move away to the more populated Northern towns. Therefore the idea of a forest asylum is not so appropriate; perhaps more appropriate would be helping those around me appreciate the beauty of the nature they have, and celebrating it with the children.
Such actions would be impossible to implement successfully if I was not already connected to the culture myself. Regardless of how much we may wish to change something, it seems essential to appreciate what is here already, right now, and observe what is around us. Permaculture can be seen to be not only about permanent agriculture but about all types of culture, and if maybe one of the best ways to create a sustainable culture is to plant it within the one which already exists.


1. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Mental Farming: Ideas for Improving Educational Approaches’. Permaculture News, 26/11/15. – retrieved 26/3/16

2. Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, 1964. Wisconsin Blue Book, 1964. Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau: Madison, USA.

3. University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, 2016. ‘Wisconsin’s School Forest Program’. – retrieved 26/3/16

4. Stasiuk, P, 2016. ‘Early Nature Lesson’s in Denmark’s Forest Preschools’. Denmark, 2016. – retrieved 26/3/16

5. Edwards, Gandini, Forman (eds), 1998. The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation. ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara, USA.

6. Strong-Wilson, T; Ellis, J, 2009. ‘Children and Place: Reggio Emilia’s Environment as Third Teacher’. Theory Into Practice, Volume 46, Issue 1, 2007 Special Issue:Reggio Emilia. Pp40-47. Available as a PDF here: – retrieved 26/3/16

7. Ceppi, Zini et al (eds), 1998. Children, Spaces, Relations: Metaproject for an environment for young people. Reggio Children and Domus Academy Research Centre: Milan, Italy.

8. Mackintosh, C/The Permaculture Research Institute, 2011. ‘Permaculture and Metaphysics’. Permaculture News, 8/12/11. – retrieved 26/3/16

9. Universita Degli Studi Roma, 2016. ‘L’Asilo nel Bosco nella pedagogia contemporanea [The Forest Asylum in Contemporary Pedagogy]’. – retrieved 26/3/16

10. Comune di Bologna, 2015. ‘Outdoor Education’. – retrieved 26/3/16

11. An Everyday Story, 2015. ‘What is the Reggio Emilia Approach?’ – retrieved 26/3/16

12. Santarelli, F, 2015. ‘La Primavera degli Asili nel Bosco [Springtime in the Forest Asylums]’. Gli Stati Generali, 29/3/15. – retrieved 26/3/16

13. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Kosmicare: Cosmic Care at Festivals Helping to Create Positive Societal Change – part 2’. Abundance Garden, 1/10/15. – retrieved 26/3/16

14. Open Culture Atlas, 2016. ‘Scuole Diverse’. – retrieved 26/3/16

15. The Data Team, 2015. ‘Down at Heel: Italy, North and South’. The Economist, 8/5/15. – retrieved 26/3/16

16. Haworth, C, 2016. ‘Celebrations of Spring and the Sacred’. Abundance Garden, 27/3/16. – retrieved 26/3/16

17. Italian National Institute of Statistics, 2013. ‘Italy in Figures 2013’. Istat: Rome. Available as a PDF here: – retrieved 26/3/16

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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