What role does nature play in Helen's learning?
Helen Keller was a year old when she lost her eyesight and hearing due to an illness. Before this, she was a baby who enjoyed nature. Her mother noticed that as a baby Helen was "attracted by the flickering shadows of leaves that danced in the sunlight on the smooth floor" (The Story of My Life, Chapter I). After she became deaf and blind, Helen continued to be drawn to nature. She enjoyed spending time in the garden on her family's property:
What joy it was to lose myself in that garden of flowers, to wander happily from spot to spot, until, coming suddenly upon a beautiful vine, I recognized it by its leaves and blossoms, and knew it was the vine which covered the tumble-down summer-house at the farther end of the garden! Here, also, were trailing clematis, drooping jessamine, and some rare sweet flowers called butterfly lilies, because their fragile petals resemble butterflies' wings. But the roses–they were loveliest of all.
Nature comforted Helen in a time when her life was filled with darkness. She was frequently frustrated because she could not communicate effectively. Miss Sullivan arrived, and she taught Helen to communicate using the manual alphabet. This changed Helen's life. Miss Sullivan also taught Helen about nature:
... I had my first lessons in the beneficence of nature. I learned how the sun and the rain make to grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, how birds build their nests and live and thrive from land to land, how the squirrel, the deer, the lion and every other creature finds food and shelter. As my knowledge of things grew I felt more and more the delight of the world I was in. Long before I learned to do a sum in arithmetic or describe the shape of the earth, Miss Sullivan had taught me to find beauty in the fragrant woods, in every blade of grass, and in the curves and dimples of my baby sister's hand (Chapter V).
Before her lessons about nature with Miss Sullivan, Helen had merely appreciate nature. Her teacher taught her how to understand it and also to appreciate it on a deeper level. Helen loved learning about nature. Throughout her life, Helen appreciated nature and learned about it wherever she went.
Helen, being both blind and deaf, had never seen a sunset or a rushing river. Her dark silent world was virtually empty. Humans are sensory oriented creatures, that is how we imprint in the world, communicate and navigate. When Anne Sullivan went to the water pump and ran water over Helen's hand, spelling the word W-A-T-E-R it was the first time that Helen was able to connect what Anne was trying to teach her. That moment opened her world, it gave a name to the sensory input and grounded her in the understanding that everything around her has a name, leaf, tree, grass, wind. One of the things not directly mentioned in Helen's story is the system of generalization that humans possess as intrinsic to their survival. When we see and name a tree humans generally will be able to see any kind of tree and without naming its particular species, we know it is a tree. As both a blind and deaf individual this generalization and therefore a large portion of her intrinsic survival system as a human was severely stunted. In coming to understand the natural world around her, which was of great interest from an early age, it brought her a sense of both comfort and understanding. A bedrock from which she could integrate herself into the human world. It is also clear that the role of nature, as a point of interest, became a central point in her education because she began to connect all of her lessons. It is usually easier to interest children in school work and in life when a teacher is able to find one or a few of that child's interests to work off of. In chapter V she mentions that soon after learning about plant cycles and seasons she was doing arithmetic to demonstrate the size and shape of the earth. From a separate perspective knowing the flowers, grass, trees, rocks and earth gave her world form and then confidence to move about it. It is also mentioned that she felt that the she was a 'happy peer' of those elements of the natural world, something that Anne worked hard to impart on her so that she would feel more comfortable in the world.