Outdoor Education —
Thoughts From an Elder
by Dan Kriesberg
uring college I was a waterfront director at a sleepaway camp and absolutely loved it. When my post college job search led me to residential outdoor education centers I was thrilled. It was summer camp all year round and it allowed me to follow my lifelong passion for the natural world. The perfect job. Twenty-five years later, after being a naturalist, 4th grade teacher, science teacher and environmental education consultant and having seen outdoor environmental education programs from the perspective of a parent and a teacher, I have decided this all makes me an outdoor environmental education elder.
First of all, what you are doing matters; this work matters. Don’t forget, be proud. The world needs outdoor education now more than ever. The world needs citizens with the knowledge, awareness and desire to live with the earth not against it. This is difficult when children are not spending enough time outdoors. Their lives are overscheduled with activities, they have less freedom to explore their neighborhoods and combined with fewer places to be in the “more than human world” they have become a generation indoors. You are the antidote because only by getting outdoors will children gain the appreciation, knowledge and sense of wonder needed to become stewards of the earth. We know from our own experience the rewards of being outdoors. Only by being outdoors will children reap the physical and psychological benefit the research and our own experiences has shown comes from getting out there.
There is a story to tell, so be a story sharer. Let the land, water and sky help you. Let the children help tell the story as well. Ecology is filled with fascinating characters, interrelationships, conflicts, heroes and more. Whatever it is that you are teaching, there should be a theme with the connections that will help children understand and remember. Don’t teach a bunch of random facts or activities. Share your story in the style that suits you. Back in the eighties I used an Indiana Jones adventure to connect lessons on ecology to save an endangered species. Wilderness survival classes began with a plane crash that required learning outdoor living skills to get back to safety. A lesson on forest ecology began with the story of a red eft. Geology is a journey back in time. It might a short story told in a 90 minute lesson or a longer story over 3-4 days. As the stories are shared, there are some things to keep in mind.
Teach local. There is amazing everywhere. The animals and plants living wherever it is you live, teach the same lessons as those in the jungle, desert or artic. Where you live has mind-blowing flora and fauna that inspire wonder. The best part of all, is that once children learn wonder at your nature center they will be more attentive to what is around their homes. They will be having direct experiences. The lessons from catching a frog far outweigh a website, movie or video of even the most amazing wildlife.
Connect to their home places. It helps to know something about the children with whom you are working. Learn about where they live, what animals and plants might they encounter back home. Talk to teachers about the community. Are there parks, forests, lakes or ponds you can refer to in your lessons? By reading their local newspapers you can relate what you are teaching to the environmental issues back home. Don’t prejudge the kids based on where they live as rich and spoiled or rowdy or whatever. Let them introduce themselves. Expectations lead to reality.
Teach love. Let there be no “ecophobia,” first described by David Sobel, this concept is important to those of us who work with children. Ecophobia is a “fear of environmental problems and the natural world.” Fear is not a great motivator. Love works much better. The stories you tell should be about the wonder of the “more than human world.” The stories should teach how it all works by fostering an awareness of our connection and love for the outdoors that comes from learning through play, exploration, guidance, fun and wondering.
Teach wonder. Look for teachable moments – the times when a child’s questions takes you off track but into a good place, or when a warbler lands on a branch just above your head while you are trying to explain how a sedimentary rock is formed, or when a rainstorm gives you a chance to define a watershed while standing in a puddle. These moments can become part of the story that you are telling. Be open and aware of teachable moments by learning about the place you are working. Explore by spending time walking and sitting. Learn by listening to people who know the land. Read. Gain your own sense of being by learning the natural and human history of the place. Then you can be aware of your part in the story. Be open. A sense of wonder is the greatest gift you can give children.
There are two parts to having a well-developed sense of wonder. One part is the ability to see the wonder in the world, the wow, the amazing, the how is that possible? It is also the ability to wonder, to ask questions, to know there is more to know. Let their curiosity guide the story you are sharing. Be sure the students know it is okay to wonder. Celebrate the good questions. When a child’s face lights up in the presence of wonder, you have done your job.
Teach science. Facts matter, a theory is not a guess. Knowledge is collected through experimentation and observation. Then, based on the accumulation of facts, theories are developed to explain what is going on. Decision making should be based on facts. Don’t just tell children how our knowledge was figured out. Have them figure things out for themselves through the activities and lessons you plan. The scientific method is not just for scientists. It is okay to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” even if you can’t find out at the moment. By figuring out a way to learn for themselves it can be an opportunity to experience how science works.
Teach hope. There are reasons to be optimistic. The wild is not all gone. There is still much beauty and wonder to be experienced. Human-caused problems have human solutions. Small actions multiplied by millions both cause and can solve problems. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have made a huge difference. The Montreal protocols, an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons has led to the closing of the hole in the ozone layer. Species that were once endangered are now safe from extinction. Yes, there is much to do, but by focusing on what is working you will inspire children more than focusing on what is not working. That just leads to doom, despair and hopelessness.
Teach action. Children need to understand their role in a democracy. This means having knowledge of environmental issues, at local, national and international levels. The knowledge will help them take action and not feel overwhelmed by the attitude there is nothing to be done. Children have the right and responsibility to let their elected officials know how they feel. They will be the ones making decisions in the future as voters and consumers.
Teach effectively. It is okay to expect good behavior, and if that means disciplining your students then do so, it doesn’t mean being mean. I have seen too many times educators talking when children are talking. I admit to having given too many chances and have to remind myself that I am not being fair to the kids that are behaving. Have expectations for their behavior and hold them to it. It’s as simple as waiting until you have their attention before speaking. If needed involve teachers to get support. Do not let one or two students prevent the whole group from having a positive experience. Kids do understand limits, just be fair and consistent, they don’t like hypocrites.
Another way to prevent discipline problems is to build relationships. This can happen by listening and talking while sharing a meal or while walking. Ask questions, make jokes, and connect with some knowledge of popular culture. Be yourself, don’t try to be too cool.
Time is limited so avoiding distractions is key. While it is called outdoor education for a reason and it is true, there is no bad weather, there is only bad gear and lots of children have bad gear. Be aware: wet, cold and tired students are not going to learn. A shorter outdoor lesson with more focus is better than a longer lesson to the point of whining. Location, location, location, it matters where you teach. Think about the places you stop. Is there sun in their eyes? Is it noisy? Are there distractions? Is it wet? Is it safe? Is it safe for the plants and animals that live there?
Don’t be a slave to your agenda, sometimes it will be time to move on before you are ready and other times lessons slow down when children are so engrossed time stops. Whatever material you don’t get to, it will be okay. Don’t worry about not finishing, you are never going to teach everything anyway. Don’t be afraid to admit a lesson is a failure. It is better to cut your losses and move on rather than to plow through. Be aware of what they have already learned and activities they have already done. If you are at a center where more than one instructor will be working with the children be sure to know what the other naturalists are doing. There is too much to do and learn to repeat things. Outdoor education is less about the content and more about the experience. Almost always chose action over talking.
Enjoy, let the children see your passion and if you don’t have it anymore, it is time to do something else. Be the best you can be, don’t settle for mediocrity even if others are. Know why you’re doing what you are doing and do it with passion.
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Dan Kriesberg is the author of A Sense of Place, Teaching Children about the Environment with Picture Books and Think Green, Books and Activities for Kids, as well as over 100 articles on environmental education and essays about his personal experiences in the outdoors. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Karen and two sons, Zack and Scott. Dan is a sixth grade science teacher at Friends Academy. Whenever possible he spends his time in wild places backpacking, hiking and hanging out.