Bringing Nature Back to the Schoolyard

Bringing Nature Back to the Schoolyard

by Jane Tesner Kleiner, RLA
 
 

Imagine walking out the back door of your school, surrounded by the songs of spring time birds, the soft scents of flowers in bloom, the wind billowing through nearby trees, and (if you are lucky) the croaking of Pacific tree frogs. Sounds great? But… it doesn’t sound like your school? What if?

It may sound daunting, the idea of transforming your school grounds into a green, lush learning environment. However, there are great resources out there, to help put your school on-track to having learning and play environments that include lots of nature. It’s not only the kids who love and benefit from being in natural spaces; so do the school staff and the neighboring community, too.

So many schools have little more than grassy fields, paved surfaces and fenced areas. They may have a few trees and landscape beds, and hopefully an awesome playground, but most are static and sterile environments. There can be benefits to these school grounds: they are relatively safe, and it’s easy to monitor the kids during outside time. They are also seem easy to maintain (although mowing costs are a big pull on a maintenance budget). Yet, they don’t provide opportunity for imagination, let alone the creative activity that sparks imagination.

Over the last 30 years, a growing body of research strongly asserts that children experience myriad benefits from daily access to nature. Richard Louv, of the Children and Nature Network, states in an online article that,

“…including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social cohesion. New longitudinal studies also suggest that nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores. And children in low-income communities appear to benefit proportionally more from access to green space than those in higher-income communities.”[1]

Research also suggests that providing close-to-home, regular, access to nature will help kids overcome fears of the unknown. Adventuring further, they build self-confidence and interest in the broader world.

In a normal M-F week, children spend 41% of their waking hours at school[2]. With that in mind, school grounds are uniquely positioned to provide access to nature for kids. I certainly see benefits in the students that I work with, not to mention my own kids. I have seen students become self-assured, skilled and proud owners of their schools’ outdoor spaces.

There is also the matter of agency, of capitalizing on kids’ buy-in by involving them in the planning stages. Promoting student voice throughout the planning, design, fundraising, installation and maintenance of school greenspaces gives them hands-on experiences that they may not get elsewhere. And the ownership? People don’t destroy what they built themselves.

To begin, start by listening. Here are some things that I’ve heard, from schools I work with in the Vancouver area:

  • When asked what changes kids would want to see to their school campus, they said two things: more fun play equipment and have the school grounds be their own backyard fieldtrip.
  • When staff were asked where they want their school facility to be in 5 years, they want to be able to teach outdoors; this includes garden spaces and a diverse setting of natural elements.
  • Teachers want to be able to teach using the whole school campus, making use of all features.
  • The process for considering “how” to change the campus, let alone fundraise and maintain the new nature features is daunting.

Where do you start? Luckily, there are professionals who can help every school maximize the opportunity to add more nature to your campus.

It starts with lots of conversations, centered around a few key principles.

In essence, the design will:

  • meet multiple goals, including direct ties to curriculum.
  • allow for exploration, observation, discovery and fun.
  • expand and broaden structured AND self-guided learning and play.
  • foster a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity.
  • build upon what kids love to do: jump & hop; climb & balance; build & take apart; make art; allow for passive quiet time; use all senses. Create! Imagine! Explore!

 

Now that you’re excited to get going and transform your school grounds, here is a short recipe for a successful campus plan:

  • Culture. Form a team to build your natural schoolyard. The team will brainstorm, plan, design, build and maintain the spaces. Don’t rely on one person, or else it won’t be sustainable in years to come. Bring on partners and ask for help! PTO/A’s, local businesses, community groups. Local businesses may be a source of funding, but business people have an inherent stake in the health of their nearby schools. Give them a chance to offer their ideas, skills and, yes, money.
  • Individuality. Each school is unique. Build upon its existing features and add elements that easily complement the site. If you make it too complicated, it will be hard to maintain in years to come.
  • Diversity. Each user group will have different goals for the enhancements, and sometimes they will conflict. By discussing the goals and objectives first, with children’s well-being the focus of the conversation, the best solution can be refined to meet everyone’s needs. Provide something for everyone.
  • Community. Every child, every family has something to gain. Tap into your school community. You have a ready-made pool of hundreds of concerned, hard working adults. Learn who has skills, talents, and materials to contribute to the project. This will help build ownership in the project over time.
  • Inclusiveness. Make sure all the right people have had a chance to weigh in with their ideas and approvals: district staff (facilities, curriculum leads, risk, etc.), teachers, school staff, maintenance, grounds, and most importantly the students.
  • Problem Based Learning. Engage the students in every step, and empower them to meaningfully contribute, create and build a successful set of spaces for the next generation of students. This is learning! Kids will learn important, lasting lessons at every step.
  • Partnership. Find local and national organizations to support your project. Possibilities include:
    • certifying for wildlife habitat
    • becoming a state certified Green School
    • supporting the national pollinator project.
      (Certification goals are great motivators, rallying stakeholders to, “keep on track and get the plaque!”)
  • Consultation. Work with a local professional (e.g. landscape architect, school garden coordinator, etc.) to facilitate the discussions. They can capture all of the ideas and put it into one overall master plan for the site and create a report that can be used for approvals, fundraising and keeping the project on track over the years.

In the end, here is the winning equation:

program needs + site opportunities + available resources + curriculum goals = action plan

 

What goes into the plan?

Consider what type of features to add to your schoolyard.

The physical space.

  • Wildlife habitat. Native trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract butterflies, birds and mammals (provide food/water/shelter/place to raise young).
  • Outdoor classrooms. For classes and small groups to gather to work, listen and learn.
  • Nature play. Use natural materials for kids to actively engage in unstructured and imagination play.
  • Working spaces to actively plan, plant, grow and manage plants such as vegetables, fruits and flowers.
  • Messy areas. Creative spaces to make art, containing moveable elements to build and change.
  • Quiet spaces. Beautiful, peaceful settings with small group seating, to listen, slow down, de-stress and regroup.
  • Exploration spaces. Unique spaces that support a variety of curricula; might include elements for tactile learning, such as water tables, sand play, learning lab stations, and more.
  • Experiment stations. Areas that support the testing of theories, experimentation and active learning. Could include built-in features such as solar equipment, rain harvesting station, or space to create.
  • Green infrastructure. Your school district may want to upgrade features to meet sustainability goals, such as stormwater management, energy efficiency, reducing heat island effects, etc. Meet their needs while creating active learning spaces. Welcome these ideas, as they are often tied to grant money.

 

Photo from the Intertwine

Using it

Creating the space is one thing, using it is another. Look for the tools that will help your school use the campus successfully:

  • When talking to potential partners, emphasize the 4C’s of 21st Century learning:
    • collaboration
    • creativity
    • communication
    • critical thinking

Successfully redesigned schoolyards encourage all of them.

  • Provide training to your staff. Help them find the resources and lessons that tie to their curriculum goals. Most school districts will have a specialist available to help.
  • Identify agencies that offer programs for outdoor learning, and invite them (repeatedly) to your campus. Look for watershed and conservation groups, environmental education centers, local environmental professionals, and sportsmens organizations.
  • Encourage your district to hire a garden or outdoor teacher or coordinator, to works with your teaching staff to coordinate the activities and lessons that are taught outdoors. The lessons can cover all curriculum areas, as well as activities to build social skills, independent learning and team building.
  • Meet maintenance goals by creating jobs for students, classes or small groups to accomplish throughout the year. Create a shared calendar to outline the needs and then divvy up the tasks. Don’t leave it to one dedicated or passionate person….they will eventually have to move on.
  • Make it the culture of the school to embrace, use, respect and care for your whole campus. The school community spends so much time together on campus, use the entire space to your advantage and care for it as a resource.
  • Remember, your space will be used after school (programs and neighborhood use) and during the summer. Embrace the fact that a variety of users will use the space. Finding ways to welcome them will encourage others to care for it and keep an eye on things when school is not in session.

If you need ideas on how to use your campus for outdoor learning, there are lots of great guides and curriculum resources that provide engaging activities for all grade levels (early childhood, pre-K, K-12).  A few examples include:

  • The BioBlitz. No, this isn’t a game or app (check out the National Parks website). In this activity, students look for all living species on your campus. Have them document what they find and identify the species (plants, insects, mammals, birds, etc.). You can make it as simple or complex as you need to, based on the age and curriculum. Include writing, art, science and math.
  • Scavenger hunt. Have kids look for a different theme, such as all things that collect and move the rainwater (What happens to rain drops when they land on the various surfaces?); have the kids find different shapes in the natural elements on campus; etc.
  • Nature journal. Document the changing seasons on your campus. What are the colors for each season? Temperature changes? Weather patterns? Different animals?
  • Art projects. Have kids pick a couple natural elements and sketch them, using a variety of media. Compare and contrast what is different and same about each element.
  • Plant flower bulbs. Seek donations for flower bulbs and have the kids plant them in a landscape bed. Learn about the different bulbs, the depths they need to be planted, what are the types and shapes of bulbs. Have the kids develop plant markers for each type. In the spring, monitor the progress of growth for each type, have them sketch the flowers, investigate the flower shape and talk about the parts of the plant, notice if pollinators visit the plants, create a cut flower vase and share with a classroom or community group that would benefit from fresh flowers (senior living facility).

As your school starts its journey toward a more natural schoolyard, know that these projects can take years. That’s fine! The program will benefit from starting small and building upon small successes as the project grows and changes over time. Think of a protracted timeline as an opportunity to involve more kids and their families.

Lastly, stay true to your goal. Keep the vision in mind and you will be amazed at the sustaining support you will receive to keep moving forward. Every step you take is for the health and well-being of the kids. You’ll get there.

 

Here are just a few resources that you can check out online.

Children and Nature Network  Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities – Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community. http://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CNN_GSY_Report2016_Final.pdf

Green Schoolyards America. Sharon Danks. http://www.greenschoolyards.org/home.html

Boston Schoolyard Initiative. http://www.schoolyards.org/projects.overview.html Active since 1995. Schoolyard and outdoor design guides, as well as planning, maintenance and stewardship resources.

Evergreen Green School Grounds. https://www.evergreen.ca/our-impact/children/greening-school-grounds/

National Wildlife Federation. Schoolyard Habitat program. http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Create/Schoolyards.aspx  Attract and support local wildlife.

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Jane Tesner Kleiner is a registered landscape architect, ecologist and environmental educator with work in Michigan and Washington. She has spent the past 25 years working with schools, parks and ecological restoration organizations to create habitat, trails and play areas. She passionately advocates for outdoor spaces that inspire kids’ curiosity. She wears a few hats in the Vancouver, Washington area, and continues encouraging kids of all ages to get outside and explore. Her goal is to make sure every kid has a stick to play with.

 

 

 _______________

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Louv, R., & Lamar, M. (2016, July 07). GROUNDS FOR CHANGE: Green Schoolyards for all Children. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.childrenandnature.org/2016/07/07/grounds-for-change-green-schoolyards-for-all-children/

[2] Given a full week of school and, we hope, 8 hours of sleep.

 

Making Outdoor Education More Accessible

Making Outdoor Education More Accessible

Effective Practices
For Night Hike

By: Grace Werner

The mainstream outdoor industry, as it exists today, is a blanket of whiteness that ignores sacred stories, crucial histories, and traditional knowledge of black and brown people (Brown, 2019). This truth is something I was only partially aware of in my time as an Instructor at Widjiwagan. If there is anything my graduate studies in the field of education have taught me, it is clarity around the many mistakes I have made as an educator. Still, reflection, correction, and reparation is the only way I know to move forward, and thus I’m so excited to analyze the mistakes I made as an instructor and as an employee of an outdoor education organization.

The focus of my “Effective Practices” analysis is on a lack of awareness regarding emotional safety of all students, and particularly black and brown students, on a night hike. In this blog post, I will identify elements of the night hike lesson that could be changed for a more emotionally safe experience for students. Specifically, I will look at the timing of the lesson positioned early in the week/unit, the set-up of community standards/emotional-safety- agreements, and the (lack of) awareness or acknowledgement the instructor is able to bring into their teaching and work community. By analyzing what a night hike looked like as I taught it 3 years ago, I am hoping I can clarify specific changes that may make the overall experience more beneficial for all students.

Positionality:

            I believe that when educators are aware of their positionality, greater safety is maintained. As a white, cis-gender, non-disabled, middle class woman who speaks English as her first language; my positionality holds immense privilege. Specifically as a white outdoor educator, if I do not acknowledge and actively combat the harmful practices ingrained in environmental education, I am not only a part of a history of erasure but also a participant in the perpetuation of racism and injustice. My critical analysis of the night hike is a limited understanding of the industry’s shortcomings, due to my privileged positionality and inherent biases. It is my intention to use this reflection to process my own learning and recognize the changes I hope YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, as well as many organizations like Widji, must make.

Widji’s administration, board of advisors, staff, and summer-participants are predominately white, upper-middle class, non-disabled, and speak English as their first language. From my perspective and collective experiences in the participant, guide, and instructor roles; there is not nearly enough organizational effort given to interrupt or change this cycle of creating a white-centric space. This is extremely important to recognize because of the following participant caveat- Widji’s fall/winter/spring program serves a population of youth who’s demographics much more accurately represent the demographics of MN and much more proportionally include (but are not limited to)- African American, Mexican, Native American, Somali, Ethiopian, Hmong, Salvadoran, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese, students. This detail is important to acknowledge moving forward in my analysis of the “Night Hike” lesson. Schools (both public & private) from across the state of MN, bring entire classes of students to outdoor school at Widji for a week-long sleep away experience. But how is Widji (or the many outdoor ed schools like Widji) able to create a space that mitigates the undertones of colonization, nationalism, and white supremacy culture imbedded and maintained through the industry, organization, and a predominately white as well as affluent staff (Brown, 2019).

Lesson Analysis & Effective Practices:

One of the more important elements to know about Night Hike at Widjiwagan is that it happens on the first night students arrive at camp. Generally, after a long day of travel, busses arrive in Ely, MN around 3-4pm. Students tour camp, unpack quickly in their cabins, eat dinner, and meet their study-groups as well as their instructor. These groups will stay the same for the entire week. Day 1, for students and instructors alike, is exhausting and overwhelming. It is a day filled with nervousness, discomfort, excitement, and newness. This is the night students are asked to bundle up, dig deep for some energy, and place an unreasonable amount of trust in their instructors and peers to brave the dark, cold for a hike in the woods.

Most commonly students will be presented with pre-hike curriculum. As an instructor, I often outlined the anatomy of the human-eye and how it interacts with light. I would draw a diagram on the white board and have students label the cornea, pupil, iris, rods, cones, and a chemical called rhodopsin. We would experiment with our own vision-quality by turning off the lights in the classroom and waiting for our eyes to adjust. I would then ask students to extinguish all phones, flashlights, or head-lamps for the entire walk, as a way to test our own night vision. Looking back, this measure feels entirely unnecessary and insensitive. The point (I think) was to encourage students to step briefly outside their comfort zone in order to practice their recently acquired knowledge of night vision. The night hike generally proceeded into discussions on stars, light-pollution, nocturnal animals, and sometimes even active-listening activities. There is so much incredible science-related and non-science-related content that is relevant to a night hike, and yet I can’t let go of the fact that it is placing students in what could be an incredibly scary, triggering, and uncomfortable situation on their first night at camp. Finally, if students are deeply uncomfortable, they will not be in a mental space that allows learning to take place.

Moving the night hike to the final evening at Widji is a practice that I think could significantly improve student-emotional-safety. When someone feels emotionally safe, I believe they feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable and voice their needs. This requires trust and respect in relationships. A closing night hike would allow students the necessary time to build trust and supportive relationships with potentially unfamiliar peers and a new instructor. It would also allow time for establishing, as well as practicing, community safety standards, communication skills, and group agreements. Added time to learn about students- their individual needs and passions as well as group needs and interests- is crucial to a successful week at outdoor camp. Assuming youth will or should be stoked on being outside is rooted in many characteristics of white supremacy. Individuals have varying and sometimes emotionally-loaded feelings of spending time outside. It can bring up memories of vulnerability, insecurity, fear, or even pain. The outdoors is not a safe place for everyone. More specifically, the outdoors has been historically dominated by white men and their exclusive ideas of recreation and stewardship. In my opinion, acknowledgment of the night hike or any other camp experience as potentially scary is a great place to start in naming a dynamic for students. This acknowledgment lets students know that feelings or desires in regards to participation may vary from student to student, and that is ok. I firmly believe that students should not be forced to venture into the darkness without a light, or even to hike at all in the dark if they do not feel safe. Ideally, if presented as an option at the beginning of the week, and slowly worked towards as a team, students may genuinely not want to miss the experience.

The second important teaching practice I believe relevant to night hike is the knowledge that a student’s comfort level is often rooted in their family’s history or upbringing. In “What Does Culture Have To Do With Teaching Science”, Madden (2013) writes, “For educators to engage families, becoming aware of student prior knowledge and beliefs is essential in making science culturally responsive” (p.67). It is the job of instructors to learn about the communities where they work and implement the many incredible narratives and ways of learning present there. Specifically, as a white outdoor educator, making space for adults whose positionality not only differs from my own, but also may better represent student identity, is crucial. In my time instructing at Widji’s fall/winter/spring program, I largely relied on the standard curriculum presented to me in staff training. Still, there was a lot of flexibility given to instructors at Widji, and I wish I would have used that freedom to make space for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) voices. Madden (2013) discusses gathering stories from parents, community specialists, or even the library as an excellent option for instructors to include a variety of voices, perspectives, and cultural beliefs that may be held by students. For night hike specifically, this could include family or traditional knowledge on any of the topics typically covered such as stars, nocturnal adaptations, light pollution, etc. Another option Madden (2013) presents , if the resources are available, is to invite parents, teachers, or community members into the curriculum building as another way to stray from content reflecting a single story. This could happen through electronic data collection, zoom sharing, or in-person visits.

In outdoor education, the space my body takes up is welcomed and approved by white supremacy, so I must use that privilege to dismantle a system that is centered around whiteness. Night hike at Widjiwagan displays the extensive redesign outdoor curriculum and educational systems must incorporate, rather than relying on assumptions, stereotypes, typical curriculum, and more.

Work Cited:

Brown, S., & *, N. (n.d.). Advice for white environmentalists and nature educators. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://clearingmagazine.org/archives/15272
Brown, S., & *, N. (n.d.). Reclaiming spaces. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://clearingmagazine.org/archives/15269
Madden, L., & Joshi, A. (2013). What does culture have to do with teaching science? Science and Children, 051(01). doi:10.2505/4/sc13_051_01_66

Reclaiming Spaces

Reclaiming Spaces

Providing opportunities for students of color to explore
the outdoors and science careers

 

Text and photos by Sprinavasa Brown

 recall the high school science teacher who doubted my capacity to succeed in advanced biology, the pre-med advisers who pointed my friend Dr. Kellianne Richardson and me away from their program and discouraged us from considering a career in medicine – biased advice given under the guise of truth and tough love.

I remember only three classes with professors of color in my four years at college, only one of whom was a woman. We needed to see her, to hold faith that as women of color, we were good enough, we were smart enough to be there. We were simply enough, and we had so much to contribute to medicine, eager to learn, to improve and to struggle alongside our mostly White peers at our private liberal arts college.

These are the experiences that led Kellianne and me to see the need for more spaces set aside for future Black scientists, for multi-hued Brown future environmentalists.
The story of Camp ELSO (Experience Life Science Outdoors) started with our vision. We want Black and Brown children to access more and better experiences than we did, experiences that help them see their potential in science, that prepare them for the potentially steep learning curve that comes with declaring a science major. We want Black and Brown kids to feel comfortable in a lab room, navigating a science library, and advocating for themselves with faculty and advisers. We hope to inspire their academic pursuits by laying the foundation with curiosity and critical thinking.

Creating a sense of belonging
Camp ELSO’s Wayfinders program is our main program for youths in kindergarten through sixth grade. What began as a programmatic response to our community needs assessment – filling the visible gap in accessible, affordable, experiential science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for young Black and Brown children – quickly grew into a refuge space for youth of greater Portland. Wayfinders is all about creating a safe uplifting and affirming space for youth to engage in learning around four key areas: life science, ecology, community and cultural history. While our week-long sessions include field trip sites similar to many mainstream environmental education programs, our approach is sharply focused on grounding the youth experience in environmental justice while elevating the visibility and leadership opportunities for folks of color.

We are creating a special place for Black and Brown youth to have transformative experiences, to create memories that we hope will stick with them until adulthood. Creating such a space comes with difficulties, the type of challenges that force our leadership to make tough decisions that we believe will yield the best outcomes for youth underrepresented in STEM fields. For instance, how to mitigate the undertones of colonization, nationalism, and co-opting of traditional knowledge – harmful practices ingrained in mainstream environmental education.
To do so, we invest in training young adults of color to lead as camp guides. We provide resources to support them in developing the skills necessary to engage youth of diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, socioeconomic status and family structure. Our guides practice taking topics and developing discussion questions and lesson plans that are relevant and engaging. We know that the more our staff represents the communities we serve, the closer we get to ensuring that Camp ELSO programming is responsive to the needs of children of color, authentic to their lived experience, and is a reflection of the values of our organization and community.

In 2019 nearly 100 children of color from greater Portland will participate in Camp ELSO’s Wayfinders program over spring and summer break, spending over 40 hours in a week-long day camp engaging in environmental STEM learning and enjoying the outdoors. We reach more children and families through our community outreach events like “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day: Women of Color Panel” and “Endangered Species Day: Introduction to Youth Activism.”
The most critical aspects of our Wayfinders program happens even before we welcome a single child through our doors.  With the intent of purifying the air and spirit, we smudge with cedar and sage to prepare the space. When a child shows up, they are greeted by name. We set the tone for the day with yoga and affirmations to the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Yemi Alade as we strive to expose our kids to global music from diverse cultures.

We have taken the time to ask parents thoughtful questions in the application process to help us prepare to welcome their child to our community. We have painstakingly selected what we feel is a balanced, blended group of eager young minds from diverse ethnic backgrounds: Black, Latinx, the children of immigrants, multi and biracial children of various ethnicities, fuego and magic. Our children come from neighborhoods across Portland and its many suburbs. They come from foster care, single-parent households, affluent homes, homes where they are adopted into loving and beautifully blended families, strong and proud Black families, and intergenerational households with active grandmas and aunties. Consistent with every child and every household is an interest and curiosity around STEM, a love of nature and the outdoors.

The children arrive full of potential and the vitality of youth. Some are shy, and nerves are visible each morning. By the end of the week we’ve built trust and rapport with each of them, we’ve sat in countless circles teaching them our values based in Afrocentric principles, values selected by previous camp guides representing the youth voice that actively shapes the camp’s culture.

On our way to more distant Metro sites like Blue Lake and Oxbow regional parks and Quamash Prairie, we play DJ in the van. Each kid who wants to has an opportunity to share their favorite song with the group, and if you know the words, you’d better belt it out. We share food and pass around snacks while some children rest and others catch up with old friends. Many more are deep in conversation forging new friendships.

When we arrive, we remind the kids of what is expected of them. We have no doubts that each and every child will respect the land and respect our leaders. The boundaries are clear, and our expectations for them don’t change when problems arise. We hold them to the highest standards, regardless of their life situation. We respect, listen, and embrace who they are.

We are often greeted by Alice Froehlich, a Metro naturalist. Our kids know Alice, and the mutual trust, respect and accountability we have shared over the last three years has been the foundation to create field trips that cater to the needs of our blended group – and oh, it is a beautiful group.

At Oxbow, we are also greeted by teen leaders from the Oregon Zoo’s ZAP (Zoo Animal Presenters) program. These teens of color join us each year for what always ends up being a highlight of the week: playing in the frigid waters of the Sandy River, our brown skin baking under the hot summer sun, music in the background and so much laughter. Like family, we enjoy one another’s company.

Then we break into smaller groups and head into the ancient forest. Almost immediately the calm of the forest envelopes our youth. The serenity that draws us to nature turns our group of active bodies into quieted beings content to listen, observe, respond and reflect. It doesn’t take much for them to find their rhythm and adjust to nature’s pace. Similarly, when we kayak the Tualatin River or canoe the Columbia Slough, they are keen to show their knowledge of local plants and taking notice as the occasional bird comes into view. We learn as much from them as we do from our guides.

These are the moments that allow Camp ELSO’s participants to feel welcome, not just to fit in but to belong. To feel deeply connected to the earth, to nature and to community.
Encouragement for my community

As a Black environmental educator I’m always navigating two frames of view. One is grounded in my Americanness, the other is grounded in my Blackness, the lineage of my people from where I pull my strength and affirm my birthright. I wear my identities with pride, however difficult it can be to navigate this world as a part of two communities, two identities. One part of me is constantly under attack from the other that is rife with nationalism, anti-Brownness, and opposition toward the people upon whose lives and ancestry this country was built.
I am a descendant of African people and the motherland. I’m deeply connected to the earth as a descendant of strong, free, resilient and resourceful Black people. The land is a part of me, part of who I am. My ancestors toiled, and they survived, they lived off, they cultivated, and they loved the land.

As a black woman, my relationship with the land and its bounty is a part of my heritage. It’s in my backyard garden, where I grow greens from my great-grandmother’s seeds passed down to me from my mother, who taught me how to save, store and harvest them. Greens from the motherland I was taught to cook by my Sierra Leonean, Rwandese and Jamaican family – aunties and uncles I’ve known as my kin since I was a child. It’s in the birds that roam my backyard, short bursts and squawks as my children chase them. The land is in the final jar my mother canned last summer when the harvest was good, and she had more tomatoes than we could eat after sharing with her church, neighbors and family.

Our connection to the land was lost through colonization, through the blanket of whiteness that a culture and set of values instilled upon us all as westerners living on stolen Indigenous land and working in systems influenced by one dominant culture. Our sacred connection with outdoor spaces was lost as laws set aside the “great outdoors” as if it were for White men only. These laws pushed us from our heritage and erased the stories of our forefathers, forgetting that the Buffalo Soldiers were some of the first park rangers, that the movement for justice was first fought by Black and Brown folks.

We grew our own food before our land was stripped away. We lived in harmony with the natural world before our communities were destroyed, displaced or forcibly relocated. We were healthy and thriving when we ate the food of our ancestors, before it was co-opted and appropriated. We must remember and reclaim this relationship for ourselves and for our children.

We are trying to do this with Camp ELSO, starting with our next generation. Children have the capacity to bring so much to environmental professions that desperately need Black and Brown representation. These professions need the ideas, innovations and solutions that can only come from the lived experiences of people of color. Children of color can solve problems that require Indigenous knowledge, cultural knowledge and knowledge of the African Diaspora. We want to give kids learning experiences that are relevant in today’s context, as more people become aware of racial equity and as the mainstream environmental movement starts to recognize historical oppression of people of color.

We need more spaces for Black and Brown children to see STEM professionals who are relatable through shared experiences, ethnicity, culture and history. We need spaces that allow Black children to experience the outdoors in a majority setting with limited influence of Whiteness – not White people but Whiteness – the dominant culture and norms that influence almost every aspect of our lives.

Camp ELSO is working to be that space. We aren’t there yet. We are on our own learning journey, and it comes with constant challenges and a need to continuously question, heal, build and fortify our own space.

Sprinavasa Brown is the co-founder and executive director of Camp ELSO. She also serves on Metro’s Public Engagement Review Committee and the Parks and Nature Equity Advisory Committee.

 

 

Advice for White Environmentalists and Nature Educators

by Sprinavasa Brown

I often hear White educators ask “What should I do?” expressing an earnest desire to move beyond talking about equity and inclusion to wanting action steps toward meaningful change.
I will offer you my advice as a fellow educator. It is both a command and a powerful tool for individual and organizational change for those willing to shift their mindset to understand it, invest the time to practice it and hold fast to witness its potential.

The work of this moment is all about environmental justice centered in social justice, led by the communities most impacted by the outcomes of our collective action. It’s time to leverage your platform as a White person to make space for the voice of a person of color. It’s time to connect your resources and wealth to leaders from underrepresented communities so they can make decisions that place their community’s needs first.

If you have participated in any diversity trainings, you are likely familiar with the common process of establishing group agreements. Early on, set the foundation for how you engage colleagues, a circumspect reminder that meaningful interpersonal and intrapersonal discourse has protocols in order to be effective. I appreciate these agreements and the principles they represent because they remind us that this work is not easy. If you are doing it right, you will and should be uncomfortable, challenged and ready to work toward a transformational process that ends in visible change.

I want you to recall one such agreement: step up, step back, step aside.

That last part is where I want to focus. It’s a radical call to action: Step aside! There are leaders of color full of potential and solutions who no doubt hold crucial advice and wisdom that organizations are missing. Think about the ways you can step back and step aside to share power. Step back from a decision, step down from a position or simply step aside. If you currently work for or serve on the board of an organization whose primary stakeholders are from communities of color, then this advice is especially for you.
Stepping aside draws to attention arguably the most important and effective way White people can advance racial equity, especially when working in institutions that serve marginalized communities. To leverage your privilege for marginalized communities means removing yourself from your position and making space for Black and Brown leaders to leave the margins and be brought into the fold of power.

You may find yourself with the opportunity to retire or take another job. Before you depart, commit to making strides to position your organization to hire a person of color to fill the vacancy. Be outspoken, agitate and question the status quo. This requires advocating for equitable hiring policies, addressing bias in the interview process and diversifying the pool with applicants with transferable skills. Recruit applicants from a pipeline supported and led by culturally specific organizations with ties to the communities you want to attract, and perhaps invite those community members to serve on interview panels with direct access to hiring managers.

As an organizational leader responsible for decisions related to hiring, partnerships and board recruitment, I have made uncomfortable, hard choices in the name of racial equity, but these choices yield fruitful outcomes for leaders willing to stay the course. I’ve found myself at crossroads where the best course forward wasn’t always clear. This I have come to accept is part of my equity journey. Be encouraged: Effective change can be made through staying engaged in your personal equity journey. Across our region we have much work ahead at the institutional level, and even more courage is required for hard work at the interpersonal level.

In stepping aside you create an opportunity for a member of a marginalized community who may be your colleague, fellow board member or staff member to access power that you have held.

White people alone will not provide all of the solutions to fix institutional systems of oppression and to shift organizational culture from exclusion to inclusion. These solutions must come from those whose voices have not been heard. Your participation is integral to evolving systems and organizations and carrying out change, but your leadership as a White person in the change process is not.

The best investment we can make for marginalized communities is to actively create and hold space for leaders of color at every level from executives to interns. Invest time and energy into continuous self-reflection and selfevaluation. This is not the path for everyone, but I hope you can see that there are a variety of actions that can shift the paradigm of the environmental movement. If you find yourself unsure of what action steps best align with where you or your organization are at on your equity journey, then reach out to organizations led by people of color, consultants, and leaders and hire them for their leadership and expertise. By placing yourself in the passenger seat, with a person of color as the driver, you can identify areas to leverage your privilege to benefit marginalized communities.

Finally, share an act of gratitude. Be cognizant of opportunities to step back and step aside and actively pursue ways to listen, understand and practice empathy with your colleagues, community members, neighbors and friends.

Camp ELSO is an example of the outcomes of this advice. Our achievements are most notable because it is within the context of an organization led 100 percent by people of color from our Board of Directors to our seasonal staff. This in the context of a city and state with a history of racial oppression and in a field that is historically exclusively White.
We began as a community-supported project and are growing into a thriving community-based organization successfully providing a vital service for Black and Brown youths across the Portland metro area. The support we have received has crossed cultures, bridged the racial divide and united partners around our vision. It is built from the financial investments of allies – public agencies, foundations, corporations and individuals. I see this as an act of solidarity with our work and our mission, and more importantly, an act of solidarity and support for our unwavering commitment to racial equity.

Advice for white environmentalists and nature educators

Advice for white environmentalists and nature educators

by Sprinavasa Brown

I often hear White educators ask “What should I do?” expressing an earnest desire to move beyond talking about equity and inclusion to wanting action steps toward meaningful change.
I will offer you my advice as a fellow educator. It is both a command and a powerful tool for individual and organizational change for those willing to shift their mindset to understand it, invest the time to practice it and hold fast to witness its potential.

The work of this moment is all about environmental justice centered in social justice, led by the communities most impacted by the outcomes of our collective action. It’s time to leverage your platform as a White person to make space for the voice of a person of color. It’s time to connect your resources and wealth to leaders from underrepresented communities so they can make decisions that place their community’s needs first.

If you have participated in any diversity trainings, you are likely familiar with the common process of establishing group agreements. Early on, set the foundation for how you engage colleagues, a circumspect reminder that meaningful interpersonal and intrapersonal discourse has protocols in order to be effective. I appreciate these agreements and the principles they represent because they remind us that this work is not easy. If you are doing it right, you will and should be uncomfortable, challenged and ready to work toward a transformational process that ends in visible change.

I want you to recall one such agreement: step up, step back, step aside.

That last part is where I want to focus. It’s a radical call to action: Step aside! There are leaders of color full of potential and solutions who no doubt hold crucial advice and wisdom that organizations are missing. Think about the ways you can step back and step aside to share power. Step back from a decision, step down from a position or simply step aside. If you currently work for or serve on the board of an organization whose primary stakeholders are from communities of color, then this advice is especially for you.
Stepping aside draws to attention arguably the most important and effective way White people can advance racial equity, especially when working in institutions that serve marginalized communities. To leverage your privilege for marginalized communities means removing yourself from your position and making space for Black and Brown leaders to leave the margins and be brought into the fold of power.

You may find yourself with the opportunity to retire or take another job. Before you depart, commit to making strides to position your organization to hire a person of color to fill the vacancy. Be outspoken, agitate and question the status quo. This requires advocating for equitable hiring policies, addressing bias in the interview process and diversifying the pool with applicants with transferable skills. Recruit applicants from a pipeline supported and led by culturally specific organizations with ties to the communities you want to attract, and perhaps invite those community members to serve on interview panels with direct access to hiring managers.

As an organizational leader responsible for decisions related to hiring, partnerships and board recruitment, I have made uncomfortable, hard choices in the name of racial equity, but these choices yield fruitful outcomes for leaders willing to stay the course. I’ve found myself at crossroads where the best course forward wasn’t always clear. This I have come to accept is part of my equity journey. Be encouraged: Effective change can be made through staying engaged in your personal equity journey. Across our region we have much work ahead at the institutional level, and even more courage is required for hard work at the interpersonal level.

In stepping aside you create an opportunity for a member of a marginalized community who may be your colleague, fellow board member or staff member to access power that you have held.

White people alone will not provide all of the solutions to fix institutional systems of oppression and to shift organizational culture from exclusion to inclusion. These solutions must come from those whose voices have not been heard. Your participation is integral to evolving systems and organizations and carrying out change, but your leadership as a White person in the change process is not.

The best investment we can make for marginalized communities is to actively create and hold space for leaders of color at every level from executives to interns. Invest time and energy into continuous self-reflection and selfevaluation. This is not the path for everyone, but I hope you can see that there are a variety of actions that can shift the paradigm of the environmental movement. If you find yourself unsure of what action steps best align with where you or your organization are at on your equity journey, then reach out to organizations led by people of color, consultants, and leaders and hire them for their leadership and expertise. By placing yourself in the passenger seat, with a person of color as the driver, you can identify areas to leverage your privilege to benefit marginalized communities.

Finally, share an act of gratitude. Be cognizant of opportunities to step back and step aside and actively pursue ways to listen, understand and practice empathy with your colleagues, community members, neighbors and friends.

Camp ELSO is an example of the outcomes of this advice. Our achievements are most notable because it is within the context of an organization led 100 percent by people of color from our Board of Directors to our seasonal staff. This in the context of a city and state with a history of racial oppression and in a field that is historically exclusively White.
We began as a community-supported project and are growing into a thriving community-based organization successfully providing a vital service for Black and Brown youths across the Portland metro area. The support we have received has crossed cultures, bridged the racial divide and united partners around our vision. It is built from the financial investments of allies – public agencies, foundations, corporations and individuals. I see this as an act of solidarity with our work and our mission, and more importantly, an act of solidarity and support for our unwavering commitment to racial equity.

Sprinavasa Brown is the co-founder and executive director of Camp ELSO. She also serves on Metro’s Public Engagement Review Committee and the Parks and Nature Equity Advisory Committee.

Outdoor, Hands-on STEM Learning

Outdoor, Hands-on STEM Learning

Mary Birchem, Restoration Coordinator with Capitol Land Trust, guides students through a discussion of streamflow next to Johns Creek on the Bayshore Preserve. Photo by Bruce Livingston.


Outdoor Learning in Shelton: A Surge of Hope

by Eleanor Steinhagen

 

Bayshore Preserve – Shelton, WA

wo 7th graders have just tossed their pears into Johns Creek and are jogging downstream to see which one will cross the finish line first. Maneuvering around a large maple tree and jagged rocks on the stream’s bank, a handful of their classmates jog with them, including two “timers” who hold stopwatches in front of their chests, ready to hit the stop button when their designated pear reaches the finish line. The pears bob up and down for a moment, then drift into the creek’s swiftly flowing current and float eastward toward Oakland Bay.

The rest of the students are already standing at the finish line, peering upstream and cheering on their desired winner as they hunch forward and hide their hands in their sleeves to protect them from the frigid October morning air. It’s a sunny morning, but the temperature hovers in the high 30s and is slow to rise in the shade by the creek. As the winning pear crosses the finish line 25 seconds after the start of the race, several kids break into a loud cheer, while others throw their hands in the air, or turn away and yell, “Aw, man!” in disappointment.

The race was one of three that this group of 13 students conducted as a means of collecting the data they needed to measure streamflow in the creek at Bayshore Preserve, a 74-acre former golf course three miles northwest of Shelton, Washington, conserved by Capitol Land Trust in 2014. Before the race, the students learned about side channels and discussed how they impact flow; measured the distance from the race’s starting line to the finish line, or the “reach”; discussed key concepts they are learning in class, such as “ecosystem” and “biodiversity”; and, standing mere feet from the creek’s sand, cobble and stoneflies, they learned about the variety of sediments and creatures in northwest streams and where each can be found according to streamflow. Throughout the lesson, they used field journals to take notes and record data, including the depth and width of the section of the creek they were studying—information they would use to perform calculations in math class later that week.

The students’ work at Johns Creek is the culmination of three years of effort made by several groups to design and implement high impact field experiences for every student in the Shelton School District. The program started with a conversation at a community stakeholder meeting in 2014 between Margaret Tudor, then-Executive Director of Pacific Education Institute (PEI), Wendy Boles, Shelton School District Science Curriculum Leader and Science Teacher at Olympic Middle School, and Amanda Reed, Executive Director of Capitol Land Trust. Since the fall of 2015, Capitol Land Trust has been facilitating these field investigations for every 7th grader in the Shelton School District—serving around 300 students per year—using PEI’s trademark FieldSTEM model as a foundation for the work. In addition to Capitol Land Trust, Shelton School District and PEI, a handful of dedicated volunteers and other community stakeholders, such as the Squaxin Island Tribe, Mason County Conservation District, Green Diamond Resources and Taylor Shellfish, have stepped forward to support the program.

A student draws an example of a freshwater macroinvertebrate for his classmates to add to their field journals. Opportunities for students to share their work and learn from one another are built into the field investigation curriculum. Photo by Bruce Livingston.

This type of outdoor hands-on STEM learning appeals to many learner types and helps students overcome barriers to learning often found inside the classroom. During this first field investigation day, a group of students was asked why they liked learning science outside. Rian, a student at Olympic Middle School who used to go clamming near Bayshore with his mom and grandparents, said, ”I know some kids, they’re better with a complete visual. Not like a visual coming from a book, or written on a whiteboard.” Another student, Madison, said, “It’s good to be outside because you get physical education and you get to look at a lot of stuff,” she said. “I like coming out here to do hands-on learning and have fun with my friends.”

Capitol Land Trust in particular has done a lot of work to realize the initial vision of using Bayshore as a place to provide Shelton School District students with these learning opportunities. Daron Williams, Community Conservation Manager, and Mary Birchem, AmeriCorps Restoration Coordinator, are the land trust’s “boots on the ground,” making the improvements needed each year to transform the program from an average field trip to a PEI-style high impact field experience. Of his drive to help make these experiences happen for students, Daron said:

Doing FieldSTEM—where [students] can get the knowledge they need in a way that actually works for them—can help connect them with the land they live on. Shelton is an economically impoverished area. And a lot of families are struggling… As a small organization, we bring a capacity that the schools don’t have on their own. And that can make a difference in the students’ lives. Doing these project-based lessons, we could actually be helping students get through school that maybe wouldn’t have, and get them excited about science. This is a way to show them how science is connected to the real world.

To this end, Daron and Mary have worked tirelessly to increase student engagement and develop the program curriculum. When the program started in 2015, Daron collaborated with teachers to correlate what Bayshore offers and what is taught in the field to what students are learning in the classroom, ensuring that the lessons are aligned with state and national learning standards. In the summer of 2017, a year into her AmeriCorps service with Capitol Land Trust, Mary began recruiting additional volunteer teachers, and then designed and implemented a program to train them. Together, they have worked to adjust the schedule and coordinate the logistics of the field experience with district teachers. And on field experience days, both Mary and Daron work alongside the volunteer teachers to help them guide students through the FieldSTEM tasks.

This year especially, their effort shows. Viola Moran, student teacher at Olympic Middle School, shared her observation of Fiona (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) during the field investigation at Bayshore. A high-needs student in one of the district middle schools, Fiona doesn’t like to be the center of attention. As a rule, she doesn’t participate in activities or raise her hand in class. The commotion that comes with being in large groups of people makes her feel so uncomfortable that she waits in the bathroom until the hallways clear out during breaks before going to class. And when she gets there, she doesn’t want to sit with the other students.

When the Bayshore field investigation day was announced, Fiona said, “I’m not going. I’ll be sick that day.” But in spite of her reluctance, she got her permission slip in and ended up attending. And in the course of the afternoon, she became so engaged in the fieldwork that she and her classmates were doing that she volunteered to throw one of the pears during the fruit race. She also offered to draw an example of a macroinvertebrate on the board for the class—a profound shift from what Viola had observed in the classroom.

Throughout the first field investigation day, as well as the week following, Wendy, Viola, Mary, Daron and several of the volunteer teachers remarked that student engagement is at an all-time high this year. With the inevitable exceptions of “kids being kids,” the students listened attentively, asked questions, volunteered for a variety of tasks and diligently took notes and recorded their data. Viola and Wendy also observed that the students handled the creatures more gently this year than in the past. At the “Tidal Life” station, for example, on the first day of the field investigation, a group of students were so concerned about a hermit crab that had shed its shell in the molting process that they spent 10 minutes trying to persuade the crab to crawl into a shell they had found on the shore while offering various words of encouragement: “You want your shell!” and “Come on, man, you need a home!”

Students examine macroinvertebrates at the saltwater station. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve come into contact with the creatures that live in their surrounding area. Photo by Bruce Livingston.

Viola expounded on the above by adding:

Even though this is their community, there’s a good portion of [the students] that have never actually been around the creatures out there. And so, seeing the hermit crabs and the different specimens that they got to handle—they were just fascinated by that… And as they grow up, it’s right there. It’s a part of their environment.

What’s more, the impact of the field experience was evident in the classroom after the students went to Bayshore. “When we are going over ‘producer, consumer and decomposer,’” Viola said, “they are relating back to the information they got at Bayshore.”

Susie Vanderburg, retired elementary school teacher, former Thurston County Stream Team Coordinator and former Education Director for Olympia’s LOTT WET Science Center, agrees with Viola. “A lot of kids today are not getting exposed to the outdoors, not having experiences outside. They’re not given opportunities to love the land and be fascinated.” While her work as a volunteer is a big commitment, Susie does it because she believes that giving kids the opportunity to learn science outside, in the field, simultaneously gives them the opportunity to become stewards of the land they live on. “In environmental education we always say, once you get to know something, like a wetland or a prairie, then you begin to care about it. It’s personal. And if you care about it, then you’re willing to do something to protect it. If you never get outside and get to know the outdoors, you’re never going to care about it, you’re not going to protect it.”

While young people’s lack of exposure to the natural world poses a challenge, Wendy Boles, who is in her 15th year as a science teacher and is another major force behind implementing these powerful experiences for students, has begun to feel a surge of hope with a discovery she’s made in her classroom in recent years. It used to be that students entered her 7th grade class without any knowledge about (and very little interest in) the problems caused by issues such as overpopulation, resource depletion and pollution. In the past few years, however, Wendy has noticed in her students an increased awareness of and concern about climate change and environmental issues. She sees field investigations as an opportunity to help kids make the connection between these issues and how they impact their community. She hopes that by having real-world science learning experiences, her students will discover what they love to do, learn about science-related careers in their communities and be empowered to pursue them if that’s their dream.

Along with the work she does to help integrate the field investigation tasks with the district’s science curriculum, Wendy helps train volunteers and coordinate schedules with Capitol Land Trust, district teachers and the English language support staff that the district provides. “It is a lot of work. I mean a lot of work,” she said of the field investigation days. But all of that becomes worth it when she witnesses the new awareness among her students and their desire to safeguard the environment. “The kids are starting to go, Wow, we have to start caring about the environment. That to me is the biggest thing because if we aren’t taking measures to be good stewards, we are going to be in trouble. That’s my concern. Making sure that our planet can continue to support us in a way that we’re used to.”

At Bayshore, several individuals and community partners have come together to seize this opportunity by providing Wendy’s students, and every 6th and 7th grade student in the Shelton School District, with real-world, project-based, career-connected science education. The hope is that this education will enable them to lead richer and more meaningful lives, and that they, in turn, will draw from their time exploring and learning science out in their community to generate change where they can. Yes, it is a lot of work. Everyone involved agrees with Wendy on that. But they do it because they believe that the return will be well worth the effort.

Eleanor Steinhagen is the Communications Coordinator for Pacific Education Institute in Olympia, Washington.

Outdoor Education Perspectives

Outdoor Education Perspectives

Outdoor Education —
Thoughts From an Elder

by Dan Kriesberg

 

Photo courtesy of Portland Audubon Society.

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.

Photo courtesy of the Gray Family Foundation.

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.

#   #   #

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.