The Importance of Deep Experiences in Nature
By Joseph Cornell
rofound moments with nature foster a true and vital understanding of our place in the world. I remember an experience I had as a five-year-old boy that awakened in me a life-long fascination for marshes, birds, and for a life lived wild and free.
I was playing outside on a cold, foggy morning when I suddenly heard a startling chorus of “whouks” coming toward me through the air. I peered intently at the thick fog, hoping for at least a glimpse of the geese. Seconds passed; the tempo of their cries increased. They were going to fly directly overhead! I could hear their wings slapping just yards above me. All of a sudden, bursting through a gap in the fog, came a large flock of pearl-white snow geese. It seemed as if the sky had given birth to them. For five or six wonderful seconds their sleek and graceful forms were visible, then they merged once again into the fog. Seeing the snow geese thrilled me deeply, and ever since then I have wanted to immerse myself in nature.
Being Fully Present
When outdoors, many people are so engrossed in their own private concerns that they spend little time noticing their surroundings. I once demonstrated this to a group of 25 teachers in Canberra, Australia. I asked them to look at a beautiful tree as long as they were able to, and to raise their hands when their attention wandered from the tree and drifted to other thoughts. In only six seconds, every hand was raised. They were amazed to discover how restless their minds were.
Exposure to nature isn’t always enough. A friend of mine discovered this when he took his eight-year-old son hiking in the Canadian Rockies. They hiked for several hours until they came to a spectacular overlook where they could see two glaciated valleys and several alpine lakes.
He said, “That view alone made our long trip from Iowa worthwhile.” He suggested to his son that they sit and enjoy the mountain scenery. But the boy, who’d been running exuberantly back and forth along the trail, sat for five seconds, then scrambled to his feet and started running up the trail again. My friend said he felt like screaming, “Stop! Look at this incredible view!”
How can we help others experience nature deeply when their minds and bodies are so restless? The secret I’ve discovered is to focus their attention with captivating nature activities that engage their senses.
For example, in the Camera Game, which is played with two people, the “photographer” taps the shoulder of the “camera” twice, and the camera-person opens his eyes on the scene before him. Because the camera-person looks for only three seconds, his mind doesn’t have time to daydream, so the impact of his “picture” is quite powerful. Players of the Camera Game have told me that they’ve retained a vivid memory of their pictures for five, even eight years afterwards. This activity helps people of all ages experience what it is like to truly see.
Other examples of simple, absorbing activities are mapping natural sounds, writing an acrostic poem about something captivating, drawing one’s “best nature view,” and interviewing nature, where you look
for a special rock, plant, or animal that has an interesting story to tell. Then you ask it questions like, “What events have you seen in your life? What is it like to live here? Is there something you would like to tell me?”
Abraham Maslow described peak experiences as especially joyous with “feelings of intense happiness and well-being” and which often involve “an awareness of transcendental unity.” Mountaineers commonly report having these kinds of experiences. John Muir, in the following passage, explains why:
In climbing where the danger is great, all attention has to be given the ground step by step, leaving nothing for beauty by the way. But this care, so keenly and nar- rowly concentrated, is not without advantages. One is thoroughly aroused. Compared with the alertness of the senses … on such occasions, one may be said to sleep all the rest of the year.
—John of the Mountains
The intense focus required by wilderness pursuits such as climbing heightens one’s awareness, which is why so many people avidly enjoy them.
Leaders can encourage peak experiences on less wild walks by using experiential activities that focus people’s complete attention on nature. Concentration is concentration; people benefit from increased perception wherever they are. One educator who hikes the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail every summer practiced the Sharing Nature organization’s reflective “I Am the Mountain” exercise for just four minutes. Afterwards, he said enthusiastically, “I was able to experience a state of heightened awareness that usually takes me a month in the wilderness to feel.”
Meeting Nature Face to Face
Science can only describe a flowering cherry tree; it cannot help us experience the cherry tree in its totality. To develop love and concern for the earth, we need deep, absorbing nature experiences; otherwise, our relationship with nature will remain distant and abstract and never touch us deeply.
Rita Mendonca, Sharing Nature Brazil’s national coordinator, recently gave a training program in the Amazon for professional ecotourism guides, some of whom had worked in the area for 40 years. Their attitude at first was that she had little to teach them. But after participating in several experiential Sharing Nature® activities, a woman approached Rita and said with deep emotion, “You are helping me find the forest inside of me! We don’t know the forest in this way!”
Absorbing experiences bring us face-to-face with nature. The observer and the observed become united—and only then is true knowing and love awakened in the observer’s heart. John Muir said that the content of the human soul contains the whole world. The deeper purpose of experiential learning is to broaden our experience of life and include other realities as our own. When one is immersed in nature, Muir said, the “body vanishes and the freed soul goes abroad.” Only by expanding our sense of identity beyond our physical body and egoic self can we commune with distant horizons, brightly colored songbirds, and countless other delights.
When people are quiet and receptive, fully immersed in nature, insights on the real purpose of life reveal themselves. David Blanchette is a teacher at the Punahou School on Oahu Island, Hawaii, where every year he leads his 13-year-old students on an inspirational nature walk along a remote and wild coastline. Below are some of his students’ thoughts about life and nature after playing reflective, experiential Sharing Nature activities like “Expanding Circles,” “Trail of Beauty,” and the “John Muir Game”:
• It made me feel like I was actually a part of the sand and ocean.
• I was a calm ocean wave gently rolling towards the shore. I was the reef, feeling the cool water roll over me.
• I felt euphoria. I felt like I was one with everything around me.
• It felt powerful, yet peaceful. Every part of me is moving and flowing in harmony.
• Watching the turtle swim carefree reminded me that I have nothing to worry about.
• You really live when you take time to notice your surroundings.
• If you find beauty within the world you can find it within yourself.
Jessica, one of David’s students, wanted to express her appreciation for the ocean, so she gratefully wrote “thank you” in the sand—and let the ocean waves embrace her sentiment and take it into itself.
Fostering in others beautiful human qualities of humility, respect, love, and joyful harmony with one’s environment outside and inside of oneself—as expressed by the Hawaiian students—is what nature education is really about.
Becoming Good Stewards
A teacher in the Southwest once asked the children in his class to draw a picture of themselves. He recalled, “The American children completely covered the paper with a drawing of their body, but my Navajo students drew themselves differently. They made their bodies much smaller and included the nearby mountains, canyon walls, and dry desert washes. To the Navajo, the environment is as much a part of who they are as are their own arms and legs.” The understanding that we are a part of something larger than ourselves is nature’s greatest gift. With it, our sense of identity expands and, by extension, so does our compassion for all things.
In order to create a society that truly reveres the natural world, we must offer its citizens life-changing experiences in nature. Saint Teresa of Avila said, “The soul in its ecstatic state grasps in an instant more truth than can be arrived at by months, or even years, of painstaking thought and study.” One moment of deeply entering into nature can inspire in us new attitudes and priorities in life that would take years to develop.
When people feel immersed and absorbed in the natural world, they are learning the highest that nature has to offer—because nature herself is their teacher.
Joseph Cornell is the author of the highly acclaimed Sharing Nature book series and is the founder and president of Sharing Nature Worldwide. You are welcome to reprint this article with prior permission from Sharing Nature Worldwide. You can find out more about Sharing Nature activities and resources at www.sharingnature. com or 530-478-7650. Contact Joseph Cornell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Value of Creative Teaching
Place-based environmental education through the lens of art and creative writing
by Tess Malijenovsky
lace-based environmental education is taking front seat inside and outside classrooms across the country in part to prepare future generations for the environmental challenges they’ll face ahead. That is, climate change, natural resource competition, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and rampant species extinction. In the famous words of Albert Einstein, the significant problems we face today cannot be solved with the same thinking we used when we created them.
This is why we mustn’t undermine the value of creative thinking in outdoor environmental education. While our education system tends to emphasize critical thinking skills for good reason, sometimes the critic within must be silenced for the improvisation of ideas and solutions: In a study published by PLOS ONE journal, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braud found that the parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with self-monitoring and conscious control were suppressed in jazz musicians playing improv. Despite differences in the analytical- and creative-thinking processes in the brain, however, both entail a sophisticated application of knowledge.
Nature-themed art and writing exercises are ways for educators to elicit creative thinking in students when teaching environmental education. What’s more, nature illustration outdoors, for example, can break through learning barriers and focus the attention of students from diverse backgrounds and learning levels while delivering life science lessons, as witnessed by Straub Environmental Center’s executive director, Catherine Alexander.
Alexander recently spent a day at the Little North Fork of the Santiam River with 20 elementary-aged summer campers studying and drawing the plants, fungi, and animals surrounding their beautiful setting in an old-growth ecosystem. The students, representing a variety of learning styles and backgrounds, took their seats on mossy patches of sunlight, encapsulating science concepts in a portrayal of their immediate watershed environment.
Imagine a children drawing an osprey. As she focuses on her drawing, the child listens to her teacher talk about the length of the bird’s wingspan, the purpose of its long, sharp talons, what it eats, and where it lives. According to the brain lateralization theory that more divergent thinking occurs in the right side of the brain, listening while drawing helps distract and relax the student’s inner critic, expanding the reach and flow of new connections in her mind. Less intimidated or hypercritical in the art-making process, the child’s attention focuses on the charismatic creature she is drawing and learning about. The art lesson unravels into an engaged science lesson about the osprey’s ecological niche and life cycle.
“Art is more than a pastime,” says Alexander. “It can be an enabling portal for a number of academic subjects. The summer campers reminded me that art can have rhetorician value for students with learning disability or for whom English is not their first language. It can be a powerful equalizer and high-interest segue into all kinds of educational pursuits.”
One free, online resource to help educators tie art and creating writing activities in life science lessons to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards is the “Toolkit for Educators,” developed in partnership by Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, Portland Metro STEM Partnership, and Straub Environmental Center. The toolkit provides teacher-tested life science lessons plans that use Honoring Our Rivers (HOR) with the corresponding learning standards.
The HOR anthology, a program of Willamette Partnership, a Portland-based conservation nonprofit, encourages students to fall in love with rivers and express their connections to them creatively – through art, photography, poetry, stories, and foreign language – in hopes of naturally cultivating the next generation of watershed stewards for the Pacific Northwest species and communities who depend on these vital systems.
Educators who integrate river-watershed-themed art and writing activities into their lessons can not only stimulate the creative minds of their students in an engaging educational way but give them an opportunity to be published statewide by submitting their work to HOR. The program also hosts student art exhibitions and student reading events across Oregon.
Educators can also learn more about nature-themed art instruction at HOR’s upcoming workshops at the Coastal Learning Symposium this Oct. 14 at Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Teachers have the power to encourage the creative capacities of our youth while addressing the increasing disconnect between children and the outdoors. HOR exists to help them accomplish this feat. For more information, visit www.honoringourrivers.org, or email email@example.com.
Tess Malijenovsky is the coordinator of Honoring Our Rivers: A Student Anthology, a program of the Portland-based conservation nonprofit Willamette Partnership. Prior to moving out West, Tess was an environmental journalist and the assistant editor of Coastal Review Online in North Carolina. She studied Creative Writing and Spanish at the University of North Carolina Wilmington
Maria’s Eye: How do we empower it to engage and understand her world?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING writer and contributor
f I could imagine the best possible classroom in the world, it would be one in which each student is empowered to look out into the world, see something which catches her attention, then know what to do to find out about it. Students engaged, involved, invested, and empowered in their world. My mind’s eye expresses this dream as one of a salmon fry darting quickly into a thick growth of periphyton on a fist-sized cobble, as Maria’s eye turns up and the corner of her mouth sets its sails toward a smile. That, not checking off a cell in a table, is the moment of learning that we teach for. That tells us that all is going to work out; we’ll accomplish this unit, and be ready for the next; empowered to accomplish whatever comes down the road.
How do we recognize that moment, and what do we follow it up with? So far, all of the work on science standards hasn’t clarified an answer to that question. Go to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) website (http://www.nextgenscience.org/) and look for teachers’ resources. And for teachers’ in-service opportunities. What do you find that is cognizant of how teaching and learning actually happen? That offers in-service training on using active learning to engage students in self-directed inquiry. Perhaps we need to work on this ourselves.
How did Maria’s eye get to the place where it turned into anticipation, and an incipient smile expressed a clear message that she was on the way to understanding? Something in her environment invited Maria to explore a concept, and her brain did the rest. Something her teacher anticipated and organized within her students’ work environment so they would engage it. Not a simple thing to do. It takes knowledge, time, confidence, and experience to do this well. And competent mentors. (For about twenty years, I did science inquiry workshops for teachers which began with a casual observation that I hoped would lead participants to notice something. Each time, to the very last I did, this is the moment I felt that this time, it wouldn’t work. Each time it did, and my experience was the thing I relied on the most to trust it would. Takes courage! And experience.)
When students engage the real world, the one outside the classroom, and discover questions embedded in what they find, that process turns on their brain, engages the prefrontal cortex (pfc), and real learning begins. When they do this in partnerships or groups, the medial pfc adds to that learning power by engaging the negotiation of meaning with its power derived from the social interactions involved in exploring, then recognizing a question. Quickly, the whole brain becomes actively involved, and new conceptual understandings are reinforced in long term memory. Can teachers learn to use this wonderful, built-in resource?
How can environmental educators help get them out here? How do we get departments of education (unwieldy bureaucracies) and legislators to recognize the need and support it. Perhaps we can pilot a project which first describes what teachers need in order to appreciate and understand how active learning works, and why. Then provides the in-service support teachers need to feel confident with the content they are teaching, and comfortable with all aspects of delivering content via active learning.
There are educators who routinely use active learning to deliver content – environmental educators. They teach in places which are interesting, and where students can initiate learnings with real-world, concrete objects. A good way to start a learning activity by engaging the brain, especially the pfc. A nice five-to-ten day summer workshop, followed by mentored field trips to nail down specific learnings. What might this pilot look like?
Some teachers are already delivering content via competent active learning. A large number of environmental educators are doing the same. What if we could gather a few of each for a few hours to discuss the idea of helping teachers become comfortable with active learning, and comfortable integrating and aligning their deliveries to their state’s content standards? There are large regional environmental education learning centers which have the infrastructure to support workshops. A collaboration between teachers, environmental educators, and environmental learning centers might have the capacity to deliver a pilot project. I like to think in terms of the long run, so add a comment that this would be a three-to-five year pilot in which initial participants would, where feasible, mentor new teachers each year, periodically review progress and tweak the project, and present their work and findings at annual teacher and environmental education conferences.
It doesn’t take many people to make positive change. I’ve learned over the decades that they simply have to start.
This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”
“Mr. D., that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”
The trials and successes of a classroom without walls
By Greg Derbyshire
he above feedback, made by a grade 8 student, is one of many similar comments made to me by students and parents who recognize and appreciate the opportunities provided by outdoor experiential education. That’s why I took students outdoors when I was a classroom teacher. Not for the accolades or ego stroking, but for the knowledge that I reached many students in a way that can’t be done inside the walls of a classroom. Few of us need to be informed of screen-time statistics when it comes to our modern society. A growing body of research is supporting what many of us know inherently, and the long-term impacts of the loss of exposure to the natural world are mounting. We now know that connecting with the natural world benefits many aspects of our being. Physical, social, spiritual, and mental health improve when we spend more time outdoors. Bullying decreases, ADHD symptoms are reduced, and social and cultural barriers diminish. For many of us, we know that we have an obligation as teachers to expose our students to the outdoors; it may be the only opportunity many of them get.
The last class of my indoor teaching career was one of the nicest groups of grade 7 and 8s I’d had the pleasure of working with. They were energetic, creative, and enthusiastic. They weren’t, however, good listeners. During the first couple of weeks of September, I tried to help them develop better listening skills.
The usual strategies didn’t work; being late for gym class bothered them, but didn’t change their attentiveness.
With some trepidation then, I prepared them for a study of our schoolyard and the adjacent vacant land. The grade 7’s would investigate biodiversity for the Interactions in the Environment science unit and the grade 8’s would review the above, plus collect plant and water specimens for investigation with microscopes for the Cells unit.
Prior to going outdoors, we reviewed the expectations. Each small group would carry a clipboard, worksheets, scrap paper, pencils, measuring tapes or metre sticks and numerous zip-lock bags for collecting samples. Members of each group were to stay together and work together, solving problems on their own if possible.
I knew this class might be a bit challenging in an outdoor setting because of the struggles we’d had with listening skills in the classroom. But it was much worse than expected. Groups split up, metre sticks were used as swords, pencils got lost, and worksheets didn’t get filled out properly. And, that was just in the schoolyard! With thirty years as a classroom teacher under my belt, and with considerable experience at outdoor education centres, leadership centres and summer camps over the previous thirty-five years, I had no idea a group could be so frustrating. Despite the schoolyard behaviour, we moved to the adjacent vacant land and continued our study. When we finished our work and lined up at the school door to go back inside, I shared with them my dismay at their blatant disrespect for their peers, for me, and for the learning opportunity, which they had just spoiled. I told them that I had never had such a challenging group in all my years teaching outdoors, and that my experience that day was much like trying to herd cats. They knew Iwas upset, so they followed my instructions to return to class, sit down,open their reading books and remain silent.
I sat down at my desk to plan my lecture on respect and listening skills. After fifteen minutes, I asked for their attention.
Instead of my lecture though, I instinctively asked them to share what was good and what wasn’t so good about their outdoor learning experience. A few students offered the correct observations about poor listening skills and a general lack of following instructions. A couple of students suggested that the hands-on learning was a lot of fun. Then, the comment I’ll never forget: “Mr. D. – that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”
I paused. It was obvious that many other students felt the same. “Why then,” I asked, “were you so out of control out there?” It took some time, but some students shared that they seldom, if ever, went outdoors for anything but recess and gym class. They just couldn’t control themselves with the perceived freedom; it was too much like recess, despite having clipboards and worksheets in hand.
Even with this frustrating outing, the learning that followed was substantial. We spent many quality hours preparing plants for pressing, identifying species, mapping study plots with species variety, comparing schoolyard plots with vacant land plots, preparing slides for looking at samples through microscopes, identifying microscopic invertebrates, and preparing reports for presentation. Just one afternoon of outdoor learning provided plenty of extended learning opportunities in the classroom, and set up anticipation for future forays into outdoor experiential education.
In fact, the outdoors became our classroom without walls. Students began to ask if we could go outside to learn. We did. Over the course of the year, we left the classroom for language, math, history, geography, science, physical and health education, and the arts. The outdoors became a natural place to learn. And they became better learners as a result.
Benefits, Barriers, Basics and Beyond
As suggested above, there are dozens of benefits to outdoor experiential education. Students get more exercise, they socialize more, co-operate more and learn more.
They are exposed to new venues for learning where staff can share their expertise. Some students, who might find desk learning a bit of a struggle, shine in the outdoors; they often take leadership roles in groups – something they would not normally do inside. In my experience, students become motivated to work well together so that they don’t lose their outdoor learning opportunities.
The different venues open up different ways of learning. Most will know of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, (Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,1993).
There are now nine recognized intelligences: logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential. I am convinced that outdoor experiential education can support and enhance all nine intelligences.
Recently in education, differentiated instructionhas been touted as the way to reach more of our students. Take them outside, then! Some will thrive. Some will be challenged. All should benefit in their own ways.
There are, however, a few barriers to taking classes out regularly. A single permission form for a year of local outdoor excursions may not be allowed at some schools. On the other hand, many schools and boards are moving toward being “paperless,” so trip-specific permission forms could easily be completed electronically. Depending on administration, specific school and classroom compositions, the availability of volunteers may be a barrier. None are typically needed if you are staying on school property, and possibly if you are going “next door.” Other outdoor resources within walking distances would require volunteers. Individual schools and boards will have their specific requirements.
As is suggested by my “herding cats”experience, individual class dynamics will impact on the quantity and quality of outdoor experiences. Teachers must recognize the uniqueness of each class and the individuals within it, and plan accordingly. The reality is, some classes may not be able to get out as often as others. Regardless, the benefits of outdoor excursions will be palpable.Whether you’re a novice outdoor educator who needs support, or the experienced teacher who can provide that support, there are a few basics to keep in mind. The list below is a starting point. Adjust it as you see fit for each activity to suit your specific needs. The more experience you get at this, the easier it is.
- Get to know your local resources, (schoolyard, woodlots, vacant land, urban studies opportunities, talented parents or other adults in the community who might be able to help you with specific aspects of outdoor learning).
- Get to know your board and school policies and procedures for outdoor excursions; complete any required paperwork. Perhaps a generic permission form for occasional excursions close to school would suffice for those outdoor teaching opportunities that present themselves throughout the year.
- Arrange for volunteers, if needed.
- Know your students; what are their strengths and limitations?
- Plan the activity for your chosen curriculum area and topic, and gather materials and supplies.
- Carry out that plan; take those kids outside!
- Debrief the students to find out what they liked and didn’t like, and what they understood and didn’t understand. This feedback will prove very useful for future outings.
- Do follow-up activities to solidify learning.
Beyond the basics, here are some ideas for developing a network of outdoor educators within your school and district.
- Consult with colleagues to learn the basics.
- Share your ideas and experiences at regular meetings.
- Create outdoor activity resource documents specific to your schoolyard and local resources, (saved on your school’s server, of course). All teachers can contribute to it.
- Combine classes for some of your excursions. This is one way to team up experienced and inexperienced teachers, and more appropriate student groupings may be easier to arrange.
- Be an advocate for outdoor experiential education whenever you can.
So, why bother?
From my years of experience in the outdoor education and recreation sectors, I’ve seen what a difference going outdoors can make. Beyond all the wonderful benefits stated in research, there’s something that happens to children when they spend time outdoors. Their eyes soften. They begin to see the world in a different way. They’re more centred and at peace. They discover a part of themselves they didn’t previously know. What more could you want for your students?The bottom line is, if you don’t make the small effort to take your kids outside, who will?
Greg Derbyshire is a recently retired classroom teacher with the Grand Erie District School Board in Ontario, Canada. His many and varied outdoor interests and pursuits continue to occupy much of his time. More recently, his interest in promoting the benefits of outdoor experiential education has inspired the creation of a new venture, It All Comes Naturally.
This article first appeared in Stepping Into Nature, a publication of The Back to Nature Network, a multisectoral coalition oforganizations and agencies working to connect children and families with nature. The Network was established with the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation through a collaborative partnership between Royal Botanical Gardens, Parks and Recreation Ontario and Ontario Nature.
Wolverines, Wonder and Wilderness
Why the Wolverine Matters to a Kid Who Has Never Seen a Raccoon
by Megan McGinty
IT IS APRIL AND I AM SITTING UNCOMFORTABLY on the cobbles of a gravel bar on the Skagit River in the North Cascades National Park with a group of local fifth graders, talking about the special rocks we just found. Ranger Paula arrives and greets us, asking the kids about their day and if they’ve seen any wildlife on their hike this afternoon. Excited, they all talk at once, clamoring to describe the chipmunk that ran across the trail and the robin they tried to take pictures of as it flew into the canopy. Paula begins to talk about the wildlife research being conducted in the park by scientists and asks the children “What animal would you most like to see while you are here?”
At this last, my answer, the kids all turn and stare at me quizzically. Paula laughs and explains to the kids what a wolverine is and that they require a large amount of wilderness for their habitat. “How do you know they exist?” one asks. “Good question.” replies Paula.
For many of the kids, these two nights in a paved campground, using a bathroom with flush toilets and running water, eating out of a group kitchen with a gas stove and a refrigerator (albeit at picnic tables under a roof with only two walls), will be the most rugged outdoor recreation experience they ever have. For nearly all of them, the most pressing environmental issues they will come to terms with will be economic, as the area’s historically resource extraction-based industries dwindle. There is less land, less water, fewer trees and not enough fish available for these kids to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. Some of the students are already coping with the effects of illnesses caused by exposure to pesticides, industrial pollutants, lead in their drinking water and a myriad of other difficulties resulting from low-income residency. Given the realities of daily existence for some of these students, the fact that they are living within two hourís drive of one of largest areas of wildernesses within the contiguous United States is of little importance to them. Or is it?
Wilderness has long held a role in Judeo-Christian culture; its effects are still felt each year as millions of devout practitioners observe Lent. A significant portion of modern American culture still grapples with the issues raised by wilderness, from literary classics such as”The Call of the Wild” to the hit TV show “Survivor”. Many aborigine cultures used wildlands as the foundational setting for rites of passage and seeking insight. As we began to define ourselves as human and civilized, we also needed to label that which we were distinguishing ourselves from. It seems that as soon as man began to exist, so did wilderness.
Environmental education first came about as a movement when conservationists and educators recognized the effects of an increasing disconnect between society and the natural world. The need to rekindle that connection inspired efforts to get kids out into the woods, to take them out into the wild, because that’s where “real” nature was. It was assumed that a big part of the reason for the growing alienation from nature was due to the fact that there was no nature worthy of inspiring a connection in the cities and suburbs we live in. As school budgets tightened, the likelihood of such field trips and opportunities became scarce. At the same time, many thinkers began exploring the connections made to the natural world during childhood and realized that for many kids, it happened in the more common places such as vacant lots or backyards, places that they were allowed to have daily contact with. Educators began to wonder if the connections being made had less to do with the “wow” factor than with intimacy and immediate relevance.
Recent trends in environmental education have rendered the phrase ìplace-based-educationî a hot term, and rightly so. More curricula are available that allow the local schoolyard or drainage ditch to be a laboratory for ecological study. Innovative teachers have devised lessons that allow even the most urban settings to serve as the source for environmental theory. Students living in heavily-impacted areas are now more likely to be exposed the concepts behind environmental justice than to a canned curriculum about the Brazilian rainforest. By bringing a concrete (literally) relevance to the students’ daily lives, environmental education is being brought closer into the fold as a valid academic discipline.
The problem is this: wonder thrives on apparent irrelevance. I think of my friend Diego, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the South Bronx. When he was fifteen, he went to a wilderness program in the Appalachians for students from the South Bronx High School who spoke English as a second language.
Incredibly out of place in an alien land and culture, he fell in love with climbing and returned to the program as an intern and later as a staff member. He now spends his free time in alpine wildernesses and climbs in some of the most remote parts of North America.
In this more recent vein of locally-focused programs, many kids are not introduced to the large chunks of land and water that are todayís wildernesses. This is often done with the assumption that this is best for them. Every educator is charged with the task of assigning importance to some lessons over others. The best educators begin with assessing what their students already know and where they are coming from.
There are many students with a wide range of experiences, so a sort of middle ground is aimed for, that is, the lessons are designed for the greatest commonalities among the students and the experiences they are most likely to already have. To be sure, Diego is an anomaly, but he is also an example of a student that flourished by getting a chance to see the wide world beyond his backyard.
It can easily be argued that a wilderness area isn’t needed to teach a group of fifth graders what watershed they live in or where their food comes from. A significant number of environmental education programs never reach a point where wilderness issues become pertinent and of those that do, there is rarely room in the curriculum for the issue. However, an educational program that is not prepared to address the question of wilderness is limited in its ability to handle the larger philosophical questions that environmental education tends to beg. (Should we preserve lands? Which ones? Why? What is ‘preservation’?, etc.) Even though the instructors often have to work with constraints such as lesson time, program length, or student background, they need a solid fundamental philosophy from which to base their lessons in order to effectively grapple with the more abstract aspects, the “big questions” of environmental education.
As we make lessons more real and connect them more intimately to students’ daily lives, we must not forget the importance of the great unknown. Appealing to the sense of wonder, to the promise of discovery, is of essential importance when convincing future generations to become active conservationists. When we introduce schoolchildren to the mysteries of their backyards, we cannot answer every question, nor should we try to. If they receive the message that all the answers have been found, that everything is under control and fully explained, there will be no reason for them to continue discovering and questioning.
By presenting the backyard as what it is, a test case, a fraction, a tightly bound series of parameters that can only serve as the roughest of sketches for the great ecological mysteries of the wildlands, we are giving them the most honest of lessons. No longer are they schoolchildren on an outing following a curriculum designed to lead them towards a predetermined outcome. They have been initiated as citizens of the planet who will play a role in shaping its future. How these kids will feel about their role in the environment can be decided by whether or not they know or don’t know that there are places on the planet where human impact is not yet a primary shaping factor.
Environmental issues cannot be conveniently contained with the boundaries of a city, state or even a country. Instead, they ignore the abstract divisions we have attempted to draw and reinforce the interdependence of ecosystems on both big and small levels. We need clean air, clean water and healthy soil, and preserving the areas that are still reservoirs of these things is as important as cleaning up the areas that are dangerously contaminated. Letting kids think that recycling and picking up litter will be sufficient to address the current and pending environmental issues is not far from lying to them.
The value of something beyond that which we know and see in our daily lives is of absolute importance when trying to convince people to work towards a goal that does not have immediate or tangible results. Kids need to be encouraged and to believe their efforts will have results, but we should not deceive them about the magnitude or pace of environmental progress. They will need inspiration for the work that lies ahead, be it in the form of a magnificent photo in National Geographic, a video of an amazing rainforest or tales of strange and fantastic creatures that live in remote wildlands.
When I was young, before I could read very well, one of my favorite books was a Dr. Seuss volume titled “McElligot’s Pool”. The story is simple: a farmer is teasing a boy named Marco who is fishing in McElligot’s Pool, a small pool in the middle of a cow pasture that people throw junk into. He thinks Marco will catch nothing but an old shoe. Marco concedes that the farmer may be right, but wonders if the pool could be connected to an underground river that flows to the sea. He imagines the progression of the secret river that connects the puddle to the great sea and the increasingly more bizzare creatures that live there. As a kid, I was absolutely captivated by the idea that the mundane things in my backyard could be connected to bigger, more exotic things that lay far beyond. Suddenly, pretending to be exploring the Amazon while catching and identifying spiders in the vacant lot next to my friend’s house did not seem quite so farfetched. In fact, it made the spider-hunting seem less like playing and more like training for someday exploring the great unknowns that still remain in the wildlands.
Megan McGinty lives in Bellingham, WA and is an Environmental Educator with North Cascades Institute. Photo by Benjamin Drummond.