“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.
The Transformative Power of Wilderness Education
A graduate student finds an understanding of the effect of wilderness on the development of young people’s sense of self-worth
by Rory Crowley
n July 7th, 2001 I lie huddled in my sleeping bag, shivering as I survey the cloud of water vapor that floats above my head. It’s 2:00 am and sleep is distant; I realize that I am unprepared for my first solo backpack. I’ve brought a waif of a summer sleeping bag into the high-country, and as snow covers my lonely two-man tent and the ground steals away the heat, I shiver. The Nalgene bottle under my knees is cold; I pull it out, undo the top and gulp the cool water. I open the tent door and pour the rest of the water into my camp stove. I am boiling water for the fourth time tonight; I watch the blue flame in anticipation. I need a warm water bottle under my knees to keep the night bearable.
“What am I doing here?” I say to myself, echoing what I’ve been thinking all night. I have come to Cathedral Provincial Park to test myself but I have also come in search of wildness, to find something that a city cannot supply. I just don’t know what I seek.
The simplicity of wilderness travel attracted me to strap on the hiking boots for that solo and embark on a career in environmental education. Carrying everything I need to survive a week, and leaving behind the overabundance of technology and distraction. Wilderness travel requires simplicity because of the load limits of the human body. Furthermore, wilderness travel resigns the distractions of the modern world to the subconscious. Gary Snyder eloquently warns people who seek the wild that
“Wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It is easy to make a mistake that will bring one to an extremity. Practically speaking, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.” (Snyder 1990, 23).
During my first solo I was searching for my self-definition as an adult. Self-definition — ”defining, or interpreting ourselves to others, so that people in our social environment have a clearer understanding of who we are”— is a constant evaluation to see if our actions reflect our values (Williams et al. 1989, 170). I wanted to exhibit the “Mountain Man” persona as a symbol of my personal values. But there is also a cultural aspect; this self-image is desirable because the natural wonders of the wilderness are symbols spiritually and aesthetically unique to my Euro American culture. I came to Cathedral Provincial Park with a very anthropogenic goal. Unfortunately, like me at twenty-one, many “weekend warriors” do not go beyond the personal benefits of wilderness — views, peaks, the workout — disregarding their interconnections to the natural world. Learning is facilitated in wilderness when “the learning is necessary to solve basic problems of comfort and even survival” (Miles, 1987, 7). However, wilderness education needs to be sure to go “beyond the simple act of holding classes in the great outdoors” and embrace the experience and personal growth possibilities (Grumbine, 1999, 125).
Much of my summer (2004) was spent in the backcountry in North Cascades National Park. I was at the halfway point of a graduate program jointly administered by Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute. The Master’s of environmental education is centered on place-based education, leadership and non-profit administration gave me the opportunity to teach in the backcountry while fulfilling course requirements.
During a 6-night canoe camp, my co-leader and I took a group of participants, aged 14-16, up a difficult hike to the top of Desolation Peak and a fire lookout. Rob, the oldest and most experienced participant who had attended two previous camps, set out to try and summit Desolation, a peak that his earlier instructors had never attempted with their groups. After ten minutes of strenuous hiking Rob sat down for a drink of water. Gasping he said, “I am never hiking that fast again, it sucked.” At this point I thought to myself, “okay, I guess we won’t make it to the top, but we’ll make a day hike out of it.” I was wrong. As the group quickly started leaving Rob behind, I sent Rob’s best friend in the camp, Stan, back to hike with him. Stan talked Rob all the way to the top, reaching the lookout just thirty minutes after the rest of the group. The weary hikers were greeted by a fire raging in the distance, the lookout making her daily observations, a helicopter flying through the smoke, and the ghost of past lookouts.
About a month after the trip I received an e-mail from Rob’s father. Rob was doing really great in alternative school this year, especially in English class. Our lessons during the hike had centered on Jack Kerouac, who spent the summer of 1956 as Desolations Peak’s fire lookout. Our lessons, combined with the accomplishment of reaching the summit had convinced Rob to read both Desolation Angels and Dharma Bums. Most importantly, he had started writing. Although Rob said he hated hiking at the time, I am happy to hear that after some reflection he has incorporated some positives from the day into his daily life.
Rob was receptive to coming to the wilderness and striving towards self-improvement. His actions exemplified this commitment. The wilderness of Ross Lake differs from Rob’s daily hectic life in urban America. Contrast and attunement during time in the wilderness humbled and empowered Rob.
With increased visitation to wilderness areas as population grows, stress on our protected areas increases. As a result, programs that do not depend on the pristine wilderness should take place elsewhere. But if the program depends on the healing and restorative powers of wilderness the activity will be inferior elsewhere. In my opinion, Rob likely would not have received the same personal benefits if the canoe camp was on a local lake and the hike was on a less significant peak near his home.
During the summer of 2004 I also began to explore what it means to be a mentor and a facilitator. I tried to make the experiences I led as valuable as possible, exposing youth to wilderness’s restorative capabilities, while modeling positive behavior in the backcountry. Although a recent resident of the North Cascades, I have further sought to exhibit the qualities Barry Lopez suggests in his essay “American Geographies,”
It resides with men and women more or less sworn to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for the soil and history, for the turn of the leaves and night sounds. Often they are glad to take the outlanders in tow… they are nearly flawless in the respect for these places they love. Their knowledge is intimate rather than encyclopedic, human but not necessarily scholarly, it rings with concrete detail of experience. (Lopez, 1998, 132-133).
It was in this vein that I set out on successive hikes up Sourdough Mountain with participants from the Washington Conservation Corps.
“What are you doing Cait?” I yelled as I looked back to see Cait walking backwards down the trail. Cait, a member of the Washington Conservation Corps, was close to finishing a long day-hike to Sourdough Mountain lookout which included a talk with Northwest poet and fire lookout Tim McNulty.
“It feels like needles are poking into my toes! Like a thousand needles!” she shouted over her shoulder as she limped down the trail to catch up with the waiting group. “My stupid boots are cutting into my toes. Walking backwards makes it feel better.”
“What’s wrong? Do you want me to check for blisters?” I probed. We were still at least an hour from the trailhead.
“No, let’s just get down,” she said, tears swelling in her red eyes. “How long until we get down?”
“Ah… thirty-forty minutes…if you walk facing forward” I fibbed. We continued down the trail from Sourdough, one of the steepest and hardest hikes in North Cascades National Park, but also one of the most rewarding. From the fire lookout you can see six different river drainages; Ross, Ruby, Thunder, Stetattle, Big Beaver and the lower Skagit. We had an amazing day in the high country: blue skies, mountain flowers, views, poetry and writing advice. An hour and a half later we reached the vehicles and Cait immediately stripped off her dust-covered boots. Her toes were red, raw and inflamed but with no noticeable blisters. Her boots must really be terrible. Now in sandals, Cait soothed her toes in the cool river before we got into the trucks to go back to camp. Her feet will be fine tomorrow.
Back at camp I noticed that Cait was not at dinner. After climbing over 5,000 feet in five miles I expected everyone to be devouring their food. I tracked her down walking back from a payphone, her eyes red and swollen. She had phoned her boyfriend because she could not wait to tell her partner about her amazing day; so amazing she could not wait another minute to share it with him. As an aspiring writer, Cait met one of her idols and it has had a profound impact on her. It was at that point that I realized I had facilitated a day that Cait would remember for a long time. Cait’s amazing day can be summarized as experiential wilderness education.
Cait saw the hike up Sourdough was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Author Tim McNulty was in the lookout crafting his work. While at the lookout she observed his everyday tasks of a lookout. Cait understood the purpose of a writer spending time in seclusion and wilderness. Tim gave her advice of different techniques to make her writing better.
Since our hike Cait has had the opportunity to independently write and apply what she had learned. In a chance meeting she indicated her writing had never been better and that the advise from Sourdough was very helpful.
Cait and Rob exemplify the amazing metaphoric benefits to wilderness education. They have been able to apply the positives from the wilderness to their everyday lives. My time as wilderness educator has also been metaphoric for me as a leader. I knew wilderness could impact someone in a positive way, but I needed to actually witness a transformative experience to fully believe in the benefits of wilderness education.
Learning and teaching during my time working with North Cascades Institute causes me to reflect on my time huddled in my cold sleeping bag in the Wilderness of Cathedral Provincial Park. I was grasping for a connection to nature. The myth of the “Mountain Man” brought me to the wilderness, but the effect has been something deeper. For me wilderness has become a metaphor of a deeper connection to the land, a source of inspiration and, most importantly, a positive influence on me as a member of society, a citizen and a resident of the earth.
Grumbine, E.R., “Going to Basho’s Pine” ISLE, 6(2), 1990.
Krumpe, E.E., “Managing Wilderness for Education and Development.” Preparing to Manage Wilderness in the 21st Century, U.S. Forest Service, 1990.
Lopez, B.H., “The American Geographies” Barry Lopez: About This Life, Toronto: Random House, 1998.
Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as a Learning Place.” The Journal of Environmental Education, 18(2), 1986-1987.
Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as Healing Place.” The Journal of Experiential Education, 10(3), 1987.
Snyder, G., “The Etiquette of Freedom.” The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North point Press, 1990
Spray, R.H. & Weingert, P.D., “The Wilderness Environment: Training Wilderness Managers.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U,S, Forest Service, 1989.
Williams, D.R. et. al., “The Role of Wilderness in Human Development.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U.S. Forest Service, 1989.
Rory Crowley was a Graduate Student with Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and the North Cascades Institute. Funding was provided by the Skagit Environment Endowment Fund who support conservation, stewardship and education in an around the Washington and British Columbia’s Skagit Watershed.
Forest Schools and the Benefits of Unstructured Outdoor Play
By Deanna Fahey
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
t is snowing outside and you’re getting your child ready to go to kindergarten. While other children may be wishing for a snow day so they can play in the snow, yours is excited to go to school! Why is your child unique? Your child attends a forest school. Forest schools and nurseries are popping up around the globe and gaining momentum. Though these schools have routines that are wide ranging, they all have a common core: allowing children to experience the freedom of playing outdoors as part of their learning.
ROAD TO DISCOVERY
As a graduate student, parent and nature lover, I questioned why some adults choose to make decisions based on ecological consequences while others do not. After all, in today’s day and age, we all are aware of the consequences of our modern lives on the environment. On walks with our daughter, my husband and I spent numerous conversational hours chipping away at adult psyches trying to figure out an answer to this apparent quandary. There has to be some keystone event, I argued, in a person’s life that generates a concern for their environment as adults. During my questioning, I came across an answer. Through interviews, researchers have come to find that a direct, positive experience in nature before the age of 11 promotes a long-term connection to nature. However, given the state of today’s society, our children spend less and less time outside. What does that mean for our environmental future? It was during this time of questioning I was introduced to Erin Kenny, co-founder and lead teacher of Cedarsong Nature School. My husband had been watching Nightline when he called me in. There Kenny and parents were discussing the joys of sending their children to a forest school. I had to know more!
Friedrich Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Germany in 1837. The core of his curriculum integrated nature and play to provide children ages three to six a place to grow. Over time Froebel’s curriculum has morphed to become more academic in character and concern for children’s growth has been replaced by concern for preparation for elementary school. However, parents around the globe are uniting and fighting to bring nature back to their children. The result of this movement by parents is the reintroduction of forest schools.
Forest schools may fluctuate in their everyday routine but the core value of spending a majority of time engrossed in outdoor play remains the same. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (Ginsburg, 2006), play is essential to the well-being of children. The varied terrain of nature stimulates imagination, encourages creativity, and builds motor skills. Undirected play allows children to learn to share, work in groups and negotiate. Children involved in play face and conquer fears while self-esteem is boosted as obstacles are worked out and overcome. Play is so important to the overall health and well-being of children it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child (UNICEF).
In order for children to develop a love of nature, appropriate opportunities for interaction need to be provided. Too often in today’s society children know more about exotic flora and fauna from faraway places but have no idea of the beauty that lies right outside their own door. If children grow to adulthood with no love for, or worse yet a fear of, nature how can we expect them to become environmentally empathetic adults. According to White and Stoecklin (2008) children need to experience nature on a regular basis in order to develop pro-environmental values.
CEDARSONG NATURE SCHOOL
It was a clear morning as we drove through the forest on Vashon Island in Seattle. We were on the hunt for the elusive forest school. The sun glimmered off the dew hanging on the leaves, blinding us at times to the road ahead. Further and further we drove until at last we reached the end of the road. Where to from here though? Ah, just follow the sounds of the laughing children. We had reached Cedarsong Nature School. I was about to begin my journey into a school with no walls and where children lead the class instead of the teachers; a world virtually impossible for me to imagine but that I was eager to explore!
When I caught up with the children at Cedarsong, they were in the process of making some very delicious mud pies! The girls were covered head to foot in mud and they could not have been happier. They were standing in a circle chatting together over their work and discussing things only known to them. As I stood aside and watched, Erin Kenny, co-founder of Cedarsong, described to me how the children are the leaders of the day; their interests and observations dictate what will be learned. As a teacher myself, I questioned the logistics of this system. How does anything get covered when children decide what to learn? She told me how a random comment about tripping over a tree root can lead to a discussion on erosion and weather or the purpose of the roots of a tree to photosynthesis. The possibilities are endless! Changing seasons bring continual opportunities to track and record growth, and discuss hibernation and even death. New observations can lead to predictions, fallen trees and fungus can stimulate conversation on decomposition which can lead to discussions about habitats and niches. Teachers, it turns out, can just stand back and observe; it is from their observations that teacher’s take their cues of where to lead.
A boy had decided to explore a bit more of the area; Kenny and I followed leaving the girls in safe sight of the teachers. As we followed the child further into the forest my “inner child” was awakened and I wanted nothing more than to climb the nearest tree or jump into one of the many puddles. My senses were stimulated by the sounds of the birds and insects calling out their warnings of strangers nearby and I desperately wanted to search out the sources of those warnings calls! However, I was there to observe the children and not to indulge my own inner child so I turned my attention back to the child we were shadowing.
Further along the path the child had found a tree to climb. Though Kenny moved a bit closer, she did not flinch or move to stop the boy. I inquired about fear of accidents given the freedom the children seem to be allotted. According to Kenny not many children do get hurt— they learn and respect their own limitations. On the rare occasion one does get hurt, there are emergency protocols that all teachers are familiar with. Teachers are certified and stay current in first aid and CPR. Kenny’s experiences with accidents are similar to those from forest schools in Europe.
Marga Keller is the founder of WaKiTa, a forest daycare located in Zurich, Switzerland. Keller stated, “Experience shows that in forest institutions fewer accidents happen than in mainstream schools.” She clarifies, explaining that because the teachers consciously learn how to handle risks with the children and help them strengthen their own skills, the children can assess risk situations better. The children also do not feel the need to rebel against overly restrictive rules or prove their courage because the school actually puts this as part of the program: the teachers offer the children age-appropriate challenges.
Back with the main group, Kenny asked if anyone would like to lead a hike to show me the rest of the forest. All the children decided to go and we set off together. As we wandered through the forest, the children impressed me with their knowledge of the local plants and fungi. I was taken to forts and shelters camouflaged in the trees, the likes of which my own children would have gone crazy for! As we strolled on, the children dispersed to different areas of the trail and Kenny and I had another opportunity to discuss the school and the children’s role. “Children challenge themselves all the time in the outdoor setting,” Kenny told me. “They display great personal pride in their achievements.”
Each day is unique and brings new sources of inquiry and excitement! Children learn to work together and cooperate through imaginative play. According to Burdette and Whitaker (2005), when children play outdoors there is more opportunity for problem solving and creative thinking. The varied terrain and multiple stimuli which nature provides deliver the perfect environment for imagination.
As my time came to an end at Cedarsong, I felt encouraged with all that I had seen. The possibilities for incorporation of nature into the American education system seemed endless and the benefits for our future generations infinite!
Bringing Back Outdoor Play
Forest schools may seem ideal for the issues I was grappling with, but not all of our schools and children have access to nature in their backyard. Urban schools are at a distinct disadvantage for this type of schooling; however, there are schools working on solutions which could be sustainable for all urban schools. For example, Muscota New School, located in New York City, utilizes Inwood Hill Park and Bear Mountain State Park, making the most of the nearby outdoor areas available to them.
According to the California Department of Education (2011), environment-based education employs natural ecosystems as a context for learning. The “environment” may be a river, a forest, a city park, or a garden carved out of an asphalt playground.
It seems any environment can be employed as an area for incorporating outdoor play, opening doors for practical outdoor play solutions.
You cannot turn on the news today without hearing about school funding issues; yet funding concerns can be overcome through partnerships, grants and community volunteer days. Taft Elementary School in Redwood City, California, partnered with Hidden Villa, a non-profit outdoor education organization to create their school garden program. CitySprouts, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, partners with public schools to develop school gardens. Citysprouts also works to educate teachers on the integration of existing curriculum with their gardens. The Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant Program provides grants for large scale projects such as the “design, establishment and maintenance of a native-plant community such as prairie, woodland, wetland, etc. in an educational setting such as an outdoor classroom.”
Modifications select schools are making to outdoor immersion are providing sustainable and worthwhile results. Our children are gaining access to the outdoors, attaching to nature and initiating positive change in their well-being.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Even though forest schools may not be the catch-all answer I was looking for, they can be a viable solution to our children’s lack of outdoor play and keystone moments. For those schools without a sizable amount of accessible land, compromises can be made. Vegetable gardens are being employed to reinforce geometry sills, nutrition, life science and basic math. An extension can include cultural differences in gardening techniques and vegetable preferences as well as recipes, which of course can be utilized for basic math. Trees found on school grounds can be used to teach geometry, prediction, microhabitat, and chemistry. An ecosystem extension can be incorporated by linking with international schools to compare tree data; growth rates, circumference, etc. (sites such as Jane Goodalls – http://www.rootsandshoots.org/ are perfect for this type of linking). Logs and larger branches on the ground can be used for agility, microhabitat, decomposition, nutrient recycling, chemistry, prediction and even physics. Why are branches of similar size but different trees weigh different? Water sources – even puddles after a rain – can be used for chemistry, prediction, water analysis and physics. Have you ever wondered about the force of a foot splashing in the water and the correlation to height of the splash? Cultural stories and knowledge can be shared while observing and studying local plants. I for one have always wondered about the ability of plants to break rocks as the seeds grow. Sounds like a perfect inquiry-led question for a physics class. Ant hills can be an endless source of amusement and knowledge for younger children learning about habitat. Decomposing leaves on your school grounds can become the perfect place to discuss microhabitat, nutrient recycling and niche. Of course the simplest solution would be to get rid of the cement playground and replace it with a natural playground, one complete with grass, fallen and living trees and butterfly and vegetable gardens.
In our world today adults are making choices that are counter-intuitive to what is best for our environment. Without contact with their natural world our modern children will grow up to be less inclined to save the earth than some of us seem to be today. As adults we need to come together and give our children the access to nature they deserve. With the constraints of today a feasible solution to this problem is to bring back outdoor play to our school children!
Burdette, H. & Whitaker, R. (2005. Jan.). Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Vol. 159. Retrieved from www.archpediatrics.com at University of California – Berkeley
California Department of Education. (2011). School Garden Program Overview ; An overview of the school garden program including its impact on children’s health, nutrition, and academic achievement. Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/nu/he/gardenoverview.asp
Ginsburg, K. (2006. May). Testimony of Kenneth Ginsburg, MS, MS Ed, FAAP on Behalf of the American Academy of Pediatricians. Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans. “No Child Left Inside: Reconnectiong Kids with the Outdoors”.
Keller, M. WaKiTa Outdoor Daycare
Kenny, E. Cedarsong Nature School
Moving Outdoors in Nature Act. Retrieved from http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=h111-6426
Muscota New School. http://www.muscota.org/
Rymer, B. (2009. December). Taft Elementary School’s Garden Program; A Case Study. Retrieved from http://www.redwoodcity.org/manager/initiatives/gardens/helpful/Taft%20Case%20Study%20Draft.pdf
The Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant Program. http://www.for-wild.org/seedmony.html
White, R. & Stoecklin, V. (2008). Nurturing Children’s Biophilia: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children. White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group
Tips for bringing students into the field: Strategies for success
By Joshua Klaus
Director of Academic Programs, Ecology Project International (EPI)
aking students into the field can provide an endless array of occasions to learn new skills, see theoretical concepts enacted, make connections, and learn about the world around us. Given the endless places that offer valuable learning opportunities, it must just be a matter of heading out the door for students to have impactful educational experience, right?
Though it would be nice if it were that easy, there are a few key strategies that will allow any educator (novice or veteran) to make the most of their time – before, during, and after their field experience.
Educators will have a higher likelihood of success if they keep the following things in mind:
• Go outside! The natural world offers limitless educational opportunities. Given the amount of time students spend in front of computers, screens, and isolated from weather, plants, and animals, exposure to the natural world is a fantastic way to engage students’ bodies and minds.
• Real-world projects: Involving students in applied research, service-learning, and conservation or community-related projects will give them a sense of connection to something larger than themselves.
• Find good partners: Working with established land managers, non-profit organizations, or government agencies can help provide additional resources, information, expertise, and motivation.
• Incentivize good work: Offer students school credit, lab hours, or community service credits if they meet or exceed your expectations while in the field.
• Have fun! Focusing on specific learning outcomes is a good idea, but balancing learning with fun, exploration, and freedom will increase the likelihood that students will have a positive, meaningful experience.
As the old adage instructs, failing to adequately plan and prepare often means planning for failure. Preparing students for a field experience is of paramount importance and should include setting clear expectations about goals and behavior, in addition to providing students with the tools, background, vocabulary, and knowledge necessary for success and high-quality outcomes. Advance preparation might include proper gear and equipment, safety protocols, practicing field methodology in advance, and providing a theme or integrating context for learning. At the very least, prior to heading into the field students should be given a structured opportunity to determine what they already know about a particular place or activity in addition to the chance to articulate what questions they have and what they’d like to learn. This could be as simple as asking students to draw a picture, make a list, or tell a partner what they know about a concept. Additionally, individuals could make a K-W-L chart, and the entire group could share the information in the ‘W’ column.
Adequate advanced preparation will help students stay comfortable, safe, and well-fed! By engaging students in managing risks they might encounter in the field – whether hiking on a trail or crossing a busy street – they’ll have a better understanding of the potential dangers they’ll encounter as well as the rationale for making appropriate decisions that will help keep them safe. When students understand why they should do something (instead of just being told they should) they’ll cultivate a deeper sense of ownership and personal responsibility.
Collaboration/ maximizing resources
Many organizations, government agencies, and companies are more than willing to host a group of visiting students. Call the local fisherman to take a tour of his boat, approach the university about a tour of the wet lab, or ask a conservation group to give an on-site presentation to your class about their restoration projects. Experts often love to talk about what they do and are happy to share their knowledge with students. When teaching in Oakland, CA one teacher took his physics class to a boat yard a couple blocks away and a crusty sailor taught them about mechanical advantage and pulley systems used for dry docking and offloading cargo. When the Pixar Studio in nearby Emeryville was under construction, his students crawled around the open foundation with a bunch of engineers who were delighted to tell them all about how they designed the building to withstand a 9.0 earthquake. Think creatively about what you consider a ‘field’ experience, and likely you’ll discover a long list of wonderful opportunities right within your community.
The wheel already exists
Talk to your local conservation group, nature center, government agency, or tourist outfitter about what you would like to do and ask if they can help. Many of these groups have some kind of educational mandate associated with their work, and if you can help them achieve their goals by involving your students in their work, they will likely be accommodating.
Go for it!
For beginning teachers, it’s a great idea to keep things simple until you establish a track record of success with your students and within your community. Start with small, accessible field experiences before making too large a commitment. That being said, despite the importance of preparation (as described above), don’t over-think your first field experiences. Once you’ve covered your bases and the basics, it really can be as simple as heading out the door. The world awaits, so don’t worry – once you get there, your students will thank you.
In Support of Outdoor School
By Merrill Watrous
“I not only learned about ghost shrimp and how to catch them, I did catch them. I not only learned what a chitin was and where it lived, I went out to where it was and petted it. Almost everything (at Outdoor School) was one step ahead of regular school. With the songs around the campfire there were just as many emotional parts as there were educational parts. I feel like I left a better person, more aware of the environment.” (Nick, age 11)
Petting an animal, singing around a campfire, and learning how to care for the environment — the value of these activities is not easily assessed according to current standards and benchmarks. I can provide no statistical evidence with this article to prove that the students who spent a week with me at Outdoor School scored higher on later standardized tests the next year than their peers did. However, research does indicate that integrating the curriculum around topics in environmental education is a powerful way to teach. The arguments I will present here in support of continuing to fund outdoor education are largely anecdotal, based in part on the words of children like Nick who were themselves changed by the experience.
How did Nick become a better person through Outdoor School? It is important to determine this for he was not alone in feeling transformed by it. To prepare for Outdoor School, we first read and wrote about the natural world. In public French immersion schools in both Canada and the United States, teachers often share students but not curriculum. Outdoor School brought me closer to my teaching partner because we became engaged with the same curriculum as well as with the same students. It brought my students closer to one another because they ate, slept, worked, and played in close proximity twenty-four hours a day. It brought teachers and parents closer to one another because we met often to organize transportation and materials before leaving. It transformed us all because, through the Outdoor School experience, we came together as a more cohesive community.
Loving the Science
Like Nick, Matthew loved Outdoor School and when he wrote to me about it later, he couldn’t help but enumerate all that he had learned.
“I learned about biodiversity, the amount of compressed oxygen in salt and fresh water, the inhabitants of the tide pools, the secrets of the estuary, the names of plants like salal and fruiticas lichen, and about mixed, diurnal, and semidiurnal tides.”
Matthew enjoyed the company of his classmates and the beauty of his surroundings but what made the week work for Matt was the science. Classroom science kits may have helped him to understand some of the basic principles of science back at “regular school,” but no lab could compare with the estuary as a learning environment.
One child who was less sure than Matt that he liked Outdoor School wrote about his character growing in spite of himself. Children, like adults, realize that sometimes we learn the most from experiences that challenge us. We spend a substantial amount of money in schools today in the United States on programs devoted to preventing violence through “character education.” If Outdoor School for my students was a place where they felt themselves becoming better people, a place where they felt themselves growing as human beings, perhaps this is one place we need to invest time and money.
We all took with us to Outdoor School for the week only what we needed to stay warm and relatively clean. Each child wrapped his or her belongings in black plastic garbage bags to keep it all dry as we took the barge across the estuary to the camp site. As simple as these bags were to pack, they were heavy to carry, and right away the strongest children began to help the weaker ones as we hiked up and down the dunes on our way from the landing dock to the cabins. After awhile, we got to know our cabin-mates from different schools and a few of our neighbors shared with us the fact that a store in their small rural Oregon community had chosen to make a gift to the class of garbage bags to take to Outdoor School. “Free garbage bags- what kind of gift is that?” I watched my students thinking, students who had never before in their lives had to consider where the money comes from to purchase such necessities as garbage bags. I was humbled myself when later on that first night another teacher shared with me how hard she’d worked to find enough warm and water-resistant coats for her students to wear to Outdoor School. (Every one of my children arrived at school regularly with a warm coat on a cold day.) At various times during that Outdoor School week, the children and I were humbled and inspired not only by the beauty and majesty of the wilderness around us but by the courage and determination of our bunkmates.
Learning to Conserve
Without television or video games to distract us, we shared time, materials, and our food with one another. Child after child wrote about the “great food!” at Camp Westwind. (The menu featured such gourmet kid fare as chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and PB and J sandwiches.) At mealtimes, we passed bowls of food and pitchers of milk from child to child, bowls and pitchers that could be refilled as needed. What was left at the end of the meal on the plates of the children and their teachers, however, had to be thrown on the compost pile after it was weighed, measured, and recorded: every day and at every meal. As the week went on and campers began to realize how much they’d been wasting, food waste was reduced by 90%. I watched children serve themselves applesauce an eighth of a cup at a time, gauging their hunger carefully before putting anything extra on their plates. Students not only learned to conserve food, they also learned to be responsible for their own possessions. At the end of each meal, we sang together, and staff members who had combed the beach and the woods for “lost” personal items earlier offered these items in song for reclamation. It was all done with a sense of humor, but it helped us to learn to be more responsible stewards of our possessions.
Funding Outdoor Education
When deciding whether to fund Outdoor School experiences in the future, we need to think about what we value as teachers and parents. Do we value teaching science in an integrated fashion so that we can maximize the number of students we engage? Do we value teaching students to be environmentally conscious in a way that will stick with them? Do we value teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationship building? If as teachers these are among our core values, then we need to see Outdoor School as something worth fighting for in the face of budget cuts.
Tokens and Rewards
I found Outdoor School to be a nourishing experience personally; I took away from it at least as much as it took from me. I remember buying quickly and thoughtlessly the day before we left a little packet of camping-themed stickers. I handed them over to the Outdoor School Principal at Camp Westwind on our first night so that all of the children participating in camp could “enjoy” them equally as journal decorations. She received them graciously from me and returned them just as graciously, unused, to me at the conclusion of camp. The anti-consumerist message of the camp staff was both consistent and heartening; there was no place within it for something as useless as stickers.
Individual efforts and team efforts were recognized from time to time at camp — not with stickers but with a song or with a “gift-loan” of a feather or a rock of unusual beauty to admire. The children learned to replace these feathers and rocks in the spots where they had first been found after admiring them. We spent hours creating sand sculptures in teams and then reduced them all to “sand rubble” in order to leave the beach as we had found it in its pristine condition before leaving camp. Returning the beach to its natural state was fun and it was exercise. We were moving all the time at Camp Westwind, and most of the children reveled in well-earned feelings of physical fatigue at the end of the day. They even complained pridefully about the hardships of camp.
“The cold hard beds, the early hours, and the long, tiring hikes. These are the reasons I liked Outdoor School. The early hours let you hear the birds chirping in the morning. At the end of the long hikes there was always a beautiful view. And the beds . . . well, there was nothing so great about the beds.”
There’s nothing so great about fundraising for activities like Outdoor School when public funds dry up, either, but it would not be easy to set a price on what my students learned at Camp Westwind. As Alex put it, the view at the end of the day IS spectacular. I’ll never forget it, or the children who shared its beauty with me.
Merrill Watrous taught Foundations of Education seminars and supervised teaching practicum students through the Cooperative Education Department at Lane Community College. Prior to that, she taught graduate level courses in writing for Pacific University and fifth grade at a language immersion school. She has also taught grades K, 1, 3, and 4 and middle school writers. She is the author of one book on the teaching of writing and art and numerous articles for such magazines as Learning, Instructor, Mailbox, California and Oregon English, Writing Teacher, Techniques, The Magazine of American History and others. She can be reached at Watrousm@lanecc.edu.