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Get Out: Educators Need to Nurture an Interest in Nature

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer
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I've read too many articles about students who, during a field trip to a park or wilderness area, were frightened by unfamiliar noises or the possibility that some beastie might creep up and devour them. It depresses me to think that many children -- and even supervising adults -- are so alienated from nature that they consider the outdoors to be an unpleasant or even hostile environment. Even more depressing is the fact that their aversion to the Great Outdoors is often learned behavior.

I've camped and hiked enough to know that kids, and adults, often resist outdoor adventures because the last one was marred by poor planning. Did you ever become disenchanted with the outdoors by a family or group camping trip because someone forgot to bring mosquito repellent, sunscreen, or the proper equipment? Were you turned off by hiking as a child because you were led on a forced march over rocky terrain in your Converse sneakers and without enough snacks or water to help keep you going?

Happily, I did not suffer such misfortunes during my developing years -- and today I'm an avid outdoorsman, an experienced hiker and backpacker. Yet I'll wager that many of you are reluctant to spend much time exploring and enjoying nature because your early experiences led you to believe these types of discomfort are inevitable when you strike out beyond the city limits. But I suspect many students would eagerly frolic in meadows and splash in streams and charge up hillsides -- and discover and observe and experience natural phenomena directly, not through a book or a video or a microscope -- if they were given a chance (and if their teachers modeled ease, enjoyment, and enchantment in the outdoors).

Teachers can -- and must -- help give kids this chance. If future generations are to appreciate the fragility of our ecosystem, the therapeutic effects of fresh air, clear water, and pristine vistas, and the sylvan symphony of lilting birdcalls, flowing streams, rustling leaves, and more, it is imperative that they be exposed to nature in an organized manner in which they can truly enjoy the experience.

When I was a teacher, I followed a colleague's recommendation that I take my class on an overnight trip to Slide Ranch, a 20-acre sustainability-oriented "teaching farm" on the northern California coast that is literally sliding into the ocean. It was rustic, not wild, but my students and I had a kick playing on the grassy slopes, beachcombing, and baking bread outside. As you anticipate the return of spring, I heartily advise you to plan such an outing with your class before the school year is out.

What efforts have you taken to introduce your students to nature? If your school is located in the heart of a major city or in a resource-poor community, sharing your triumphs would be especially valuable to your fellow educators. Whether you've led a kindergarten walking field trip to a large urban park or a weeklong high school backpacking trek (yes, it's been done -- I saw it with my own eyes in rugged alpine wilderness), tell us what you've done to get your students into the outdoors. Please also share your recommendations about outdoor-education programs.

And when you have some free moments, read in these articles about what author Richard Louv calls nature deficit disorder: "Take a Hike: How to Make Being Outdoors In" and "Into the Outdoors: Curing Nature Deficit Disorder." Or find out how children are learning to take responsibility for their school's outdoor environment: "How Does Your Schoolyard Grow?: A Green Playground Extends the Classroom Outdoors" and "Garden of Eating: Middle Schoolers Grow Their Own Lunch."

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sofia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Children are amazed by the miracle of nature much moire than adults who have grown conditioned to the convenience of indoors.

I teach first grade in Tanzania, and am grappling with how to extend education into the phenomenal vastness outside of our classroom. I teach on the foothills of Mount Kilimajoaro, and just miles from the Serengeti. Yet, I haven't yet thought of an appriate, educational and safe way to give these children a glimpse of the beauthy of their environment.

Elvin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. I wish more students would get involved in nature. Even the science classes want take field trips because some believe it is a hassle to watch the kids. There is so much kids can learn from nature. Kids nowadays wants to play games on the computer and not go outside. I know times has changed since I was a little boy. However, nature hasn't and it is a great learning tool. I agree with you totally.

Diann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find my (elementary) students are very interested in nature. They are so curious about the weather's changing climate. They are always thrilled to go outside, but in unfamiliar territory their imaginations seem to run wild. Once I taught a little boy, who stopped wanting to go outside for recess, he was in kinder. The play area was surrounded by woods. I started asking questions about why he was afraid. He told me that his best friend had been fighting invisible skeletans. I told him that This was not real. He responed with conviction to his illusion by stating he saw his friend hitting and kicking the skeletans. However, there were no skeletans. Sometimes, students with vivid imaginations need to be reassured of a safe environment, but yet, still remaine cautious of realistic dangers.

Wilvana Mesidor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my preschool classroom, we have plants growing. Every year around spring time we take field trips to Home Depot and other places with gardens where the children learn about different plants and trees. We also allow the children to plant dfferent seeds and watch grow right in the classroom and at the end of the school year they get to take them home and continue taking care of them. It amazed me that none of my returning students were able to keep their plants alive, I guess the parents did not really reinforce what we taught the children about taking care of plants. This year I going to create a monitoring chart for my returning students so that the parents can help them in keeping their plant alive. In our playground at school, every spring we section off a corner where we uld woplant our seeds and everyday the chldren would come and water it. They always seem to have fun doing just that.

Wendy Dykes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How true!! I tell my students on a regular basis to play outside rather than being cooped up playing video games. We as adults generally spend the majority of our time inside. After reading your passage,I've decided to practice what I preach and get them outside! I did that a lot more when I first began teaching and somehow it gradually stopped. Thank you for your ideas!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your blog! I find it to be complelty disheartening when students view the outdoors as either a chore or an inconveneicne to their "normal" everyday lives. I am a High SChool Environmental Science and Oceanography teacher located in the heart of the New Jersey Shore. I make it a point to go outside whenever the weather permits, whether it's taking a nature walk around our local pond, indetifying native plants and trees, or dissecting a skate ray that we found on the beach. Whenever I mention a field trip to my class they always light up with anticipiation. I believe it really brings what we are discussing in class to life.

Carrie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like your blog. I am a firm believer in having students outdoors as much as possible. I also work at a summer camp and it drives me crazy when kids say they do not want to go outside. We need to make a conscious effort to expose children to nature and teach them that nature is a wonderful thing.

Sherrie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading all the comments about getting kids outside. I am a Physical Education major, and have personnaly always enjoyed outdoors. When I taught Middle School P.E., we did most of out activities and games outside. The kids loved it! They use to hate to see it rain, cause they knew we would be staying in. I think it leads to a much healthier lifestyle, and can enhance lifelong rewards.

Kelly E's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with the points made in your post. It seems as though the days of play outside have vanished, and the "wii" and DVD's have taken over our student's time...

I'm a vocal/general music teacher at the secondary level, and I do take my choirs out to sing when it's nice out. Not only is it great to just get out and enjoy some fresh air, it gives students a new experience when singing (or anything, for that matter). I'd love to take my 7th grade music students outside...especially since their attention span quickly dwindles when they're concentrating on how nice it is outside.

After reading your post and the responses, I think I will brave taking my African drums outside for my 7th graders to enjoy. (once snowy NY turns sunny again!)

Thanks for the insight!

Jill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree in the importance of getting students and the teachers out of the classroom to explore, grow and learn. I live in a rural area and could not imagine what it would be like to live in a city without nature at your doorstep.
I do not yet have a classroom of my own yet, but I hope to incorporate nature into my lessons as often as I am able. In college we went to an outdoors learning center for a day and discussed ways that we could use nature as we teach. I loved every minute of it. We went on a scavanger hunt, met trees, learned to isten like deer, it was so amazing!
During my time student teaching I tried to incorporate outdoor activities into the lessons I taught. A few of the opportunities I had are described below. One day we went on a nature hike to collect leaves for a math lesson, another day we went outside to play leap frog. I made up a board game of sorts to help the kindergarten students begin to learn about counting on. The game had lilypads and frogs that leapt over each other to find the right number. We also played the actual game of leapfrog, sadly the students had never seen the game played or even heard of it. I always thought the game of leapfrog was a classic that every child knew.
Once when I was observing at a pre-school the students were able to see a young fawn hiding in the grass behind the playground.
I am always amazed at the wonders that we can learn from nature. It is so important that we show students that nature is not something to be feared but cherished.

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