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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Get Out: Educators Need to Nurture an Interest in Nature

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

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 Edutopia.org 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."

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Jennifer Couch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with your blog. I teach in Orlando, Florida and although we do have local areas to hike and camp, many parents don't do this. They would rather take their children to a local hotel to swim, rather than the beach or a lake. I grew up in Northern Michigan, surrounded by woods, countryside and beach. Being surrounded by these things my whole life, it kills me to have my students ask me what the word "woods" means. They don't understand that it's the same thing is a forest.
If parents would take there children on nature vacations, rather than Disney theme parks, they'll learn a little more. They will appreciate nature. They will experience life outside of cement and plastic.
This school year, I was incharge of coming up with one educational field trip. Rather than taking them to the science museum (which is fun, don't get me wrong), we are taking them to a butterfly garden; outside in nature! I feel like this will be a field trip for them to remember.

Jill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you that getting kids outside and learning about nature is so important. I grew up in rural Tennessee where being outside half the day was normal for us. Now, I live in suburban Atlanta, and it is not uncommon that children have never even planted a flower. My school as recently become part of our county's "Clean and Beautiful" group. We are actively recycling, taking better care of the school grounds, and are asking the parents to turn off their cars while they wait to pick up their children. These are small steps, but every little bit will help our environment.

I always try to make an effort to get my class outside especially in the spring to see the changes occurring around them everywhere. It really seems to give the students a new sense of excitement.

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mark,
Slide Ranch looks like a wonderful place. I would really love to work as a teacher there!I am also a nature enthusiast and want to help children to love and cherish our natural world. I enjoyed reading your article. Keep up the great work teaching.

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In Connecticut there is a partner to " No child left behind". It is NO child left INSIDE! The great outdoors has so very much to offer in terms of education. It enhances critical thinking skills, develops awareness, and in general provides an outlet for discovery. Yes, let's get the children outside!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have taken my kindergarten students to the Lorrimer Sanctuary in Franklin Lakes, NJ. It is part of the Audubon Society. It has amazing and appropriate field trips for children and families. The students learned about the parts of a tree and used and old fashioned apple press to make cider. It was fun. We are looking forward to future trips there in the spring.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I took my class to the Lorrimer Sanctuary in Franklin Lakes, NJ. It is part of the Audubon Society. They have amazing trips for schools and families. They are very appropriate and child friendly. The students learned about the parts of a tree and used an old fashioned apple press to make cider. We are looking forward to more trips in the spring.

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