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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."

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Comments (26) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jill Abbey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also grew up in a rural area, I had some friends in college that were from an area near D.C. It was interesting to see how our views of nature and the country life were concerned.
My family went on some family vacations while I was still in highschool. We always went tent camping. We would pack up our car and go to see the wonders of nature around the united states. Our trips were usually a mixture of battlefields or historical sights and national parks. I am so thankful for these opportunities, It was time well spent with family, and learning about nature and the history of our country. I say give me nature over disney any day!
I hope your students enjoy the butterfly museum.

Jenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work in an area that has access to plenty of outdoor resources. Our science teachers are constantly taking their classes to nearby state parks, creeks, and even around the school property, which has a pond. The students are always excited when they have the opportunity to go outside. When the weather gets warm, they begin begging me to go outside. In math, it is sometimes difficult to come up with a logical and productive way to get the students outside. I am hoping to find more in the future.

On another note, I sometimes see the opposite problem. A fair number of our students live on farms or in the woods. They have a good outdoor experience, but they do not have the best communication and life skills. Some of them have no idea what the city is like. Although I prefer the fresh country air, I think that students need a mix of experiences.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with so many of your comments and the fact that students should be exposed to nature to not only enjoy it, but appreciate it as well. With the continued development of land for residential and commercial use, you begin to hope that nature is available for students, as well as adults, to experience.

Kathy Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the importance of acquainting students with nature. When it is too cold or snowy to go outside, why not bring a little nature inside. I brought a blooming Amaryllis to school a couple of weeks ago. My students were amazed to find out it was real. Of course, they all wanted to touch it!

Crystal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hadn't really thought about this issue until I read your posting. I live in a rural area, and for the most part the students I work with love to go outdoors and would love to experience nature in its most natural form. The only problem we have is getting the funds necessary to take the students on a field trip to nature.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your blog. It is so important that our children discover nature and understand the great urgency of helping our planet. I am guilty of not taking my students outside enough and explaining nature but this blog has inspired me to find reasons to take my students outside and explore.

Jenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A few years ago, I took a graduate course called, Teaching With Nature. I learned so many neat activities to do in my classroom that I never thought about. Our instructor bought in very neat and practical activities and games that you could do with all age groups. I think it is very important to bring nature into the classroom as well as getting our students outside learning about their environment as much as possible! One activity that I do at the beginning of the school year is called a non-nature walk. I place object outside that do not belong and then make a bingo sheet for my students to use to find the objects that do not belong in nature. Since I have younger students, they need the visual. For older students, you could place teh objects and have your students find them, make a mental note, return to the classroom and write down all the objects they noticed and see who saw and remembered the most objects. This activity does a wonderful job of keeping my students aware of objects, like litter, that do not belong in nature and throughout the rest of the school year, we make sure to pick up any trash that does not belong outside!

Anne King's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wonderful blog. Just last week I took my fourth grade students to a creek (a drainage ditch) across the street from our school. We actually left test practice and stepped out into the real world. We had to climb over, around, and under things. We had such fun. We laughed and screamed and got quiet. We recited Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods", found a rotten log and moss and mushrooms and lichens, stepped in the mud, and almost fell in the creek! I believe sharing an appreciation of nature with our students will make a difference in the future. The following poem was sent to me years ago by my aunt. The last line really speaks to educators.

The Birthright of Children
by Dr. Henry Turner Bailey
by permission of Miss Elizabeth Bailey

All children should know the joy of playing in heathful mud, of paddling in clean water, of hearing birds sing praises to God for the new day.

They should have the vision of pure skies enriched at dawn and sunset with unspeakable glory; of dew-drenched mornings flashing with priceless gems; of the vast night sky all throbbing and panting with stars.

They should live with flowers and butterflies, with the wild things that have made possible the world of fables.

They should experience the thrill of going barefoot, of being out in the rain; of riding a white birch, of sliding down pine boughs, of climbing ledges and tall trees, of diving head -first into a transparent pool.

They ought to know the smell of the wet earth, of new mown hay, of sweetform, mint, and fir; of the breath of cattle and of fog blown inland from the sea.

They should hear the answer the trees make to the rain and to the wind; the sound of rippling and fallng water; the muffled roar of the sea in a storm.

They should have a chance to catch fish, to ride on a load of hay, to camp out, to cook over an open fire, tramp through a new country and sleep under the open sky.

They should have the fun of driving a horse, paddling a canoe, sailing a boat.

One cannot appreciate and enjoy to the full extent nature books, novels, histories, poems, pictures, or even musical compositions, who has not in his youth enjoyed the blessed contact with the world of nature.


Matt Fleming's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was literally born in a California Bay Area science camp. My father was the director and my mother the head cook. I spent the first 5 years of my life living in the Redwoods and I loved it. I still do not feel quite at home anywhere else - but as an educator - I can't seem to figure out how to afford property and a home there (dammit). But as I grew up, the doctrine of Outdoor Education was part of the air I breathed - at 6 I accompanied my father to his classed when he was a lecturer at the University of the Pacific. I still believe that getting kids out is critical. Everyone knows that we can't all afford week long residence camps anymore, lamentable, but so what? Very few schools are more than an hour or so from some big, green places - even wilderness. Take the kids out in big groups, design your own projects and curricula to build up to an climax with these trips - just get outside!

Larry Chip - 64839's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Another fun activity that is a big hit in my classroom every year, is to grow a pet TickleMe Plant from seeds and watch how the leaves fold one by one or all at once when Tickled! (They re-open in minutes!)
I found it a very successful and fun way to excite kids about plants, nature and science. When I was young growing a lima bean was one way to get children more interested in gardening and nature, for sure the TickleMe Plant is now the one plant that every Teacher should consider growing in class. I found the experts on this plant and many supplies and even a classroom TickleMe Plant kit here.

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