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."