“Grab your notebooks and a pencil. We’re heading outside!”
The thrill of those words. My fifth grade science teacher led us around the school grounds and dropped us off at different trees. The assignment was to spend time with the tree, write down what was living and growing on and under it, to sketch the tree and take samples. This would be “our very own tree” for the next few weeks, and we would return many times to practice the skills of observation, identification, writing, drawing, and mindfulness while bonding with nature. Smart teacher.
The year prior, my fourth grade math teacher knew that when he set our class free on the football field to estimate the number of blades of grass, he was providing an opportunity for kinesthetic learning, student independence/agency, group work, light exercise, while practicing the skills of measurement, estimation/reasoning, and so on. I hated math, but on this particular afternoon I couldn’t have been happier to participate. Any math anxiety, attentional challenges or boredom blew away with the gentle breeze, or were evaporated by the warm, good sun.
While these learning experiences still happen, they must compete with technology, which offers unlimited resources, quick answers, and instant connection to people all over the world with no bugs or poison ivy. Our kids are in awe of it- 44 hours a week in awe of it. Our dark secret as adults is that we are even more in love with technology. We physically cannot separate from our phones.
Something is happening, though, a movement whose time has come that will restore the balance of things. Perhaps you felt it during the pandemic, a slowing down of the human pace of life and an urge to observe and participate in the natural world around you. We began hiking with our families, paying attention to the birds that visited our yards, learning how to grow some of our own food and, in general, viewing nature as a safe space.
A movement is powerful and true when it benefits everyone. Outdoor learning benefits teachers and students, but it also benefits every human being who is depending on these next generations to understand our planet in a way that goes far deeper than scientific knowledge. And of course, outdoor learning (and outdoor play!) will benefit our Earth.
All the ways in which we teach students to respect, take care of, and stand up for one another, to be good listeners, to share, to think before we act- we know that this lays the groundwork for our young people to nurture peaceful and fulfilling relationships with other human beings. This is also how they can learn to cultivate a peaceful and fulfilling relationship with the Earth.
One-sided relationships never work. The Earth gives us literally everything we need. How often and in what ways do we thoughtfully give back to the Earth? What a beautiful question to pose to one’s class or to one’s child. A harder question is what are we emitting, leaking, spraying, even casually tossing onto and into the Earth without a thought of how it might be received and what the consequences could be?
Native American wisdom teaches about the 7th Generation Principle, that we must consider how every decision we make will impact people and land 7 generations into the future. A final question: can we meet our curriculum guidelines while engaging our students in stimulating and gratifying lessons that take place outdoors, all the while empowering these young people to become stewards of the Earth? We can, and what a joyful choice to make.
When we all thrive outside, we ensure that nature too will thrive.
Sheila Dobbyn is the Outdoor Learning Professional Development Program Director for Thrive Outside