A Reflection on Outdoor Education
By Jess Sweeney
Teaching is an occupation for eternal optimists and forward thinkers. As teachers construct lessons for each child, they aim to effectively prepare people for the knowledge needed at present and in the future. Creating ground rules and orienting students to the classroom is necessary during the first few weeks of a new school year. At best, a classroom is a safe space that lends a certain gravitas to the school experience, as teachers create a world of learning between four walls. What would happen then, if we took the walls away?
This is the premise of outdoor education – remove the walls and learn in nature. As many in this movement note, kids can’t “bounce off the walls” if there aren’t any. Since the 1950’s, outdoor education has been gaining steam around the world, and in the current pandemic it has been embraced as a healthier alternative to indoor learning. A growing body of research demonstrates positive student outcomes across all domains of learning. Teachers also appear to benefit from repeated exposure to nature, self-reporting decreased stress levels at work.
At Sedona Village Learning Center, our teaching team led by Executive Director, Shara Coughlin, is committed to educating some of our young learners outside. As the Nature Program teacher, I seek to enhance our academically challenging curriculum with hands-on projects in nature’s classroom. My intention in creating this experiential outdoor learning program is to forge deep connections between subject matter and the learner. I seek, too, to support the development of “ecophilia” – a bond between humans and nature. Our hope is that by working with nature everyday, our students will develop a moral imperative to protect it.
One of the biggest lessons we cover each day in our nature program is how to observe. We observe the critters that make our campus their home, we observe how we treat ourselves and others, and we observe the weather. Being outside for hours per day, one begins to notice the many “moods” of Mother Nature. Initially, some of the children were a bit anxious whenever the wind would pick up and the sides of our tent would blow inward. They have come to understand that unless we are in danger, we can choose to remain outside and work peacefully in lots of different weather. Being outdoors lends a new perspective, and encourages resilience and bravery. Now we have a saying, a kind of shorthand for when the wind picks up or it begins to rain – or even if a new critter comes to call: “tent life”. We observe, adapt, and keep on learning.
This week, I introduced a map-making activity to our students. We discussed why people use maps, and proceeded to make a personal map of campus. They drew our tent in the yard, and then considered what flora and fauna we have encountered so far. Their list included: rabbits, toads, hawks, butterflies, grasshoppers, junglerice, dandelions, and pigweed. We touched on units of measurement to calculate how close or far animals and weeds were to the tent and then sketched in prime critter-viewing sites and the best place to look for dandelions. The children checked their drawings against the many field guides we have to make sure they hadn’t missed important details.
In a class without walls, I have observed that my teaching flows with the children’s discoveries – a hunt for pill bugs becomes a math lesson, a bird visiting our “mud kitchen” necessitates identification in our guide book, a sketch in nature journals, and a lengthy discussion about regional adaptability – and on it goes. As I see the children water the garden or watch the wind through the trees, I confess I’m momentarily swept up in a feeling that this is a perfect method for teaching any lesson. Then someone invariably spots a lizard and the calm moment is shattered in a mad dash for binoculars and the best viewing spot. It is then that I’m reminded that perfection is elusive at best, and nature itself is a more inspiring teacher than I will ever be.