Occasionally I ask my students how many have visited the Cape Cod National Seashore, a national park of over 40,000 acres just a few miles from the school. Out of a class of 30 high school students, about 3 or 4 hands go up. When I ask how many have been to the Cape Cod Mall, every hand rises. This is not as unusual as it seems. There is a strong disconnect between many children and the outdoors today. Much has been written about this by several authors from educators to psychologists. And those of us advancing in years are quick to point out that the playtime we had as children was often electronics-free and mainly involved discovery outside.
That is one of the reasons why I have always had a strong outdoor component to all my classes. Nothing can substitute for direct observation and experience in nature when it comes to understanding how living things interact with the physical environment and each other. Of course all environmental studies require the use of technology and other resources. However, a student needs to use all of his or her senses to fully appreciate the natural world.
It’s amazing how little most people know of life in their own backyards and neighborhoods. One of the first activities I do in ecology is to ask students to go outside and learn the names of five trees, wildflowers, insects, and birds that they see. Then I ask them to make five observations about each of them. Even a common animal like a gray squirrel or a bumblebee becomes a source of new curiosity and discovery. I let the students use their own words to describe the structures that they see, or the behaviors that they observe. Later they learn the correct vocabulary that applies, but it’s more meaningful then because the students have already experienced the trait or characteristic through their own senses.
The outdoor classroom is one in which many interesting things are happening simultaneously. Students are able to be a part of their learning. It’s not something that is done to them, but rather it’s an experience in which they can directly interact. Young children are particularly receptive to this because they lack the biased view of the world around them that reinforces learned prejudices and false conclusions.
Students learn that the environment is fragile and diverse. A few minutes watching a spider weave a complicated web or an osprey fishing for its young in an estuary or a bee pollinating a group of flowers on a dune is one of the best ways to develop a caring and nurturing attitude towards the natural world. These young students will one day be given the task of stewardship of this world. They need to learn how to cherish, protect, and sustain these critical resources.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.