Exploration and Wondering

“Though we often see ourselves as separate from nature, humans are also part of that wildness.” Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. Few people have spent time thinking about our disconnect from nature. In the field of education, this topic surfaces at professional development conferences, during local school board meetings, and among teachers who wonder aloud, “What’s happening to our children?”

In 2016, I was given the opportunity to take middle school students into the woods nine hours each week through an entire school year. No one had to sell me on the idea. Thanks to Eatontown Township’s commitment to open spaces and natural environments my classroom became acre upon acre of woods. Three mornings a week, 20 degrees or above, barring lightning, my students are in nature with their waterproof notebooks, microscopes, specimen jars, fishing nets, and warm boots. They are learning with all their senses, receiving immediate feedback from their surroundings.

I’ve been asked, “Why go outside with students?” Simply: It’s good for them. “Aren’t you worried they won’t learn?” No. I am certain they are learning more than they would at a desk with the limited information from a textbook and an Internet search. The outdoors provides education across varied academic subjects through multisensory, hands-on, intellectual work. Being in natural spaces challenges children to take responsibility, regulate their behavior, understand their body in space, and build a teamwork mentality.  From this experience, I see the shifting of student leaders, as they share what they know, wonder, and want to try. There’s a balance in leadership, which allows each student to shine.

I incorporate risk-taking in nature, as children climb trees, scale trunks across the water, and track wild animals, currently an albino deer. Children need to be engaged emotionally to best retain information. “Emotionally charged events are better remembered—for longer, and with more accuracy—than neutral events,” John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.  When I tie the emotional to the social experience, I create a perfect harmony for deep learning, that involves peer to peer communication, stick-to-it-ness, and responsibility for themselves, their work, and the environment.

Biological development is addressed in my work with children. Think of movement as brain exercise. The more challenging, the better! Outdoor learning provides stress-reduction through aerobic exercise, which mitigates anxiety and depression. Moving through the woods strengthens the vestibular system, which improves balance as the brain is forced to create neurological connections across hemispheres. Experiences in nature contribute to executive function, as students predict, plan, and self-regulate behaviors and emotions. Outdoor education fosters entrepreneurial skills: independence, innovation, and critical thinking.

I use the woods for long-term Global Studies (History) role-plays; think of Settlers of Catan coming to life. Students adopt identities; embed themselves in the landscape, create ownership; learn about culture; exchange information; and problem-solve together. I provide dramatic play for middle schoolers, who still love to pretend. Role-play requires self-control, empathy, cooperation, collaboration, ownership, and emotional expression. All important life skills.

Recently, over many months, my students faced serious crises as they role-played a turbulent period in the life of the Lenape Indians. While in the woods, they encountered discussion and event cards I displayed in the trees. These sparked learning activities as I asked, “How did we get here?” and called on the students to take on roles. They examined maps of our region and recreated the world before Henry Hudson and following European explorers. As they engaged in re-creations they were asked, “What are you learning?” and “What are you practicing?” They built shelters, identified and classified plants, and traded goods. They encountered invaders with Dutch flags and trinkets and negotiated and traded. 

This study in the woods required reading comprehension, reflective writing, memorization, research, assessment of conditions and resources, understanding ownership and systems of government, and art. It also called on my students to negotiate, cooperate, collaborate, problem-solve, express empathy, and resolve conflicts. Students reviewed what happened and felt deep emotional connections. Since 2013, middle school students in this outdoor school have connected with nature, while joyfully studying watershed ecology, biology, American history, geology, geography, anthropology, animal science, etc. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn alongside your children and students in nature. It’s good for life.

Lesley Martin, MA, is an Outdoor Specialist and Teacher/Researcher to 6-8-Graders, and students studying French at Voyagers’ Community School in Eatontown, NJ. Lesley joined the team in 2016, bringing with her a variety of teaching techniques collected through her experience instructing French at Rutgers University and English at three middle schools in Paris. Her focus on immersive constructivist activities helps students acquire a wider and more innate understanding of all subjects.

Published by Peter Swain