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Must we always teach our children with books?” naturalist David Polis once asked, and then declared: “Let them look at the mountains and the stars up above. Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and flowers on earth. They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.”
While increased emphasis is being placed on the importance of digital learning to prepare for the future of our society and career opportunities
While increased emphasis is being placed on the importance of digital learning to prepare for the future of our society and career opportunities, a growing community is advocating for another educational paradigm—one in which students disconnect from technology and immerse themselves in nature. Outdoor Education can be widely defined, but generally is a form of experiential organised learning that occurs in an outdoor setting and typically involves “journey-based experiences in which students participate in a variety of adventurous, memorable challenges.” This style of learning has various benefits, from cultivating the relevant emotional intelligence needed for effective leadership, to developing the confidence and competence needed to persevere in stressful situations. Below we delve deeper into five of these benefits and provide examples, accounts, and research to illustrate them.
Increased Motivation to Learn
Although learning within the four walls of traditional classrooms has its uses, students can often become bored and primarily rely on extrinsic motivation to retain the content being delivered to them. When connecting education to
The Effects of Environment-Based Education on Students’ Achievement Motivation
the natural environment, students have context in which to place their learning, and the intrinsic motivation of teamwork and ecological preservation as fuel to increase their desire to study and engage with curriculum. In their study “The Effects of Environment-Based Education on Students’ Achievement Motivation,” researchers Julie Athman and Martha Monroe studied 400 9th-and-12th-grade students and found that motivation levels for environment-based education were higher than those in traditional classrooms.
Where does this increased sense of motivation come from? Simon Abramson is the Associate Director for Wild Earth, a non-profit in upstate New York that delivers outdoor education programs to young people and adults. He finds that their programs help to develop confidence and competence in students, which further fuels their learning. “We are using nature as a classroom, and students learn things such as ‘which plants can you eat? How do you make a shelter that is dry and warm, using only sticks and leaves?’ There is a confidence that comes from gaining those skills and realising ‘I can take care of myself and find what I need.’” By making a connection between learning and the real world, students feel an increased drive to understand the content they are studying.
Another example of a program that makes learning relevant via outdoor and environmental education is NYC Outward Bound. In once case study, they have utilised the Gowanus Canal, which is located close to several of the schools where their program operates. In a Salon article titled “Outdoor Learning: Education’s Next Revolution?” Carol Carpenter, the Communications Director for the organisation, explains: “Students learn about the canal’s water quality in science class, about the sociological effects in the humanities classes, and about the canal’s design in art class. We believe in field work, in getting out of the classroom and getting your hands dirty.”
Cultivation of Awareness
According to Louv, natural environments promote “involuntary attention” or “fascination,” which enables us to be more alert.
Author and environmentalist Richard Louv published a book in 2011 titled The Nature Principle, in which he argues that outdoor learning works because it “demands better use of the senses.” In an 18-month study of 800 military personnel, Louv describes how researchers determined that the best bomb-spotters were people who lived in rural environments and regularly engaged all of their senses. On the other hand, personnel who “were raised on Game Boys” as children did not have the ability to detect nuances in their environment and were focused on the “screen rather than the whole surrounding.” According to Louv, natural environments promote “involuntary attention” or “fascination,” which enables us to be more alert.
Simon describes how this value is instilled in the educational approach at Wild Earth: “Awareness is the core of how we teach; it’s the how. We are literally getting into our senses out in the woods and teaching skills with awareness-expanding games using peripheral vision, sense of hearing, sense of intuition, etc. Ultimately what our students are learning is how to be in the forest so they can know what’s happening on the other side of the hill even if they can’t see the other side.”
As a society, in order to make the shift towards lasting sustainable development, we will need to change the way we live and work. This will require new ways of thinking and shifts in attitudes, so the more education can lend itself to this imperative the better. It requires us to learn new approaches and attitudes for efficient use of our planet’s limited resources and get much better at thinking about, and acting on, the long-term consequences of our actions as well as local, national, and global consequences. As a pathway to develop this grander sense of awareness, Simon says that students “begin to see their own impact on the forest. When they enter the forest, the forest changes. We teach how to account for that and how to shift that by asking “How do you walk into the forest in a way that doesn’t change everything in the woods?”
“Direct experience of the complex interdependence of life on Earth enables reinforcement of the link between cognitive and affective learning, providing a bridge to advanced understanding,” says a report titled Taking Learning Outdoors published by the Scottish Government. “This gives learners a real context to explore, understand, develop and apply the values of wisdom, compassion, integrity and justice.”