For every profession there is a training component that includes providing experiences necessary to be able to know the craft. Surgeons work in the operatory as assistants and are mentored. Plumbers and carpenters spend time as apprentices even after an extensive time learning their crafts in technical schools.
Likewise musicians study music theory and history; but without an instrument, without practice and mentoring, they would not be able to play with any skill.
While all of these professions have examinations and class assignments, the critical part of their learning is actually doing the tasks of doctoring, plumbing, carpentering and playing music.
No matter what the job or position, it requires practice and experience to be able to put theory into practice; however, while the teaching profession provides many chances for working with children, there is no time given for teachers to experience and embrace the use of the outdoors and nature, so that they in turn can provide similar experiences to their students.
Evidence from researchers clearly indicates that physically, emotionally and mentally, children need nature/outdoor experiences on a daily basis.
Knowing this, beginning teachers may have some angst about taking their students outdoors. One reason is they have not experienced much of this in their undergraduate training. Teachers learning to be teachers may have been told a great deal about what they should do, but they may not have experienced these lessons before practicing them with children. So it is with using the outdoors and nature with children. One cannot be sure that using the outdoors or nature is even broached in classroom theory.
In an informal study of undergraduates training to become teachers, the following question was posed: “What did you enjoy most when you were in elementary school?” More than 84 percent of the responses related to experiences outside of the classroom. Yet there is a persistent problem. Elementary school children are not going outside. The practice of keeping children seat-bound, or at least room-bound, endures.
Accepting the fact that 96 percent of elementary children do not have a regular time to go outside during the school week, what is getting in the way of putting research into practice?
Most of the teacher preparation programs in the United States provide few if any experiences to use the outdoors/nature. In fact, as costs have increased in higher education, the proclivity to use on-line teaching as opposed to actual experiences has increased. This further increases the extraordinary amount of learning and leisure time spent in front of computers or television screens.
The data suggest that in spite of the widely shared view that learning is best accomplished by hands-on, minds-on experiences, there is less and less occurring. When there is substantially less time providing experiences that connect theory with action in a classroom, what can we expect from new teachers?
Why do teachers-in-training not have at least some preparation in using the out-of-doors and nature as a place for their students to learn?
Even those few teacher programs that have been created to provide skills related to taking children outside and into nature are being eliminated. Recently, when one such program was terminated, an administrator remarked, “Just take them outside of the classroom, that is enough.” The reason given for ending these nature experiences for teachers-in-training was budgetary problems. The statement was: “Finances, we may have to look at things differently….”
There are some skills that universities must provide, such as the use of technology in instruction, because these skills are realities of the times. Universities are also supposed to provide research-based programs and training that demonstrate to teachers how they can provide multiple environments for children to learn and grow. Yet, teacher preparation programs are increasingly seat-based, computer/television screen education, leaving out using nature and the out-of-doors.
When teacher-training institutions delete nature experiences, saying, “We cannot do everything,” our response should be that something this critical to the mental, emotional, and physical well being of children is not optional. Practice in using the outdoors and nature in education is an essential. Without it, a teacher education program is incomplete.
As a middle school child at Lone Oak Middle School in Kentucky wrote in his persuasive writing exercise: “How hard it is to learn outdoor nature activities indoors.” Indeed it is impossible! If we want children to use the outdoors there is but one solution. We need to train teachers to use nature in at least a portion of the learning environment they provide for children.
Classroom photo by BarbaraLN, Creative Commons
Outdoor activities photo © Nancy Smith