Even though I grew up on a farm in central North Dakota, I never seemed to appreciate the outdoors. (True story: I actually quit our local 4-H chapter because meetings were held on the same night that Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss were on TV).
It wasn’t until I became the principal at Central Middle School in Devils Lake, North Dakota, that I realized the importance of being exposed to natural settings, especially at a young age. Nearly 50 of our middle school’s 5th grade students are bused to nearby Sullys Hill National Game Preserve every morning until noon to receive instruction in math, science, social studies, and lanuage arts as part of an outdoor-themed nature education program.
My “aha” moment regarding the significance of combining a natural setting with school curriculum came while I was driving back to the middle school building after having witnessed the program in action. My exact thoughts were, “This is something that is just right with education.”
Although the program was in the first year of existence when I began at the school, the teachers who blazed the trail for this unique opportunity for our students were able to take their love of nature and educational expertise and construct a truly powerful learning experience.
Every morning at Sullys Hill starts with a daily “In the Moment” activity, where students stand or sit silently for 5 to 10 minutes listening, watching, touching, and smelling their surroundings. This is accompanied by an individual journal entry associated with their “moment.” This assignment is usually followed by lessons held in the classrooms within the game preserve’s visitor center.
Much of the evidence that Richard Louv presents in Last Child in the Woods indicating how being immersed in a natural setting enhances all senses, which in turn promotes more meaningful learning, is sincerely felt at Sullys Hill.
This immersion is exemplified in many of the activities in the program, such as kayaking, snowshoeing, ice fishing, archery, etc. Being involved with the Sullys Hill Nature Education Program as an administrator led me to base my doctoral dissertation question on what differences can be found between the perceptions of nature and wellbeing of the 50 students educated at Sullys Hill and the approximately 75 other 5th grade students educated in the school’s traditional setting.
A survey was developed and administered to the students during the last month of the school year, and the following 3 areas produced significant results that could have profound effects on how we educate our children worldwide:
Children educated in a natural setting have a greater appreciation for nature.
Although this is a seemingly obvious statement, the data from the survey shows that the program was able to substantiate this assertion. Survey items included statements such as “I like learning about what creatures live in lakes and rivers” and “The silence of nature is peaceful.”
Children educated in a natural setting are more inclined to make decisions that support the environment.
This finding may have the most impact when considering our global environmental issues. Again, this result would make sense considering the two groups involved in the study; nevertheless, if more students internationally had the same opportunity, the effect on our planet could be considerable. Survey items included statements such as “I wish I could donate money to help save the environment” and “The government must protect natural areas to protect endangered species.”
Children educated in natural settings have a more positive outlook of their overall wellbeing.
While prior research regarding nature and wellbeing does provide evidence that the two areas are correlated, I was surprised to discover a significant difference between the two groups in only one school year.
The wellbeing portion of the survey looked at student perceptions of their emotional, mental, and physical health. Survey items included statements such as “I am happy most of the time” and “It is easy for me to stay focused in school.”
Statistics that support the benefits of children being educated in a natural setting are important because they give credibility to a concept that may not be welcome to all in the educational field.
Won’t taking the kids out of the classroom detract students from meeting the standards? How will the students be able to pass the new state tests if they are spending the day kayaking or hiking? At the end of the first year of the program, I gave the students a brief survey asking their opinions of their experiences at Sullys Hill. The student feedback was overwhelmingly positive; however, one student did offer an area that he felt could be improved.
His response: “There’s TOO much learning going on.”
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