TRIPLE IMPACT: How Nature Education Can Change the World

About the Author

Dr. Jared Schlenker has been a secondary principal in North Dakota for the past 8 years, currently serving as the Central Middle School principal in Devils Lake, ND. He began his career in education as a high school English instructor, teaching for 9 years prior to becoming an administrator. Jared enjoys running, reading, and raising his two children with his wife Debra. He completed his doctorate in education in December of 2014 from the University of North Dakota.

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.

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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.”

Additional Reading and Resources

THE UNCOMMON CORE: Schools, Wilderness, and Supporting the Natural Resilience of Young PeopleGIVING EDUCATIONAL IMMERSION NEW MEANING: Wetlands as the Ultimate Classroom


  1. I dream of developing a curriculum for outdoor education, but I need help. I have a degree in biology, so science is easy. Can you offer some resources to find lesson plans and curricula to include math, social studies, etc?

    • There are just tons of resources for you. Here are a few but keep looking and do a curriculum search in your State or Province for local resources. Book- Natural Curiosity, Into Nature resource download at Forest School Canada resources at Council of Outdoor Educators on Ontario at and Forest Schools Canada resources at

    • I am not sure if it would be possible, Laura, but I am one of the teachers out at Sullys Hill, and I invite you to come and visit our site. I just finished my thesis developed around the question, “Does authentic math instruction in an outdoor environment affect students’ attitudes toward math when compared to students in a traditional classroom setting?” I would be willing to share several outdoor math lessons developed around our unique environment. Dr. Schlenker is right when he says this outdoor setting is “…just right for education.” I am so thankful our administration and community supports this experience for fifth graders!

  2. I am gratified that Mr Schlenker feels the way he does. We need more like him.
    I am in a position to give testimony to the effect that Nature has had on me since childhood. My parents introduced me to Thornton Burgess natural history books, featuring Ready Fox and Peter Rabbit. I grew up in suburbia in Rhode Island. It was the eastern painted turtle that blew my mind. I killed more than one eastern painted turtle in a zinc-coated wash-tub! But, I learned that it was important for me to be able to make a place, which the organism would like and not leave, like I saw at the Cincinati Zoo. As a kid, for my birthday, we would take the train to N.Y. City to see the American Museum of Natural History. But, it was the Chicago Field Museum that years later, really “did it” for me. As far as I was concerned, the turtles were living gems featuring rich, in-depth colors. Now, in the case of the western painted turtle, I swoon at the orange, merging to red! When I drive by log-filled ponds, I always look for painted turtles! I recall with vexation the callousness of my peers when they thoughtlessly-tossed shopping carts into swales and slowly-moving streams. Shopping mall construction disturbed swamp soils and encouraged the growth of bright orange, iron-reducing bacteria, which I did not see along areas not influenced by such disturbance. Later, I learned the abandon of canoeing. I say abandon, only to highlight the intensity of the present when esconsced in real Nature. Packing for canoeing involves anticipation and planning for a different time of physical demands, where one must live in the moment and accept the challenges and exhilaraton that physical and biological Nature throws at one. I do not know why one feels more alive in Nature — it must have much to do with our biological origins. When I was ten and we moved to Pennsylvania, I discovered the mid-West and Fireflies! I fell in love with the Little Lehigh river and would travel 60 miles in one day on my bike, fortunately for me, gracious Pennsylvania Dutch descendants catered to my physical thirsts and flat tires and invited me to know their foods and allowed me to see their stone buildings with 24″ walls to keep occupants cool, even on the hottest days.
    In high school, I was allowed to do a book report on Edwin Way Teale’s “North with Spring” — she wonderfully allowed me to do the rest of my reports on, “Journey Into Summer”, “Autumn Across America” and “Wandering through Winter”.
    Later, I papered my bedroom walls with scenes of the Quetico-Superior, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, north of Ely and read avidly of books by Sigurd Olson. In college, when I wrote a voluminous term paper on predator-prey relations, show-casing wolf studies, beginning with Durward Allen and his Isle Royale wolves and proceeding to aerial reconnaisance and “CSI” autopsy studies by his student, David Mech, I began to become excited by animal behavior and Nature’s balance, at times enigmatic and leaving one frustrated, but then, upon reflection, nearly achieving perfection at last in a utilitarian way of thinking. Since then, I have realized that when wolves “hit the trail” to do “territorial” rounds, I realize that 15% of the time, the pack achieves success in a kill and that one fact may explain why wolves have been able to evolve and be counted among us, still. This gives “heart” to a young man going out on his own to stake a life. Then, I began reading Loren Eisely’s “Immense Journey” and Aldo Leopold’s, “Sand County Almanac”
    Later, in Peace Corps and near where the great rivers of the Amazon come together, I was far from the polluted rills of Rhode Island, but learning about the roar of an exotic amphibian from Asia, which had colonized the whole watershed!
    Now, I realize that tribal peoples everywhere are hemmed in by strange cultures that would wrest tribal natural resources — Home by brute force and do so in an anti-egalitarian fashion.
    Now, climate change, created by our own anthropocene activities threaten to engulf us all in fairly short order. It is as though we are in a current battle of nip and tuck with the possible portend that technology may just barely keep us ahead of factors which are currently eliminating beings we have hunted and grown-up with, now alas caught up in the Sixth Extinction. Was Paul Ehrlich right? Are we no more capable of controlling our fate than yeast in a sugar solution?!


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