Not long ago I met some dedicated young women who were doing their student teaching at an impressive nature-based preschool. They made it clear that they’d love to pursue careers at similar schools. But they were discouraged about the prospects. Despite growing demand from parents, the number of nature-based preschools remains relatively low.
“Is there a business school at your university?” I asked. Yes, they said. “Have the business school and your education school ever considered working together to prepare future teachers to start your own preschools?” The students looked at each other. They had never heard of such a thing. Nor had the director of the preschool
Why not? Probably because it doesn’t exist. Bringing more nature experiences to education will be a challenging task, and teachers can’t do it alone. Higher education, businesses, families and the whole community must become involved.
That’s where the growing children and nature movement comes in. If, as an educator, you’d like to join or help lead the movement, here are a few ways to get started in your own school and beyond:
1. Get to know the research. Environmental literacy is essential, but that’s only part of the story. A growing body of evidence suggests that time spent in more natural environments (indoors or outdoors) can reduce the symptoms of attention disorders, and improve cognitive functioning as well as creativity, socialization and mental and physical health. Abstracts and links to original research for more than 300 studies on children and nature can be found at the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) Web site, as well as abstracts specific to educational benefits.
2. Join the Natural Teachers Network. “What teachers need to do is network on these issues, get ideas from each other, gripe about what is not working, and brainstorm solutions,” says Tamra L. Willis, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Graduate Teacher Education Program at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia. “There are many challenges related to taking kids outdoors, such as curriculum/standards integration, discipline, materials management, safety, etc. By networking, teachers can share ideas, support each other, and know they are not alone.”
3. Teach the teachers — and the principals, superintendents, and school board members, too. Many teachers feel inadequately trained to give their students an outdoors experience, and all educators need to know about the benefits to education and the opportunities that already exist. In challenging economic times, community resources may be tapped. For example, many wildlife refuges provide professional development programs that have been correlated to public school curriculum standards. But longterm progress will depend on higher education and the incorporation of nature experience into teacher education curricula.
Two great programs lead the way. The new Nature-Based Early Childhood Certificate program at Antioch New England even includes a Business Planning course by nature preschool pioneer Ken Finch. And Mary Baldwin College offers an environment-based learning (EBL) graduate programs designed specifically for educators.
4. Create a Natural Teacher Club. Robert Bateman, the famous Canadian wildlife artist, suggests that teachers and other educators create their own clubs that would organize weekend hikes and other nature experiences for teachers. Such clubs would not only encourage teachers experienced in the natural world to share their knowledge with less-experienced teachers, but would help improve the mental and physical health of teachers. These experiences can be transferred to the school.
Added note: one study shows that educators who get their students outside are more likely to retain their enthusiasm for teaching. It can be an antidote to teacher burnout.
5. Green your schoolyard. Studies suggest that school gardens and natural play spaces stimulate learning and creativity, and improve student behavior. To get started, learn about C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities Initiative. Download the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide. Tap the knowledge of such programs as Evergreen in Canada, and the Natural Learning Initiative in the United States. Also, see a worldwide list of schoolyard greening organizations, including ones in Canada, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. And check out the book “Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation,” by Sharon Danks.
6. Bring nature to the classroom and library. Start a Salmon in the Classroom project or similar endeavor. In Participating students receive hundreds of hatchery eggs to care for in classrooms. Students learn about life histories and habitat requirements and later release the salmon into streams they have studied. Similar programs exist in other countries, Canada. (Some schools, worried about salmonella contamination, don’t allow any animals in classrooms. Still, hands-on nature teaching can offer teaching moments, such as: Wash your hands.) Public and school libraries can also become Natural Libraries, serving as hubs of bioregional learning and helping connect students and their families to the natural world in the communities in which they live, including the most densely populated urban neighborhoods.
family nature clubs, introduce students to nature centers and parks, and sponsor overnight camping trips. Or, school districts can follow Norway’s lead and establish farms and ranches as “the new schoolyards,” not incidentally creating a new source of income to encourage a farming culture.) See the Farm-Based Education Network.7. Create nature-based community and family classrooms. An outdoor classroom is much less expensive than building a new brick-and-mortar wing. Schools, families, businesses and outdoor organizations can work together to encourage parents to create
8. Help start a nature-based preschool or charter school. Help increase the number of nature-based preschools as well as public, charter, or independent K-12 schools that place community and nature experience at the center of the curriculum. Resources include Green Hearts and Antioch’s Center for Place-based Education.
9. Establish an eco club. One example: Crenshaw High School Eco Club (led by the remarkable natural teacher Bill Vanderberg, who now teaches at another school), was among the most popular clubs in the predominately African-American high school in Los Angeles. Students went on weekend day hikes and camping trips in nearby mountains, and on expeditions to Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. Community service projects included coastal cleanups, nonnative invasive plant removal, and hiking trail maintenance. Past members became mentors for current students. Student grades improved. Lives were changed. To learn more, see the CBS Early Show report on Crenshaw’s Eco Club, which unfortunately no longer exists.Which brings us to the next point.
10. Help grow the children and nature movement. While educators can’t change the society alone, the truth is that too many schools and school districts fail to start or support good programs to get kids outside. That’s one reason why the regional and state campaigns around the country are so important: by building community support, they bring social and political heft to the table. These campaigns, especially with teacher support, also encourage parent-teacher groups can support schools and educators financially and by presenting annual Natural Teacher awards to educators who have engaged the natural world as an effective learning environment.
Just think what teachers, school administrators, superintendents and other educators could accomplish with a little help from, say, business schools — and from the rest of us.__________
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. His ninth book, VITAMIN N, will be published in 2016. He is currently working on his tenth book, about the evolving relationship between humans and other animals.
This piece originally appeared in March, 2013. Illustration courtesy of © Rob Shepperson
Thriving Through Nature: Fostering Children’s Executive Function Skills (a new publication from C&NN, 2015)
Nature Neurons: How Nature Experience Builds Brain Architecture
This is a sampling of resources available.