INDOOR EDUCATION FOR OUTDOOR LEARNING? What's wrong with this picture?

About the Author

Joseph A. Baust, Sr., is Emeritus Professor/Director of the Center for Environmental Education at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. He has also served as co-chair of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) Committee on Accreditation, with the National Council for the Accreditation for Teacher Education (NCATE). He is the recipient of the Walter E. Jeske Award, the highest honor NAAEE bestows.

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.

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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?

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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

Other Reading

“Sitting is the New Smoking”

Udeskole in Scandinavia: Teaching and Learning in Natural Places

Let’s Create Green Havens that Reduce Toxic Stress for Children and Teachers

Smart Pills vs Nature Smart

Are Schools Breaking Children’s Spirits?

Every teacher can be a Natural Teacher: Add Vitamin “N’ to your classroom

Download C&NN’s Natural Teachers eGuide


  1. Wonderful article. Nature is essential to a healthy soul.

  2. Important critique. Particularly when it comes to poor populations, it is quite common for these students to be totally unfamiliar with forests, oceans, mountains, and indeed, actually afraid and uncomfortable with these settings. In some inner city settings, even the grass in play grounds has been replaced with concrete or rubber.

  3. We just completed our 15th year of pre-service teacher training using Project Learning Tree and the SFASU Mast Arboretum to provide the outdoor teaching experience for both face-to-face students and on-line students in the elementary education program. Each pre-service teacher receives PLT training in either a traditional workshop or Hybrid of traditional & on-line training, develops lessons and presents them outdoors at the Bugs,Bees, Butterflies & Blossoms event. Each pre-service teacher works 2 days presenting 2 lessons, 8 times . This year 100 pre-service teachers experiences 3,200 K-3rd grade students over 5 days. This fall we will provide the same opportunities for pre-service teachers at the Texas Freshwaters Fisheries Center suing the same format teaching about wetlands for students in grades 4-8. Pre-service teachers receive training in Project WILD Aquatic, WET or Flying WILD.This project is in its eigth year. By creating partnerships university teacher training programs can provide excellant opportunities for their students to experience teaching outside. For more information on these programs contact Dr. Alan Sowards at Stephen F. Austin State University or Dr. Cheryl Boyette , Boyette Consulting

  4. Herb Broda

    Excellent article!! As teacher educators, we must introduce outdoor learning techniques as part of our preparatory curriculum. Thanks for your wonderful insights!

  5. Great article Joe! Great to see you are remaining active.

    And, thanks Cheryl for offering some remedies for the problem. New teachers who are at least exposed to the ideas, techniques and benefits for teaching outdoors at least enter the profession with a bit of preparation.

    We need to do at least two things: 1.) compile a much longer set of examples for preparing teachers–perhaps here at C&NN; 2.) encourage people in the professional training of teachers to give their students the experiences (by example) and training necessary through articles and presentations at conferences.

  6. Joe, Thanks for the insightful piece. I’ve just come from a meeting with a principal where we discussed this very conundrum. We’re going to try to tackle it under the twin banners of “community partnerships” and “engagement.” Your commentary is heading her way!

  7. This is exactly why the Texas Wildlife Association L.A.N.D.S. program offers various Teacher/Volunteer Workshops throughout the year. Teachers who have the opportunity to experience first hand what they will teach in class are much more confident and enjoy helping students learn!

  8. This is very true in Texas too. I ran a nature center, we did lots of sensory lessons, the center still exists, but they do far more classroom activities, but outdoors.

    As I got older and closer to retirement I found that parents were as clueless and as inexperienced about nature as their children. In my generation we flocked to the woods to climb trees, play with mud, and splash in creeks. Now parents seem to fear this.


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