One afternoon, a friend was hosting a backyard barbeque for some neighborhood families. A child called out to the other kids: “Let’s go down to the creek.”
The group of kids ran toward a small stream at the end of the yard. “No, stop!” cried one of the parents. “There might be something down there.”
My friend, standing at the grill, was speechless. Finally, he said, “But that’s the point. There might be something down there.”
I tell that story often to illustrate the fear that parents feel these days, and because it suggests an opportunity for teachers, including out-of-school educators, especially those who wish to weave nature into their work. Yes, there are risks outdoors (though not nearly as many as the news media would have us believe). But the indoor lifestyle carries its own psychological, physical and spiritual risks. So does the classroom-bound approach to education. Out-of-classroom learning, after school or during school hours, can be summed up philosophically with that sentence: There might be something down there. Something wonderful.
I meet teachers around the country who, whether they’re classroom or out-of-classroom educators, are determined to get their kids outside.
Sometimes they’re environmental educators. Sometimes they’re language or art teachers who take their students out to write poetry or draw under the trees. Sometimes they’re biology teachers who insist on taking their students to the creek at the edge of school grounds, where they can actually meet life in person. Sometimes they’re after-school educators facing enormous odds, yet still yearning to bring their kids to nature, or nature to them, and sometimes – sometimes – succeeding. These teachers, and principals, and even school board members are sailing against the wind in an era when recess and field trips are likely to have been cancelled. They take their students outdoors anyway. We call these educators Natural Teachers. And we honor them.
Still, we hear this mantra: Children should be in the classroom for longer hours each day, for more weeks of the year, and take more tests. That approach just doesn’t seem to be working, particularly in science learning. Perhaps we should take another approach. During the summer and other out-of-school time, rather than immersing children in the same experiences they already have in the classroom, offer them an entirely different learning environment – one that research suggests stimulates all of the senses, grows a sense of wonder, and engenders a sense of humility. Nature connection doesn’t have the same impact on every young person. It’s not a panacea for education. It’s a doorway. That’s what a growing body of scientific evidence suggests.The new mantra might be: Want your children to succeed in life? Tell them to study hard and then go outside and study differently. Encourage them to explore the edge of the yard, get to know the wild animals of nearby nature, use all their senses, connect to the universe beyond the electronic bubble, stretch their imaginations and their bodies, and pay attention.
At events across the nation, and in other countries, too, teacher after teacher has said this to me, sometimes almost word-for-word: “The troublemaker in my classroom becomes the leader when I take the class outside to nature.” Not just better-behaved. The leader.
Today, how many future leaders are we losing because we strap them to a screen?
A few years ago, I was moved by a photograph on the back page of a magazine in San Francisco. It showed a small boy at the ocean’s edge, his tracks receding in the wet sand toward the water. Beyond the sand, one could see a gray sky, a distant island, and a long, even wave in the beginning of collapse. The boy had turned to face the photographer. His eyes were wide and his mouth was open in an exclamation of discovery. He was a picture of joy.
This powerful black-and-white image was accompanied by a short article explaining that this child had a problem — he was hyperactive and could not pay attention. Because he disrupted the other students so much, his parents withdrew him from the school. At first, they did not know what to do. But they had already seen how nature calmed their son and helped him focus. Over the next decade, they seized every opportunity to introduce him to the natural world — to beaches, forests, and dunes as well as to the streams and mountains of the American West. The little boy turned out fine. The photograph was taken in 1907. The boy’s name was Ansel Adams.
What if Ansel’s parents had not given him the gift of nature? Would he have given us the gifts of his photography — the dome of Yosemite and the moon rising over Hernandez, New Mexico, and the deepest reaches of the Grand Canyon — all those iconic images that have helped shape the modern conservation ethic and stimulated the imaginations of generations of young people, not only about nature, but about the wonder of being alive? How many children like Ansel are out there right now, who could give us great gifts in the future, if we give them the gift of nature?
In urban parks and community gardens, creeks and ponds behind the schools, vacant lots, beaches and lagoons, national forests and natural schoolyards, the Natural Teachers we honor use their whole communities and natural environments as their classrooms. They do for their students and our children what Ansel’s parents did for him.
Because there might be something down there.
Richard Louv is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. He is the author LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE. His newest book, VITAMIN N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life in urban, suburban and rural communities. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.
C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network
C&NN’s Natural Schoolyards Initiative
C&NN’s Research Library, including a report on research on nature and learning
The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation
North American Association for Environmental Education
More reading and viewing:
The School of Nature: 8 Ways to Jumpstart a Great School Year with a Dose of Vitamin N
A Challenge: Make Your Local School the Best in Your State (or Nation)
The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need
Thriving Through Nature: Fostering Children’s Executive Function Skills, a new publication from C&NN, 2015
A Nature-Based School Gets Results in Georgia
Nature Pedagogy International Association
ANTSY ANSEL: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature
Photo credits: Pixabay; San Francisco Magazine, Sept. 2004; Ansel Adams, Wikimedia