NATURE AS TEACHER: A Transformative Experience

About the Author

Dr. Al Mijares was appointed as Orange County superintendent of schools in August 2012 and elected to a full term in 2014. He previously served for six years as vice president of the College Board, where he worked to expand the high school-to-university pipeline as part of an effort to promote college readiness and success for all students. Before joining the College Board, Dr. Mijares served as superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District for more than 11 years. Under his guidance, Santa Ana received national recognition for successfully meeting the needs of a large and diverse student body.

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Outside the urban glare of Los Angeles, we found a night sky packed with stars and a still silence interrupted only by the wind’s whisper and the chatter of crickets and frogs. It was different, yet familiar.

My father packed little more than a kerosene lamp, a small tent, and some fishing gear for those family camping trips of my youth. But it was never about what we brought or left behind. It was about immersing ourselves in the natural wonders of Southern California’s mountains, forests, and beaches and discovering that we were connected to something bigger.

Whether we were on a KOA Campground or Refugio Beach every direction offered frontiers to explore, mysteries to be solved, and scientific observations to be made without textbooks, lab coats, or microscopes. Allowed to chase our curiosities, my brothers, sisters, and I were laying deep foundations for learning—but if you asked us, we were just having fun.

Today, technology has emerged as a primary frontier of childhood exploration. While there are obvious benefits to raising tech-savvy children, I echo the sentiments of countless researchers who suggest we’re missing out on opportunities to nurture brain development and strengthen mental health when we close ourselves off from nature.

Richard Louv, who has written extensively on this subject, points to an emerging body of evidence connecting nature to greater physical and emotional health. By contrast, disengagement from the natural environment results in what Louv terms “nature-deficit disorder” which, he says, correlates with attention difficulties, greater rates of physical and emotional illness, and reduced use of our senses.

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Louv isn’t alone. A number of writers, psychologists, and academics have produced volumes quantifying the benefits of direct exposure to nature. At the same time, studies continue to show we’re spending less time outdoors and more time with electronic screens, which do little to stoke happiness or well-being.

Access is part of our challenge. Census data shows that more than 80% of US residents live in urban areas, some of which lack parks or open space. And while more children are participating in organized sports, fewer kids are experiencing the outdoors through unstructured play, according to Louv, who blames a perceived lack of time as well as concerns about safety.

In 2004, Rhonda L. Clements, professor of education at Manhattanville College in New York, conducted a survey of 830 mothers nationwide. While 71% reported playing outdoors as children, only 26% of mothers said their kids did the same on a daily basis. Interestingly enough, the results showed little difference between rural and urban settings. With supercharged academic standards and a greater focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math), some educators may choose to ignore these trends. But we do so at a tremendous cost given the extensive evidence that nature, in addition to being intertwined with a number of scientific fields, not only sharpens minds but also amplifies learning in other subjects.

Indeed, a recent study of children ages 9 and 10 revealed that hands-on lessons in nature produce students who are more engaged in their other academic studies. Moreover, a duo from UC Berkeley points to more than 100 studies that demonstrate how exposure to nature can have positive impacts on thought processes, as well as our physical and mental health.

This is why environmental education programs like Inside the Outdoors at the Orange County Office of Education (OCDE) are so vital.

Since 1974, Inside the Outdoors has been nurturing student knowledge and stewardship of the natural environment with highly-qualified staff and 15 field trip locations throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties. Lessons are aligned with the state’s instructional standards, and for classes that can’t venture out, the program dispatches Traveling Scientists to schools—often accompanied by wildlife. Inside the Outdoors logs more than 150,000 hours of environmental STEM learning each year and has served over 3.5 million students to-date—many of whom might not otherwise have these experiences.

In April, about 100 teachers, school administrators, and experts gathered in Orange County to discuss how outdoor and environmental learning experiences can be used to help develop a well-rounded curriculum. Jointly organized by the OCDE, Inside the Outdoors, and the California Department of Education, the symposium also offered educators a preview of how environmental literacy is being incorporated into the state’s Next Generation Science Standards.

Richard Louv was also in attendance as the event’s keynote speaker. Louv told the audience that “every teacher who connects students to nature is doing sacred work.”

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It is that and more. Teaching students about nature and immersing them in the natural environment is both transformative and enduring, producing benefits to our bodies and minds that we are only beginning to understand. Even as we prepare young women and men for an increasingly digitized world, we must continue to create opportunities to recharge their minds and spirits in the great outdoors.

As a child, my family didn’t take lavish vacations, but I am fortunate that we could occasionally escape the urbanized confines of Los Angeles to experience a larger world that asked as many questions as it answered. Today these trips are among my most cherished childhood memories. Years later, I see how they prepared me for life as an educator as well as for trips with my own sons—who similarly had moments to gaze up at the countless stars and wonder.

Photo(s) credit: Dr. Al Mijares

This blog post was originally published on Ten Strands.

Additional Reading and Resources

Inside the Outdoors
Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts
Outdoor Education: Children Develop Sensory Integration Skills
Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues
The restorative outcomes of forest school and conventional school in young people with good and poor behavior
Green Schoolyards Initiative
THE HYBRID MIND: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need
C&NN’s Research Library
Join C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network

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