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Questions I Ask Myself About EE

After being involved in environmental education now for more than 30 years, I have questions that crop up in my mind that do not seem to abate. I thought I would list them and see if they occur to others and how you address them in your life. They are not in any specific order or appear as more important in where they are placed. These questions came to me over time. I am sure there are many more.

If you have thought of these too, that would be consoling. No, we do not need a bevy of research studies, unless you want to footnote them. And if you have other questions not listed, please share them with us.

Here they are:

What have we seen that convinces us that nature/EE have made a difference in the physical, emotional, or thinking of children and adults? Do share a story that confirms you have seen this kind of difference. It seems to me we need this now more than ever.

Can we show there is a connection between EE/nature and mental health?

Rachel Carson suggested that we take young children out into nature and be a partner in the experience as opposed to the purveyor of knowledge and wisdom. Have we taken Rachel’s suggestions to heart? If so what kinds of thoughts went through your mind as your shared nature with children? If you tried to show and tell things to young children, how did they respond? How did you respond?

If children gain from being outdoors, then why do they stay indoors?

If Nature is restorative, then why do people not go outdoors?

If test scores are improved with nature and outdoor experiences, then why do we cleave to keeping children at their desks?

Does a one-time nature/outdoor experience have any value?

Why do administrators of schools believe that staying in a classroom is better for children than anything else?

If research says using nature or the environment as an integrating context improves school performance, then why is it rejected by those who control classrooms, teachers and their students?

If we expect students to be civically engaged in their communities about the environment and nature, then should we not have multiple experiences for them throughout their education?

Why do field trips and nature excursions usually happen at the end of the school year instead of throughout the year?

How do children learn to be fearful of nature and the outdoors?

Are certain personality types prone to like nature and getting out into the outdoors? Why?

If nature is healing why do more people not seek out this resource?

Do we believe EE is interdisciplinary or is it STEM, or is it science, or is it social studies?

Is EE, nature and the arts alike in how they are respected and supported?

Is it critical to give children time to explore nature or should we direct their play outdoors?

Why do administrators believe that seat time in the classroom has greater value than being outdoors? If that is the case, is there any body of evidence that will convince them of the benefits of nature and the out-of-doors?

Why do some people think that nature and the out-of-doors is only for some people, those people unlike them?

Is there a way of convincing adults that being outdoors and in nature has a value other than being occupied?

With much research that has been completed over time, why does it seem that EE/nature study and learning outdoors is deemed a frill or an extra in the school curriculum?

Do you have other questions you would like to add? If so post them?

If you have any notions about these questions, please share them.

>>What have we seen that convinces us that nature/EE have made a difference in the physical, emotional, or thinking of children and adults?

I create conservation-themed exhibits for the Paly Foundation. I test the exhibits at my child's school, where I am lucky to observe each elementary-middle school class spend time with them.

Does it change them? Yes. For our exhibit on "Coral Reefs", the middle school students went back to their class and asked their teacher if they could do more research, so they did. A lower-elementary student and his family select a cause each year for a Christmas donation. That year, they selected one of the causes suggested in the exhibit (his mother told me later). He learned about coral reefs in the classroom, then went into the "real world" and used what he learned.

I observed during our exhibit on hammerhead sharks, the students had done a trip to SeaCamp, San Diego where they had learned about sharks. They connected the material with lightening speed and great enthusiasm (4-6th graders). In that case, the learning they did at SeaCamp (which is part lab, part outdoors) was reinforced by what I brought to the school.

I think students like to see connections, repeated material from different sources, in the classroom and outside it. I think they like to "take action".

>>Is it critical to give children time to explore nature or should we direct their play outdoors?

Both, in that order. When we went to SeaCamp San Diego, the students (4-6th graders) had some time on the beach each day. The first day, they played sports, or on the playground equipment. The second day, they played in the sand, more free-form play, some pretend games, some sand construction. The third day, they were all in the ocean and we had to drag them out after dark. I think they needed time to deconstruct their ideas of "outdoor play". They also went to camp which was part lab/part outdoor "guided exploration". The two structures complemented each other.

>>Is there a way of convincing adults that being outdoors and in nature has a value other than being occupied?

Make them go. My kid's kindergarten had a mandatory camping trip each year. The parents always groaned. Then they came back enlightened. Not every school can go camping, but getting adult participation is essential. Often, we have to participate first, before we "get it".

Hello...thanks for posting your response to my "questions." Indeed there are many of us who provide experiences that see informally as well as formally the impact of EE upon children, students and adults. I have a keen respect for what you and others do by connecting nature to others. I wished more would write about what they do and the impacts they have observed. It helps us tell our story better to those who are not 'believers' in EE. Having a coterie of stories...based on 'fact' is an essential part of serving our profession and having people understand the value of nature to all of us.

Thank you for posting these questions to reflect on, Joe. As a student currently studying environmental education and communication, these are questions I have found myself thinking about often. It seems as though many of your ponderings surrounded the idea of barriers - if we know or think or hope X, why then is Y happening? My experience in the world of EE is very limited but it seems as though already the word "barriers" is frequently used to describe various dynamics, such as barriers to engagement or barriers to behavior change. For myself, I think it is helpful to zoom out and address these barriers on a more systemic level than on an individual level. How does the individual's identity and context play into why they might not be achieving/learning/engaging in what we hope they might. This helps me solidify the broader systems that EE has to both work within and work to break apart. It also provides me with more concrete ways that my work in the future can help impact the world of EE on multiple scales.

This reply is in response to your question about the timeliness of school field trips. I think this is an extremely interesting question as we consider whether the goal of EE is to inspire some end goal, or if EE is more about the process itself. I am currently a Masters student in an environmental education class at Stanford University and something we've been discussing is what the outcome of EE should be, which I think is related to your question. For instance - having field trips at the end of the year may suggest that EE is a one-time learning event with a specific outcome or orientation, say, a field trip to a zoo or natural setting. At that point, EE becomes restricted to that definition. If, however, field trips were integrated throughout the year, EE and consequent learning becomes more about the process, particularly following the constructivist theory of learning - that new knowledge is built upon older knowledge. I am a huge proponent of the latter as I think it better equips students to think of EE is an interdisciplinary process of learning that contains not specific behavior change goals, but broader learning goals that can be tailored to the needs and experiences of each student.

I appreciate that this thread is trending towards thinking about these questions on a wider level. As Emily notes, it is really interesting to think about this in terms of how EE is situated, as a field, in both the broader environmental movement and, more importantly, the sociocultural fabric of our society. And, as Kira suggests, to consider the experiences that our students already bring. I think it is only then that we can begin to get to answering the questions that this post asks.

>> If children gain from being outdoors, then why do they stay indoors?

In one of my favorite books, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv states that a child once told him “I stay inside because that is where the outlets are.” That statement makes me wonder, through technology have we stripped children from imaginative play because we stimulate them so much with technology? And by comparison, outdoor play is “boring?” I also think that parents are restricting the wandering of children outside the home, telling them that being outdoors is unsafe, which creates a fear of the outdoors?

>> Why do field trips and nature excursions usually happen at the end of the school year instead of throughout the year?

At my location in southern Arizona, we only offer field trips October thru April because of safety issues- mostly related to heat and how students do not come prepared for that. Even with this policy in place, I still have teachers calling me to request a field trip in May. The teachers tell me that it is easier for them to go on field trips after the standardized testing then before testing because "they have to teach to the test...after the test, they (the teachers) do not have much curriculum left to cover. So they schedule field trips because its gives the students something to do." This leads me to question if school administers and education policy makers see and truly understand how field trips and nature excursions add value and understanding to what the students are learning in the classroom? And that how, by going on these field trips, students can better understand how what they are learning in the classroom is applicable to the real world. It also raises the question- what types of field trips do these classes generally go on? I am sorry, but a field trip to a national park or museum is very different from going on a field trip to the amusement park. Is the purpose of the field trip instructional or a time-filler? When I was in middle school, we went on one field trip a year- to the Six Flags 2 hours away. In that instance, I can understand why school administrators limit field trips to the last week or so of school. In my work, I always try to include how the field trips I offer meet curriculum standards to help those school administrators understand that this field trip does indeed assist in student learning and teachers meeting those curriculum-standards. I have found that by proving this information up front its helps the teachers demonstrate how the field trip actually meets what the students have to know by the end of the year.

My question is- how do we get school leaders to see how vital it is for kids to go on cultural trips and on nature excursions?

If children gain from being outdoors, then why do they stay indoors?

I like to think of this in a broader sense. What are children receiving from technology that makes them stay indoors? If you think about it, technology is amazing: one has access to a world of information, a world of contacts, even a hypothetical world in which one can make choices. People today also often don't know much about the outdoor world. They haven't experienced it. It seems that a child then is forced to choose between two things: a wealth of information in which they can do (and have done) anything/everything or a strange world that they don't know much about (which can look boring). It becomes important then to change this perceived notion; this includes the adults as well! This leads to another of your questions:

Does a one-time nature/outdoor experience have any value?
I think that any outdoor experience is valuable because it works to change these preconceived notions and help everyone understand that the outdoor world is interactive and every choice that everyone makes impacts it.

Good questions!

I think you have made an interesting observation here- technology also offers us excitement and entertainment that is constantly changing and (somewhat) engaging. You have to work to make the outdoors exciting and engaging. Compared to our technology, that may be kind of boring! This makes me wonder, do we need to teach others how to interact with the outdoors? It doesn't come naturally anymore.

Great questions, Joe, and enjoyable feedback from the group. As a brief intro, I'm a filmmaker and my team and I have used our film Love Thy Nature as a tool to deepen adults' and kids' connection with the natural world.

On the topic of technology and nature, as Anthony and Jennifer pointed out, our powerful digital advances constantly lure us to the urban/cyber world. And compound that with advertisers' and the media's innovative ways to hook our kids' neurons to their products and services, nature can indeed become a distant reality. So, as some of you mentioned, finding new ways to engage kids with the outdoors is critical - not to mention fun!

The good news is that no matter how exciting a game or a social media clip might be, evolution has wired our kids' brains (and our own) to yearn for nature (biophilia). As Richard Louv said so well in his books, something amazing happens when we unleash our kids outdoors, let them experience awe and a sense of wonder, and have them realize - at turning over a rock - that they're not alone in the universe.

And in the digital world, there is amazing potential to "occupy" our technologies so that they invite and yes - even lure - our kids to discover their wondrous world.

In our case, we're bridging the digital-nature gap by creating "watch and do" events where our screenings are followed by activities that anchor the film themes - such as tree-planting, guided hikes, and Indigenous story telling on hill tops.

Edited on Tue, 2017-10-17 10:36 by Sylvie Rokab, Added Sylvie's 2017 Conference Session link to comment: Love Thy Nature—Film Inspires Outdoor Connections

Kira...I appreciated your thoughtful response. Have been pondering...is any EE better than nothing? Is a school end field trip better than end of year activities that may not connect to anything? The end goal...to me has always been the last step of the Tblisi...participation or action. However, is that always possible? I am a long time EEer...and believe that "trusting the experience" often makes a difference in the end. It may take longer for some than others. Having hands-on-, minds-on experiences, makes a difference - that is based on my experience with week-long, residential summer institute programs for teachers. I see changes, however brief, in the attitudes and knowledge of teachers. I believe from experience that when teachers have quality experiences in EE...they are more inclined to use them in their classrooms. Now I am finding, with all of the stressors on teachers, EE can be a means for self-renewal, reflection, and restfulness. I have seen time and time again how teachers come away from a quality EE experience with an almost child-like renewal of the value of exploration, discovery, learning. In turn I see the goodness of that, even if it means it does not go beyond the teacher - it had value to renew the spirit of that teacher. Yet...funding for that kind of experience has become very scarce...and I wonder why we are unable to sell the value of EE as a way of making a personal difference in our physical and emotional well-being. Just thought I would share my thoughts...

Jennifer...you pose a great question. That question has been perpetually posed over time...and I do not know of absolute answers. Often I have said...and heard others say...if we can get administrators to be a part of an experience in EE...to have them involved in professional development in EE with their teachers...they might see its value and encourage EE as a valued and important experience for children. Jerry Lieberman has done much research on the value of EE in improving classroom success...yet with this success we still do not have a "buy-in" to using EE except in some cursory ways. Some people have biases that will not allow them to see beyond those walls they create. A good friends and colleague has always said, "trust the experience." I have seen how that works with teachers and professional development for teachers. We have also had some administrators involved in our trainings...and they become advocates too...but we do not have enough buy in by upper administrators, school boards, and local principals to warrant their encouraging EE. Using technology connections may be helpful, but I often say...technology cannot replicate hands-on nature experiences...no matter how hard we try. So we slog along...and your question is as good now as it was to others years ago. I guess we make change one person at a time...but we must impact the decision makers...how to do this...I do not have the magic answer.

Sylvie...enjoyed your contribution. I believe technology can be valuable in piquing the interest of people to go out into nature, wherever they live, to explore. In fact we have used as a component with teachers a number of techno components: (1) teachers created line drawings of natural item(s), then were to try to duplicate this with a digital camera or phone camera to compare and contrast; (2) teachers made a video segment from experiences they had in the natural world during the week. In turn they found music (lyric based or totally instrumental - their choice), to place within the context of their images and shared this with the group the last morning. They simply loved it!; (3) we had natural experiences in which teachers collected words and thoughts, placed them into a format, formal or informal, shared this with the group. We then placed them into an on-line book they could order, and we provided this to our funders. Teachers can still get on line and view the book they helped create. Our funders were pleased beyond any evaluation we could provide them. Technology in context...used as a way of expressing their personal experiences is a way of reminding participants what they heard, saw, felt - the "magic of the time." Likewise we have used art, writing and music to capture these feelings...these thoughts about their experience in nature. Our mindset was, having experiences in nature first was an essential ingredient to making the connection between self and the natural world. Though your notion that one might begin with a well done film as a means to get people outside may have great value to those who a technologically ensconced. I suspect whatever we do, trying to have people go outside and have first-experience in nature is the goal and objective. Then follow up to encourage them to do more of this is the next critical step. Would love for you to share a clip from your video with our group.

Connecting to Nature...one child at a time, with one teacher at a time...

As a fellow Arizonan, I found myself nodding my head as I read your post. My answer to "If children gain from being outdoors, then why do they stay indoors?" was the heat. I have found myself silently bemoaning the fact that we chose to remain diurnal in an environment where the best conditions are at night.
Thankfully, there are EE programs that adjust. I am part of the "Night Camp" sleep-over program at the Phoenix Zoo, where students can take a nocturnal field trip when the zoo is closed to visitors. We are not the only institution that does this, either: I still fondly remember my childhood trip to the local aquarium, where I "slept under sea stars," as the souvenir shirt put it.
With programs like these, a visit can indeed be planned during the hotter months of the year, when the teachers are free to teach beyond the test.

Good point Tessa...night time EE is rich...and to some degree we have available to us the rich sounds of the night...and there is a certain deprivation of sight - and some cases fear of the night which makes it more of a looking than really seeing things in the night environment. I found with taking undergraduate teacher prep persons outdoors in the night environment, if they would let their fear dissipate they come back with a whole new mindset about nature and the night. One thing that is sometimes a problem is a person or two that wants to take advantage of this fear people have and try to scare others. This kind of situation defeats creating a comfort zone. I do know that when leaders take people outside in the night environment, if they can promote a safe place for them, the outcomes are always very rich.