By: Matthew Hudson, Outdoor Guide and Instructor
How does one learn? This might seem like a weird question to ask but really how do you learn? The best way to achieve this is through outdoor education and environmental education that holds an emphasis on direct experiences. The camping experience is one-way children receive this type of experiential learning that will last forever and boost youth development. These experiences are the only way for anyone to truly understand what it is they are being taught.
Author Bill McKibben has called “the end of nature, the final sadness of a world where there is no escaping man.” (Louv, r. p. 4). However this sadness is a world that can be corrected and fixed through proper education. Growing up just like many children of my era, I ran through the woods made forts, jumped in streams, and caught critters, all of which I rarely see now in 2015. Children today are forever more being trapped inside through video games and social stigmas that trap their senses in a digital world. Outdoor and environmental education has taken on the responsibility to create a world where children and adults are given the chance to learn and grow through direct outdoor experience. While there are many interpretations of outdoor education one definition sticks out. “Outdoor education is education ‘in’, ‘about’, and ‘for’ the out-of-doors.” (Ford 1986). This definition provides a place, topic, and purpose to teaching in the outdoors. Respectively, the American education system is failing, there are 9 states in the US that had less than a 69% graduation rate in 2007, and New York is one of these states. (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/tables/table-scr-1.asp) We are teaching to the test where results have proven to increasingly be destructive towards the amount of knowledge gained by American students. In New York City and Los Angeles alone, more than 35,000 students dropped out of school in 2008. (http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/high-school-notes/2011/06/13/national-high-school-graduation-rates-improve)
While schools are failing they are also cutting children’s free time throughout the day. “Nearly 40% of American elementary schools either eliminated or were considering eliminating recess.”(Louv, r. p.99) I really just don’t understand how schools could even think about getting rid of recess for their students, especially in an age of extreme childhood obesity. This is a scary thought that sooner or later students might not have any chance to exert some energy and have free time which the research collected by Richard Louv clearly proves to be beneficial in countless ways for children’s attentiveness, throughout the school day. Could the camping style of youth development be more beneficial than formal education? The camp experience serves as a perfect tool that teaches youth proper skills that require them to complete tasks in subjects that interest them. I believe that the camp experience could be more beneficial than formal education. Camp activities put youth in direct experiences that they can reflect and grow upon. Arts and crafts promote creativity, while boating is a physical activity and a chance to learn biology. There is always a teachable moment in everything an instructor or councilor does. Richard Louv’s (2008) book Last Child in the Woods provides numerous examples of how children are becoming more and more disconnected with the natural world. I remember going into the woods throughout my youth and tween years building forts, playing in the mud, and catching all types of animals to bring home to show my parents. Activities like these are some of the activities that can happen indirectly or directly at camp. However I don’t see this anymore, the increase in technology is hindering the amount of outdoor time children receive in this day in age. Computers, video games, and television have proven to be an escape from the natural world along with more organized sports for youth around the country. “A British study discovered that average eight-year olds were better able to identify characters from the Japanese trading card game POKEMON than native species in the community where they lived.” (Louv, r. p. 33). As technology grows more and more information is at our fingertips. However, is technology helping or hindering our future generations? We see ours communities rapidly relying on computers rather than having direct experiences with the world. The more reliant we become on technology the more cases of NDD we are likely to see. A study conducted in the Netherlands showed that children play outside less often and for a shorter period of time than previous generations. The natural experiences at camp can shape and create children’s behavioral and physical well being and without these experiences we can only see a regression in youth development as adults.
It is time for a change in how we teach our youth; the activities that I remember most throughout my entire schooling have been the activities that have kept me involved. Experiential learning can be defined as “A process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill and value from direct experiences.” (Adkins and Simmons. 2002) Whether it has been a teacher dressing up as Christopher Columbus in grade school to explain the exploration of America, or a natural field history course in college where I went out into the woods to touch, smell, and taste pants and trees, the experiential learning method has been the most effective way for me to learn any material. This is what I believe we must do as educators, formal schooling only goes so far but when you allow students to experience what it is they are learning in the field then you truly have an environment to learn. This is a teaching method that can be used anywhere and doesn’t need to be taught outside. The camp model of education promotes all points of learning while encouraging students to try new things but gives them the tools to see where their interests take them. While formal schooling has proven its place it is every educators job to connect students to their subject matter. Outdoor and environmental education has proven to be the best way to educate students about any topic. While learning about the environment you are able to connect subjects from history to science to writing skills while incorporating time spent in the outdoors. Teachers, councilors, or instructors are able to use direct experiences to create emotional and physical bonds for their group through nature and the environment while relating topics to other subject matters. For example a summer camp councilor plants a garden with his group of 5th grade boys and girls. This experience of planting and watering and cultivating a garden gives youth a direct experience of the natural cycle, including photosynsesis, gardening techniques, math, as well as science and possibly reading and writing. The experiential learning style gives students the chance to learn many subjects through one direct experience that they may likely remember for a lifetime.
Outdoor education has proven a way for me to excel in certain areas where I once had trouble. Reading and writing are the areas that I struggle with the most. However I found that the more time I spend outdoors either before or even during reading and writing exercises, the more my brain is focused on the assignment rather then how many times the clock may have ticked or what may be going on out the window. Direct experience using multiple senses has allowed me to clearly understand goals and remember the material that has been taught since I have gone through an experience myself. Camp is a great time for youth to practice their reading and writing skills after the days activities or possibly during free time or rainy days. Many campers write and read letters to friends and family or read books before they go to sleep. The camp atmosphere can provide a child with so much opportunity to learn, in many places that might not even be intended. Camp provides a great opportunity for environmental education.
Environmental Education does not necessarily have to be performed outdoors however when combining the two models students tend to learn the most and remember lessons for the future. You can teach about the environment and get all the information across but to create environmental stewards for the future the best formula educators can use is combining direct experiences to formal instruction. This is the only way that we will ensure that we are creating environmental stewards for the future. If children do not have direct experience through nature while they are young than they will never share the same connection that many of us throughout our generation have with the natural world. Camp can provide the framework for outdoor education it shouldn’t be a once a year field trip to a nature center or a weeklong outdoor pursuits expedition rather it should be integrated throughout ones life. Camp is a perfect place to start that education.
Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. I think that this quote is one that every mentor should hold close to his or her heart. If you are going to preach one thing and do another your mentee’s will not have that special bond. Children look up and imitate adults in their lives. To really become the best mentor you have to apply everything that you are trying to instill in your mentee’s lives into your own. The greatest tool that an outdoor educator can have is the wonder and excitement that a child has. Being in an outdoor environment, teaching about environmental topics allows for a child’s mind to branch out and question. The more and more you hone into and question their curiosity the more the student will learn. It is essential to my philosophy to provide an enthusiastic approach to outdoor environmental education that encourages students to wonder and be curious because the more curious you are about a subject the greater chance to learn. “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm” this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson has guided me throughout many periods of my life but I believe that it is even more important when encouraging others to learn through direct experiences. The more excited you are about the natural world the more excited your students will be when they are out experiencing it for themselves.
To create new environmental stewards direct experience is the key. Students will not have a personal connection and obligation to look after the environment if they spend all their time indoors. L.B. Sharp has said, “That which can be best taught inside the classroom should be taught, and that which can be best learned through experience dealing directly with native materials and life situations outside the school should be learned.”(Priest 1986). I believe that it is our job as outdoor and environmental educators to create the perfect balance of learning through direct experience and being taught supplementary material when the natural world cannot be accessed. Camp provides an experience that encourages youth development and connects people to something larger than just the words of a textbook.
Adkins, C and Simmons, B (2002) Outdoor, Experiential, and Environmental
Education: Converging or Diverging Approaches?, AEL Charleston,WV
Ford, Phyllis (1986) ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Las Cruces NM.
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature – deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books
Priest (1986), Journal of Environmental education, Redefining Outdoor Education
Young, Haas, McGrown(2010). Coyote’s guide to connecting with nature, Shelton WA:Owllink Media Corporation
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