Children in Nature, Outdoor Education

The Kansas Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights (2008) states every child should have the opportunity to:

  • Walk in the footsteps of Kansas History
  • Access a natural environment
  • Camp under the stars
  • Explore nature
  • Learn to swim
  • Play on a team
  • Follow a trail
  • Catch fish and harvest game
  • Participate in the shooting sports
  • Play in a safe environment

Following quotations are from Last Child on the Prairie: a Directory for Parents and Teachers on Returning Children to the Outdoors - The Kansas School Naturalist, 2010:

“Research has shown that time in nature improves a child’s academic performance, concentration, balance, coordination, and self-esteem. Unfortunately, the amount of time children spend outside has dropped by 50% during the past 20 years.” 

“The most meaningful definition of an animal, plant or ecosystem is the actual organism or wild environment, not an abstraction. Many parents will relate their most memorable experiences in a science class included field trips to natural environments; a testimony to the lasting memories laid down by multisensory, hands-on experiences.”

Touch is an important sense, no less valuable in knowing the world than sight and hearing. The information we receive through holding and manipulating natural objects forms our attitudes toward nature. Touch is a valuable exploratory and diagnostic skill that seals memories in the brain. A child who asks “Can I see that?” holds out his/her hand and is frustrated if you only let them “see” it. They want to hold and touch. We get more out of touch than just the ability to truly interact, to poke and see the response, to feel and detect more detail. We make a judgment call through feel about how this part of nature fits into our world and how we will respect it, control it, love or hate it, and commit to it in public financing and policy.”

“Field experiences are truly interactive. ‘Interaction’ with a computer or smartphone keyboard is a trivial use of the term, and completely unrelated to the genuine interaction of feeling the bark of a tree, smelling fresh-plowed ground, feeling the fuzzy leaves of a mullein plant, or holding a harmless snake. Through the interactions of holding a bird or poking an earthworm, we establish our relationship with the natural world. We learn what is harmless and what deserves caution, what is durable and what is delicate.”

“Nature teaches patience. Natural events take their time. The child who sits quietly in the wild can see wildlife resume their natural habits. When you lie on a log across a stream, you have time to think, to pose questions, to see if you can guide the minnows or crayfish by the shadow of your hand. The wild has its own annual calendar and daily clock.”

“The real natural world is test-truthful. Textbooks, selected pictures, ecological simulations, and video programs present perfect examples. Students on a field trip never take the same trip twice; each journey exposes new plants or animals, different sets of natural phenomena, etc. The leader calls all students over to see the cocoon, the newly woven spider web, the wood rat midden. And alone, a child can discover the variation in nature-an important lesson for future citizens who otherwise will unreasonably expect a simple and predictable world.”

Learning-how-to-observe involves practice examining the difference among leaves, picking apart a rotten log, digging a burrow, or patiently laying on a log that bridges a stream and taking the time to actually see all that is going on. Too many non-rural children who are brought to a natural setting take a quick glance around and say ‘Okay, what’s next?’ They have never developed the skills of patience, careful probing, sensitive watching, shutting out distractions and focusing on one event, or the combining of reasoning with the development of observational skills. The experiences of fishing, hunting, and just being a ‘kid in the field’ helps develop these skills of observation. George Orwell wrote a long and complex essay just on the beauty of the eye of a toad; but you have to learn how to observe before you can see such complex beauty all around us in nature.”

“Being fearful of the wilderness, of the dark, of mice, or of snakes-is a handicap. Normalization is only possible through direct and real experiences. To help a child with an abstract fear of snakes-picked up from association with others who have an abstract fear of snakes-is only possible by the child observing others safely handling a snake, and then taking the risk of handling it. Only then does the fear instantly melt away. The only way to gain a rational respect and appreciation for organisms, be it rabbit or bear, or lettuce or poison ivy, is to directly and appropriately experience them up close and personal in real time.”

“Real fieldwork has real consequences. When children have successfully become nature observers, they know they can really live and work in the natural world. It is not built on the praise of parents or teachers, but on actual success with nature. They gain confidence they can find their way in the field, locate a bird’s nest, or trace an earthworm burrow. The brain recognizes that this is real, this is “now,” and these experiences are remembered. When they watch a nature documentary or click through a simulation, today’s students recognize that they have merely watched an abstract program or completed an artificial programmed game with no real consequences-easy to forget.”

“Real field work increases involvement. In an age of contrived media, students recognize the potential for distortion. They want to see for themselves what goes on in nature: how birds care for baby birds, how pillbugs avoid sunlight, how tree canopy shades out the saplings. It is a natural hunger to “know” real things, not another educational exercise completed to make a parent or teacher happy or to get high test scores.”

“Some students could eventually become game wardens, botanists, marine biologists, or ecologists. The previous professional generation of field scientists always trace their initial interest to field experiences. We cannot predict who among our students will become fascinated. All children deserve field experiences so some who get “caught” in those experiences can know what vocation or avocation to pursue.”