Nature as Teacher
Nature, the most information rich environment people will ever encounter, offers the extraordinary diversity for building knowledge and sharpening mental abilities as well as unlimited opportunities for creative inquiry, critical thinking, problem-solving and intellectual development. Shepard believed that thought and speech are dependent on categories and that developing taxonomic skills, labeling and differentiating, is one of the foundations of human cognition. Intellectual maturation is enhanced by distinguishing one creature from another, perceiving connections among biotic and abiotic elements of the environment, and by examining environmental changes over time in different seasons.
Kellert (2002) claims nature experience creates an intellectual competence that contributes to “developing and reinforcing the child’s capacities for empirical observation, analytical examination and evidentiary demonstration.” Learning in the outdoors is a natural process that allows students to study and experience natural phenomena in relationship and direct contact with the interdependence and diversity of nature. Using a local natural area as a learning resource to study ecology is a practical and effective instructional method. The natural world is a science laboratory with limitless sensory data to explore. Outdoor learning settings may be a pond or creek, a garden or farm, a mucky swamp or tide pool or it could even be a school yard habitat or a vacant lot.
Affective qualities are developed in natural settings. Playing with other children and animals in the outdoors encourages compromise and cooperation, which cultivates empathy, flexibility, self-awareness and self-regulation. Imaginative play in outdoor settings enhances creativity. In addition, being in natural settings minimizes anxiety, depression, aggression and sleep problems while improving mood. A recent study showed that connectedness to nature can significantly predict the degree of life satisfaction and overall happiness. Nature experience adds to childhood development.
Many outdoor education programs are more adventure oriented, which have the general goals of intrapersonal and interpersonal growth. These programs focus on the development of life skills such as: leadership, self-efficacy, perseverance, resilience, cooperation, and communication. Risk and adventure help to channel the adolescent need for excitement and sensory engagement toward character development. Programs that utilize risk activities such as rock climbing, rafting, hiking, sailing, skiing, backpacking, etc offer participants an opportunity to test themselves. Whether one struggles against nature or with nature, challenge and risk intensify attention as one adjusts movement in a dynamic dance with the elements. These emotionally distilled activities heighten and sharpen the senses to focus fully on the present moment. Often, these challenging experiences bring participants to an aesthetic or peak experience. The context and challenge of a natural landscape allows for the possibility of an aesthetically, deeply moving learning experience. Through debriefing and self-reflecting, participants grow into more self-actualizing individuals.
Kellert, S. R. (2002). Experiencing Nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children. In Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and Stephen R. Kellert (Eds) Children and Nature: Psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigation Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.