We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
The concept of “Outdoor Education” has been gaining popularity in recent years. Researchers and educators are increasingly finding that supplementing traditional in-classroom exercises with outdoor activities yield numerous positive outcomes.
For example, spending time outdoors is psychologically beneficial for students (and everyone, for that matter). According to Florence Williams, in her article This is Your Brain on Nature in National Geographic, “even a trip to the backyard or a city park” can reduce stress, increase creativity and replenish the brain’s ability to focus. Gretchen Reynolds writes in the New York Times that, “various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.” Going outside with your students can thus not only break routine and add novelty, it can have actual psychological benefits that will help them with their schoolwork.
But you can also integrate an outdoor experience into your curriculum. After all, Physics, Chemistry and Biology are all “natural sciences”, and observing nature was the first scientists came up with their ideas. And some of the most important writers are inspired by the moors, forests, lakes and mountains that clothe our planet’s wilderness.
The simplest way to implement the outdoors in a science class is to simply ask your students to take a walk and document what they see. Photos, drawings, notes and even samples (though be careful about encouraging your students to disturb pristine areas) can be brought back, studied and discussed. It’s a lot cooler to discuss the anatomy of a flower, for example, if you’ve sent your students out to study flower structure in detail on their own.
Similarly, you can also send students on scavenger hunts, maybe armed with a taxonomic key, or a geological table. Not only does this teach science, but it also strengthens skills important to the scientific method: observation, classification, pattern recognition.
If you’re feeling especially ambitious and have the resources to do so, organising an ecological experiment could be great! Maybe collect water samples from different areas and study the variety of microscopic flora present. Or perform transects along different areas to study the effects of different variables on organismal diversity.
From Walden to Watership Down, nature has been a source of inspiration to countless writers. Get your students to connect to your assigned literature by talking walks in similar environments. Ask them to write about how setting can affect mood and theme. For example, ask them to take a walk in a cultivated and manicured park, and have them think about setting Macbeth there rather than in the sinister Scottish moors. Get them to walk in the woods before reading some Robert Frost and see if this enhances their appreciation of his poetry.
Ask them to write about something that inspired them during a nature walk (even one that they did outside of class time). The stars, cold and distant in the sky, the flicker of wings on industrious bees, a frothy patch of dandelions, these can all feed stories or essays.
So don’t be afraid of taking a break from the notebooks and ipads! The world around us has much to offer!