Let Nature Be Your Guide: The Importance of Outdoor Environmental Education
“Nature frees kids’ minds and allows them just to be themselves,” says Geoffrey Bishop. “It has no demands. It’s like a blank canvas. When kids go out and immerse themselves in it, they can create it as their own.”
Bishop works as Executive Director of Nature’s Classroom Institute (NCI), an innovative environmental education program with five sites in Wisconsin, Texas, and California. NCI hosts students of all ages for three- or five-day immersive visits with custom programming in settings including farms, lakes, mountains, forests, and more.
The program grew out of Bishop’s own passion for the natural world. After growing up in the Australian bush and studying horticulture and landscape agriculture in his home country, Bishop spent five years traveling the world, visiting almost 125 countries and seeing how people interacted with a wide variety of landscapes.
Bishop feels that when someone goes outside and truly connects with nature, there is a calming effect, as in yoga or meditation. In essence, spending time outside is a way to press the “reset” button on a child’s day and ease the burden of any baggage they may be carrying around – a stomach that hurts, an argument with a parent, an interaction with a bully, or any number of other troubling things. After getting time outdoors to center themselves and be active, Bishop has observed kids go back into the classroom with the kind of focus, attention, and enthusiasm they need to tackle academic work.
Another great asset of nature is how it encourages kids to learn about and take calculated, controlled risks, in situations where they might skin a knee or fall in the lake, and learn about their boundaries and interests. “Overprotection of children robs them of the ability to discover for themselves and to understand their own bodies and own connections to the world,” says Bishop. “Accidents happen sometimes, but they are our way of discovering what our limits are. They are learning tools.”
Even something as simple as taking a hike through the woods forces kids to be aware of their surroundings, to notice where they are stepping and what the weather is like and how the air smells. “Nature will kind of hit you in the face if you’re not paying attention,” says Bishop.
Obviously, teachers who work in schools with gardens, tree-lined playgrounds and nearby parks have an advantage when it comes to accessing outdoor education, but Bishop is adamant that those in any school can find ways to incorporate nature into their curricula. If parks, creeks, or forests are just a short walk away, Bishop suggests taking weekly field trips to natural sites and getting kids to focus on noticing what they see, hear, smell and feel.
For teachers in completely urban areas, Bishop recommends bringing nature into classrooms by growing a variety of plants, having class pets, and encouraging kids to bring in items from nature that they’ve found outside of school and share them with the rest of the class. “There is no such thing as a place with no nature. It’s not possible,” says Bishop. “The dandelion in the crack in the sidewalk is nature. Nature is everywhere!”