Engagement, Promising Practices, Well-being

Outside the Box

The value of nature-based education

Can you remember what it felt like to be a kid exploring the natural world? What if that feeling could be brought to school? If children had an opportunity to learn in a natural setting, what could that mean for their academic performance?

A recent Ipsos Reid poll shows that 97 percent of adult Canadians agree that nature is important to their family’s well-being, and 87 percent felt that given the choice, they would prefer to spend family time outdoors in nature, as opposed to indoors. Overall, most of these adults agreed that the more connected they feel to nature, the happier they are. If Canadians – young and old – are indeed happier while in nature, an outdoor classroom initiative could be exactly what’s needed for a generation that often struggles to find a connection to, or even opportunities to explore, nature.

Today, work life and hectic schedules often take precedence over making time for outdoor unstructured play. Moreover, what was once considered safe for youngsters (like heading out on your bike with a buddy for the day) is often now seen as requiring adult supervision. Modern urban life has drastically diminished children’s opportunities to explore nature on their own or with the family, at a time when children need it more than ever.

Author Richard Louv writes of his concern for children, drawing links between lack of exposure to nature and adolescent hardships like obesity, attention disorders and depression. Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, advocates early contact with nature and says that it’s our job to pass an appreciation of nature on to our children. He writes, “These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”[1]

Louv also explores the idea of a nature-based education and what trading classroom walls for shrubbery and sunshine could do for a child’s ability or desire to learn. “An environment-based education movement – at all levels of education – will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world,” he notes in his book.[2]

The benefits of spending more time in nature go beyond enjoyment. Major physical and mental health benefits can be attributed to time spent outdoors. Jules Pretty and her colleagues, authors of Nature, Childhood, Health and Life Pathways, found that time in nature can lead to reduced amounts of anxiety and stress and improved self-esteem. Their report looks at three stages of childhood and explores the implications of nature-based experiences within them. The authors found that enhanced experiences in nature can lead to positive behavioural changes, a better connection with the natural world, and an improved ability to learn.[3]

Bringing nature to school

Educators across Canada are taking note of these findings and are taking advantage of local parks and conservation areas to give their students a direct learning experience with nature.

Melissa Anema, from Lord Strathcona Elementary School in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, took part in nature-based programming for her Grade 4/5 class. She says her students have few opportunities to experience these natural connections because of their own concerns at home.

“For my students – most of whom struggle with basic issues like having a safe home to go to, having caregivers who are solid and dependable, having enough to eat throughout the day, etc. – learning about and connecting with nature is often very far from their inner-city reality,” Anema says.

Last fall, Anema and her class visited the North Vancouver Outdoor School through the HSBC Bank Canada Nature Days program outside of Squamish, B.C. She and her students waded among salmon in a nearby stream and learned about the species’ life cycle and the integral role it plays in Canadian ecosystems and businesses. “It was so incredible to see students who are so often withdrawn or just opting out of learning jump into learning like never before,” says Anema. “They were really left to think about human impacts on the fish, and why our interventions with the hatchery were necessary. It inspired a lot of thinking and discussion both during and afterwards.”

Time in nature can lead to reduced amounts of anxiety and stress and improved self-esteem.

In Toronto, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) offers a “beyond the classroom” learning experience through an innovative outdoor enterprise known as Toronto Outdoor Education Schools (TOES). Offered for 11 different school subjects, TOES is available in day and overnight school program centres across the Greater Toronto Area. Both daytime and overnight offerings aim to connect children to the natural world, through a variety of outdoor, curriculum-based activities. One of these TDSB programs, Hillside Outdoor Education School, is located in Rouge Park, Canada’s largest urban park and an ideal setting for this kind of program.

But not all schools or school boards have the on-site resources or capacity to facilitate this kind of program. Some education- and nature-centred organizations have developed programming to help with this. Nature Days, an education initiative created by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and Earth Rangers, provides adventures in conservation for school children at sites across the country. This youth-focused program brings Canadian students into nature to work among conservation biologists and learn first-hand how to care for some of the country’s most vulnerable natural areas.

Erica Thompson, Conservation Engagement Coordinator for NCC, highlights the important role that direct observation plays in learning, and notes that actually seeing, smelling and feeling the subjects under study allows children to learn on a whole different level. “Bringing children to nature reserves brings the classroom into the natural world. So learning about forests within a forest habitat, learning about wetlands by standing on the edge of one, and seeing a salamander under a log for the first time – these are the kinds of experiences that we hope inspire lifelong learning and curiosity about the natural world.”

Raymond Martynowski, a teacher at Chine Drive Public School in Scarborough, Ontario, recently attended a Nature Days event with his Grade 3 class and noticed a refreshing thirst for knowledge among his students.

“Our kids are going to be the stewards for our environment, for the future. And if they don’t have a personal connection to it – if they haven’t been out in nature – they don’t really know what they’re preserving and what they’re saving, or why it’s so important,” he says. “It really is amazing to see how excited the kids are just to see a spider in the grass, to touch a millipede, to pick up a leaf and look at the kinds of edges it has – you’d be surprised, you wouldn’t think they would be that excited, but when we’re here, out of the city, walking together, it’s just a different side of the student. It’s really nice to be able to see that.”

Engagement, participation, innovation, inspiration – these “extra-curricular” expectations could arguably be tackled by bringing more nature-based activities and programs to education. We have the tools; we just need to use them… outside. 

Find a nature education program near you

Nature and outdoor education programs are offered by a variety of organizations. Here are a few national programs available across the country; you can also check for local programs which may be offered by camps, ecology groups, and conservation areas.

Outward Bound Canada

At OBC the wilderness is the classroom. OBC offers specialized school programs focusing on leadership, technical skills, teamwork and personal development. Each course is designed to teach students about their potential and instil a can-do approach to everything they do.

To learn more, visit outwardbound.ca

The Nature Conservancy of Canada

The NCC, in partnership with Earth Rangers and HSBC Bank Canada, brings classrooms to natural areas to learn about species and habitat conservation work. Led by conservation professionals, children are able to see, firsthand, what it means to preserve natural habitat. The program is available in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal and is generally offered to Grade 4 and 5 classes.

To learn more visit natureconservancy.ca 

Forest School Canada

FSC works to connect youth with nature in an academic setting. FSC emphasizes outdoor learning at early, primary and secondary levels of education, and provides a natural setting for engaging, youth-focused learning activities. FSC is currently developing a full-fledged Canadian Forest School, and in the meantime is providing schools across Canada with the outdoor resources and curriculum materials needed to carry its lessons out independently.

To learn more visit forestschoolcanada.ca

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, January 2014


EN BREF – Il existe d’abondantes indications selon lesquelles les enfants d’aujourd’hui sont privés de contact avec la nature et que le temps passé dans un milieu naturel procure une foule d’avantages émotionnels et cognitifs. Bien que l’enseignement en plein air soit souvent éclipsé par la multitude des autres exigences du curriculum, les enseignants qui réussissent à sortir leurs élèves du confinement de leur salle de classe soulignent avec enthousiasme la valeur de l’apprentissage de première main de la nature et de la conservation. À l’aide d’exemples donnés par l’auteur et amateur de nature Richard Louv et d’autres éducateurs canadiens, les auteurs incitent les éducateurs à profiter des ressources et de la programmation liées à la nature qu’offre leur collectivité et à aider leurs élèves à découvrir le milieu naturel.

[1] Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder (New York: Algonquin Books, 2005), 316.

[2] Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods, 226.

[3] J. Pretty, C. Angus, M. Bain, et al., Nature, Childhood, Health and Life Pathways (United Kingdom: University of Essex, 2009).

Meet the Expert(s)

Carly Digweed

Carly Digweed is Communications Assistant for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Originally from Queenston, Ontario, she is now based in Toronto and spends most of her time exploring the city’s trails with her charming two-year-old beagle.

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