By: Karina Greenlee
In preschool, on what we called forest days, our tiny school took the city bus to evergreen college and spent all school day in the woods. We made houses inside of rotting logs, ventured through the underbrush, and dug for clay by the creek bank. At lunchtime, we sometimes hiked down to the beach and gathered driftwood for a fire, then ate sandwiches in the warmth. We took the trail back up to the road, and took the bus back to our school. We were always incredibly dirty, but no one ever told us that was a bad thing. Because why on earth would it be? Being dirty was what happened when you played in the forest.
I was lucky enough to go to Oly School, a small, Waldorf inspired early childhood school in my neighborhood. The philosophy of Waldorf education involves hands on learning, a well rounded education, and a great amount of time spent outside. I was educated at Waldorf schools from preschool to eighth grade, and the amount of time spent in nature gave me a large amount of respect and appreciation for the outdoors.
The emphasis on outdoor education in my schooling is a fundamental part of who I am and how I look at the world. Learning not only about nature, but in nature, changes school in a couple crucial ways.
Learning Is Real
When children learn outside, the things they are studying take on new meaning and importance. In fifth grade, my class studied botany, and many of our daily lessons were spent outside in the woods and garden, where we sketched, gathered, and observed plants. My most vivid memories of botany class are of choosing a plant to observe; writing about and drawing pictures of that same plant over the course of several weeks. If I had been shown pictures of how a plant changes over time, it would have been interesting, but I likely would not remember it in the same way today. When learning, interacting with the things being taught is a much better way to internalise that knowledge. The students connect their lessons with real experiences; in many situations they can experience what they are being taught about directly, instead of just being told about it.
Connection To Nature
Kids who have spent a great deal of time outside have a much stronger bond with nature. A few years ago, I was talking to two kids who I know from the local Waldorf community, and they were telling me how many trees had been cut down near their house to make the road wider, and how they cried for the forest. These kids were very young, too young to know about carbon sequestration and greenhouse gasses, but they still were grieving for the loss of the trees. These children spent a great deal of time in the forest, and felt, innately, the impact caused by the deaths of these trees. Later in school, when these kids study about climate change and humanity’s impact on the environment, they will already have developed that empathy for the planet; for them this is a very real thing, not just abstract facts.
One of the most important effects that outdoor education has is the way that it changes perception. When young kids play outside in all weather, for a large part of their day, they never really learn that there is such a thing as ‘bad weather’, when they’re cold or it’s wet, they have layers and rain clothes. Getting dirty doesn’t bother them, and, especially during unstructured play, they learn to entertain themselves, and are free to imagine and create outside of the confines of an environment designed specifically for certain activities.
If we want to mold future generations who care about the environment, our education systems should reflect that. If all of our schools had more outdoor learning, I believe this would not only develop deeper, more engaged education, but build generations of children with a deep connection to the environment, who can help solve the problem we will face in the future and are facing now.