I can’t really remember why I became so interested in nature, but I have a suspicion that it goes back to all the camping I did as a child. Little did I know back then that through those life experiences of fishing, camping, boating, relaxing around a campfire and collecting rocks as I walked along dirt paths I would return to them as an adult. Recent research tells us that people who are advocates for the environment have had some sort of positive encounter with nature through an important adult during childhood. Rachel Carson said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” For me, the important adults were my parents. Through my teaching, I wanted to be that certain adult to share the excitement of the outdoors with the students who never get the chance to see their surroundings in a special way. Also, it is important to me to find those nature kids in my classroom.
As a teacher, I have seen children before my very eyes come to “life” when I take a specific lesson outdoors. Most of these children do not appear very successful inside the classroom. They struggle with reading, or have a difficult time focusing. As soon as they walk outside the school doors, a whole new world of learning takes place. These children immediately step into a role of teaching and modeling a different way of thinking. They are so one with nature, that they are able to shine in learning new concepts. Because of their previous experiences in nature, these children are able to use their background knowledge to enhance the discussions and discoveries that are happening in the outdoor lesson. They are able to make different connections at a level that is above the other children. Howard Gardner has supported this type of child when he announced the latest intelligence, the naturalist intelligence. Children who are strong in this area are the people who grow up to be the ones who organize our world. They thrive on identifying patterns and classifying things in nature. This type of intelligence is what helped our ancestors survive. These children learn better outdoors than in a computer lab.
I taught at Reed Elementary for 10 years, and we had a wonderful outdoor classroom. Unfortunately, one year Reed had to dig up most of the outdoor classroom to make room for new construction. The intention was to reestablish the gardens once the construction was complete. Before the planning began, I conducted a front-end research project using children from first to fifth grade. I was interested in the students’ opinions and thoughts of the old gardens. I showed the children pictures of the gardens and asked them questions. When looking at the pictures of the nearby creek, one-fifth grade girl told me, “I feel like a different person down there. I feel like I am in the right place when I am there.”
One beautiful afternoon, while teaching third grade, I decided to conduct our daily “poetry time” and “story time” outside in our outdoor classroom. While reading the book aloud, the students noticed a huge black crow making a ruckus. I stopped reading and we watched how the crow and another bird played “catch” up in a tree. One bird would hop up to a higher branch and the crow would follow. They used the branches of the tree as stair steps all the way to the top of the tree. Whenever I stopped reading aloud, the crow would let out a sound as if he was scolding or begging for me to continue with the book. One of the students even commented, “Mrs. Knoedelseder, the bird doesn’t want you to stop reading. It is like he is listening to our story.” After we chuckled, I went back to reading, and the crow flew away and perched on top of the building. I went back to reading poetry and the story aloud when all of a sudden; the crow left his perch and took to the air right over the tops of our heads. He flew so closely that we almost could hear his wings swish as he soared by. The students and I were speechless. After a short hesitation, I looked at the 23 little faces all looking at me with their mouths wide open. I slowly smiled and responded with, “I am so glad that we decided to have poetry time outside today. We would have never seen that!”
I couldn’t help but think about how we wouldn’t have had the experience if we had stayed indoors. I often think of that day, and it always motivates me to venture outside with the students. Many teachers have a misconceived idea that if they teach a lesson outdoors, it has to pertain to science. Hammerman (Teaching in the Outdoors) feels that when teachers take their students outside for silent reading time, a writing assignment, or a science lesson, when the classroom is extended into the outdoors, the students are provided with a setting in which they enjoy the pure thrill of discovery along with the plain, down-to-earth fun of learning. Children are more driven and motivated to read information in a textbook after they have caught an insect, found an interesting rock or have located a single constellation in the night sky to learn more about their discoveries. (pp.19,20) One never knows what he/she will experience once he/she steps outside. For me, that's the thrill.