Several of my guests – Kady Yeomans, Claire Dobie, and many more to come – talk about the value of teaching extra cubiculum – outside the classroom, immersed in the nature about which we are teaching.

Most naturalists I’ve ever met or worked with simply accept that it just works… that it’s unquestionable that getting learners outside will make them want to learn. In A Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson wrote that

Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration, or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. (p. 49)

So the steps are:

  1. Get kid outside
  2. Show kid interesting stuff outside
  3. Kid will want to learn

As straightforward as that idea sounds, it behooves us to interrogate it a little bit. Does it really work? If it works for some, does it work for all? Especially, does nature-based learning work the way Rachel Carson assumed for an audience that’s not like her – say, for example, urban, poor, non-white, or simply inexperienced with the outdoors?

Fortunately, a lot of research has been done to address these very questions. Many investigators conclude that nature-based education has value not primarily because it’s done out of doors, but because it’s experiential. When a learner is in a forest or on a seashore, they have an “opportunity to develop skills for problem solving and adapting” (Genet et al., p. 328). On the podcast, Claire Dobie noted that her students doing pond study are learning facts and figures but, even more, how to handle themselves getting stuck in the mud, how to untangle skim nets, and how to explore the previously inaccessible habitat of a body of water.

Sadly, environmental education has both race- and class-based histories that need to be overcome. We can acknowledge the value in teaching in nature while also noting that for many families, wilderness and parklands were historically off-limits to many people based on wealth and races. Carolyn Finney described this frustration at a meeting of Black environmental educators:

African American environmental practitioners point to a lack of acknowledgement among their white colleagues about issues of privilege and how that shapes a person’s ability to inform the environmental debate. One individual could remember her and her family being chased out of a park in Virginia by the Ku Klux Klan. (p. 102)

Even if the Klan is no longer openly chasing people from parks, it behooves us as environmental educators to be aware of the cultural and historical barriers that our students may face to learning in nature. As always, we teachers should avoid the trap of assuming our learners are just like us.

Let’s review…

  • We nature-based educators have a pretty good sense that our learners are having a good time.
  • Having a good time means they’ll be interested in learning more.
  • And it’s not just our impression – research backs it up. Nature-based learning can be very powerful.
  • But, as the teachers, we need to remember that our learners might not be comfortable in nature and work to accommodate that. Given nature education’s history of whiteness and privilege, some student discomfort has deep cultural roots.

Got more ideas about nature-based education? I’d love to hear them!

Read more

  • Carson, R. (2017). Sense of wonder: A celebration of nature for parents and children.
  • Finney, C. (2014). Black faces, white spaces: Reimagining the relationship of African Americans to the great outdoors. The University of North Carolina Press.
  • Genc, M., Genc, T., & Rasgele, P. G. (2018). Effects of nature-based environmental education on the attitudes of 7th grade students towards the environment and living organisms and affective tendency. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 27(4).
  • Prochner, L. (2021). Take it outside: A history of nature-based education. Young Children, 76(3).
A young woman writing in a notebook while sitting at the shore of a pond, shown from the side.
Learning about the world, out in the world.
A young woman writing in a notebook while sitting at the shore of a pond, shown from the side.
Learning about the world, out in the world.


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