“Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.” – Jimmy Carter
Visiting the Forest Valley Education Center, part of Toronto’s Outdoor Education Department was a phenomenal example on the mechanics of integrating outdoor education in schools, and all that is necessary to take learning outside is “walking out the door”, according to David Budlovsky, centrally assigned principal at the Toronto District School Board.
During our visit and meeting with education officials throughout the provinces, one of the moving components of any meeting was the land acknowledgement that began each convening. Such a move sets the intentionality of the meeting space, in which every individual understands their role in the historical scheme that moved us into our current space.
We were greeted graciously with Cedar tea and freshly baked strudel pastries, which were heavenly. A reminder that what comes from nature is exquisite. The American palate is often numb from the refineries of our diet, when something so fresh and organic hits the mouth it is a shock to the system and the strudels and tea were a testament.
The pandemic has been a global tragedy and children have paid tremendously. For those of us in the classroom, or are parents (or both!), the impact of the pandemic has been overwhelmingly apparent. Social emotional and academic implications abound, which will likely take years to overcome. One of the words used throughout this specific convening was “reimagine“. A word that is necessary for us to use as we think about education moving forward. Just as corporate spaces are rethinking their work week, should employees work from home, commute to the office, or have a flexible schedule? This same energy should be brought to education, otherwise, we would have missed an opportune moment in history.
Outdoor education in Toronto [I mention Toronto specifically because there is no federal bureau of education in Canada, education policy is left up to the province, meaning what happens in Toronto is not necessarily true in Quebec and other provinces.] One of the goals of the Center is to bring students outside in more intentional ways, aligned with Truth and Reconciliation. What Indigenous plants are on the land? How is the land used by Indigenous peoples? It is about getting students moving in nature while immersing them in the local culture and landscape.
The pandemic has reshuffled all our systems and offers an opportune moment to restructure education.
Benefits of an Outdoor Education
During the pandemic many people chose walking out in nature as a respite from being confined indoors. That precious time outside helped many get through the pandemic, it was boasted as an “easy and inexpensive way to keep fit“. Why wouldn’t we want to incorporate that boost in mental wellness for all, including the most precious among us, our students? According to the Child Mind Institute, the benefits of the outdoors for children helps break the mind boggling 7 hour a day in front of a screen cycle.
If we are truly thinking about getting students prepared for the complexities of the 21st century, the skills acquired with an outdoor education go hand in hand with that goal. Personal experience and the Child Mind Institute note that outdoor education promote creativity and imagination, enhances responsibility, gets kids moving which in turn reduces stress. If you are in the classroom, there’s no doubt that you know kids are stressed out.
“The positive effects of nature exposure include improved cognitive functioning (including increased concentration, greater attention capacities, and higher academic performance), better motor coordination, reduced stress levels, increased social interaction with adults and other children, and improved social skills.” –National Library of Medicine
I am a high school history teacher and find when I take students for classes outside, they are more motivated to work, students produced higher quality work, they enjoy the fresh air and are able to continue with their day in higher spirits than when they walked into my classroom. That is a big win for me, and just as Mr. Budlovsky mentioned, all it takes is to walk out the door. I’ve done this in an urban setting where outdoor space was limited and I’ve done this in a suburban setting. It really is just about walking through the door. And just as we constantly remind our students that creativity is key, as educators in the classroom, modeling is essential.
Recommendations for U.S. Education Administrators
So how can we take these lessons and apply them systematically and scale impact?
- Identify organizations already doing the work. This will help save time, money and energy. There are organizations that work on outdoor education but I have yet to come across a partnership of such an organization and a public school district. If I’m wrong, please let me know!
- County Parks have access to so much land and opportunity to bring in school children. In many cases, County Parks already have a lot of community programming. Integrating an educational component for school children will help get kids out of the classroom and into their county parks throughout the year. This helps makes use of the grounds all year round, instead of fall and summer months only. If you are a school administrator or county parks administrator, develop relationships and build this type of programming.
- In New Jersey, Governor Murphy just announced the ‘Pay it Forward‘ zero interest college loan program. I would encourage the NJ Department of Education to invest in outdoor education as a means of equity in New Jersey public schools.
- If the U.S. Department of Education is listening, an office of Outdoor Education to help develop programming, provide support for districts and scale this idea is a matter of urgency in order to help resolve many complications.
**This website is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are the participant’s own and do not represent the Fulbright for Global Classrooms Program, the US Department of State, or IREX.**