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Nature Education – Taking Learning Outdoors

First of all we need to clear up the misconception, that Nature Connection is always good or positive for children. Everybody is different and the same obviously applies to children. Depending on their upbringing, personality, preferences, prior experience and needs, it’s important to tailor activities and put in place support systems accordingly. This also means that it is important to involve children in the planning (assessment) of nature education to make sure everyone is comfortable and feels heard. As facilitators we need to provide a safe, non-threatening, accepting environment and there is neuroscience to explain why:

Amy Banks (2015) defined the four C.A.R.E. elements, combining three areas of theory and research: Neuroplasticity, Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) and Relational Neuroscience. These four elements are important to ensure a positive and supportive Nature experience for children:

  • Calm – by being calm ourselves we can encourage calm in our learners and move away from chaos and a state of hypervigilance – strengthening children’s nervous system.
  • Accepted – by ensuring everyone is part of the learning community and accepted by the leader/teacher without judgement. The physical pain part of the frontal cortex processing has been shown to light up in exactly the same place (the dorsal anterior cingulate part of the cortex) when we feel socially excluded, often through judgemental statements – being accepted and not excluded are key to supporting a strong link between the limbic and prefrontal cortex.
  • Resonant – when leaders show empathy by mirroring and reflecting back (but not too much), we are ‘wiring’ together and strengthening each other’s nervous systems.
  • Energetic – when we tap into other people’s motivations and work together on meaning making, using learner centred dialogue. When this system is working and we get those lightbulb moments and feel good about our learning, especially in the company of others (social learning), dopamine (feel good hormone) is released. 

In our modern times children often have much less direct experience of their natural environment, as Richard Louv defined: children are presenting with Nature Deficit Disorder. This means that some children might never have encountered a wild animal ‘close up’, picked a fresh vegetable in the garden, immersed their hands into fresh soil, held a worm, eaten a berry straight from the bush, waded through a stream or ventured into wilder territory.

As a consequence kids might be reluctant and even fearful of Nature Education at the outset, which makes it even more important to be sensitive and supportive, ensuring positive encounters with Nature. On the other extreme we can encounter children who might not have a lot of Nature experience, yet show no fear at all. Of course this should be seen as positive but it is also important to prioritise safety without limiting their natural urge for exploration and adventure. 

Even though Nature Education is based on child-led learning, experimenting, freedom and creativity, basic ground rules need to be established before any activities. It is important to find a balance between safety and well managed risk and these ground rules can vary depending on age group, territory, individual needs etc. One of the problems in Western mainstream education is the attempt to remove any risk from children’s education, which in the long-run will do more harm than good.

Risk assessment and the testing out of personal boundaries is a vital piece of child development and if they are not given these opportunities, children will have difficulties in problem solving and risk management later on in life. When planning outings and activities in Nature Education, kids should be part of the risk assessment process, so they learn about managing it rather than being overly cautious and even afraid. It goes without saying that we, as leaders and educators, have a duty of care, so thorough preparation is key to provide a safe, stimulating, holistic and positive learning experience.

To be able to take children outside there are three fundamental things to do:

  • Finding a suitable location and taking necessary steps for it to be an appropriate, “safe” learning space. 
  • Inform and educate staff, children, parents about the nature sessions (including policies and procedures) and get relevant permissions. (Always act within your qualifications and insurance cover.)
  • Extend and integrate children’s learning and experiences into the natural world around them.

Nature Education needs to become a higher priority in the challenging times we are living in and it isn’t a case of either or, any curriculum subject can be integrated into a Nature context. Children are very aware of the global issues, which is having a big impact on their mental health and often stands in stark contrast to their actual nature connection opportunities. We owe it to our children to facilitate positive experiences in Nature and show them that we hear them, that we are taking action to make changes in a positive direction. Nature connection should be a source of comfort, excitement, wonder and the feeling of being part of something greater than themselves. It is also a fantastic possibility to empower our children rather than succumb to feelings of eco anxiety.

If you would like to learn more about Nature Education and how to integrate it into our children’s lives including the Mainstream Education System, check out our 4-week CPD accredited online course: Mindful Nature Pedagogy

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