10 Ways to Teach Outdoor Education and a Sense of Wonder

As an outdoor educator in the winter season, there is a little more time to reflect on the work I do. I was reading one of those statements that has become all too common and at the same time unbelievable. A recent New York Times article stated, “Distill the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to their essence and you get 15 sports that involve gliding on snow or ice. Because of climate change, though, by 2050 many prior Winter Games locations may be too warm to ever host the Games again.”  
I tried to push the rage aside and instead focus on a combination of hope and action. Since the biggest threat to the environment is apathy and a lack of knowledge, this article is another powerful reminder of how important outdoor education and outdoor educators truly are.
The world needs outdoor education now more than ever. This work matters; what you are doing matters. Don’t forget: Be proud. The world needs citizens with the knowledge, awareness, and desire to live with the Earth, not against it. This is difficult when children are not spending enough time outdoors. You are the antidote, because only by getting outdoors will children gain the appreciation, knowledge, and sense of wonder needed to become stewards of the Earth. Only by being outdoors will children reap the physical and psychological benefits that research and our own experiences have shown.  
There is a story to tell, so be a story sharer. Let the land, water, and sky help you. Let the children help tell the story as well. Ecology is filled with fascinating characters, interrelationships, conflicts, heroes, and more. Whatever it is that you are teaching, there should be a theme with the connections that will help children understand and remember. Don’t teach a bunch of random facts or activities. Share your story in the style that suits you. As the stories are told, here are some things to keep in mind.
Teach local. Wherever you live, there are flora and fauna that inspire wonder. Once children learn wonder at your nature center, they will be more attentive to what is around their own homes. The lessons from catching a frog far outweigh a website, movie, or video of even the most amazing wildlife.  
Connect to their home. It helps to know something about the children. Learn where they come from, and what animals and plants might they encounter. Are there parks, forests, lakes, or ponds you can refer to in your lessons? By reading their local newspapers you can relate what you are teaching to the environmental issues back home.
Teach love. Fear is not a great motivator. Love works much better. The stories you tell should be about the wonder of the “more than human world.” The stories should teach how it all works by fostering an awareness of their connections. Love for the outdoors comes from learning through play, exploration, guidance, fun, and wondering.
Teach wonder. Look for teachable moments—the times when a child’s questions take you off track but into a good place. For example, when a warbler lands on a branch just above your head while you are trying to explain how a sedimentary rock is formed, or when a rainstorm gives you a chance to define a watershed while standing in a puddle. These moments can become part of the story that you are telling. Learn the natural and human history of the place you are working in order to be open and aware of teachable moments—and to gain your own sense of being. A sense of wonder is the greatest gift you can give children.
There are two parts to having a well-developed sense of wonder. One part is the ability to see the wonder in the world (the “wow,” the “amazing,” the “how is that possible?”). It also is the ability to wonder, to ask questions, to know there is more to know. Let curiosity guide the story you are sharing. Be sure the students know it is OK to wonder. When a child’s face lights up in the presence of wonder, you have done your job.
Teach science. Facts matter, a theory is not a guess. Knowledge is collected through experimentation and observation. Decision-making should be based on facts. Don’t just tell children how knowledge was figured out. Have them figure things out for themselves through the activities and lessons you plan. It is OK to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out”—even if you can’t find out at that moment. By figuring out a way to learn for themselves it can be an opportunity to experience how science works.
Teach hope. There are reasons to be optimistic. The wild is not all gone. There is still much beauty and wonder to be experienced. Human-caused problems have human solutions. Small actions multiplied by millions both cause and solve problems. The Clean Air and Clean Water acts have made a huge difference. The Montreal Protocol, an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons, has led to the closing of the hole in the ozone layer. Species that were once endangered are now safe from extinction. Yes, there is much to do, but by focusing on what is working, you will inspire children more than focusing on what is not.
Teach action. Children need to understand their role in a democracy. This means having knowledge of environmental issues, at local, national, and international levels. The knowledge will help them take action and not feel overwhelmed by the attitude there is nothing to be done. Children have the right and responsibility to let their elected officials know how they feel. The children you teach will be the ones making decisions in the future as voters and consumers.
Teach effectively. It is OK to discipline; just be fair. There will be less of a need by building relationships. This can happen through listening and talking while sharing a meal or while walking place to place. Ask questions, make jokes, and connect with some knowledge of popular culture. Be yourself; don’t try to be too cool.
Avoid distractions. While it is called outdoor education for a reason—and it is true, there is no bad weather; there is only bad gear—lots of children have bad gear, clothes that don’t keep them warm and dry. Be aware: Wet, cold, and tired students are not going to learn. A shorter outdoor lesson with more focus is better than a longer lesson with whining. Location, location, location. It matters where you teach. Think about the places you stop. Is there sun in their eyes? Is it noisy? Are there distractions? Is it wet? Is it safe? Is it safe for the plants and animals that live there?  
Throw your agenda out the window. Sometimes you’ll move on before you are ready, and other times lessons slow down when children are so engrossed that time stops. Whatever material you don’t get to, it will be OK. Don’t worry about not finishing—you are never going to teach everything anyway. Don’t be afraid to admit a lesson is a failure. It is better to cut your losses and move on rather than to plow through. Be aware of the activities they have already done. If you are at a center where more than one instructor work with the children, be sure to know what the other naturalists are doing. There is too much to do and learn to repeat things. Outdoor education is less about the content and more about the experience. Almost always choose action over talking.
Enjoy, let the children see your passion and if you don’t have it anymore, it is time to do something else. Be the best you can be, and don’t settle for mediocrity even if others are. Know why you’re doing what you are doing, and do it with passion.
Dan Kriesberg
Dan Kriesberg

Dan Kriesberg is a science teacher at Friends Academy (NY). He also is the author of A Sense of Place: Teaching Children about the Environment with Picture Books and Think Green, Take Action: Books and Activities for Kids.


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